Prof. Paul Mapfumo

Vice Chancellor | University of Zimbabwe

“The nation of Zimbabwe wants to be a knowledge-driven and innovation-led economy. The role of universities and other higher education institutions is to be at the center of this.”

Key Points:

  • The University of Zimbabwe has radically transformed itself to focus on research, innovation, and industrialization, in addition to teaching, learning, and community service, to align with the country’s vision of becoming an upper-middle-income economy by 2030.
  • The university has adopted a programmatic approach to research and innovation, focusing on areas such as agriculture, minerals, tourism, and industrialization, and has established innovation hubs and industrial parks to generate new companies and opportunities for students and communities.
  • To bridge the disconnect between universities and industry, the University of Zimbabwe has changed its architecture to provide research and innovation hubs that address industry needs and generate solutions for society, leading to increased partnerships and scholarship support.
  • The university is addressing the impacts of climate change and food security by harnessing genetic diversity, adapting to emerging environments, and leveraging science, technology, and innovation to drive new possibilities in food production and access.
  • The University of Zimbabwe is adapting to rapid technological change by introducing new faculties, embracing multidisciplinary approaches, and focusing on new methods of delivery and tools for teaching and learning to prepare students for the future.

AfricaLive: How would you summarize the identity of the University of Zimbabwe?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: The University of Zimbabwe is the founding and premier institution in the country. It is the nation’s flagship in terms of higher education within Africa and across the world. It’s a university that has now radically transformed itself on the basis of focusing on research, innovation, and industrialization, in addition to teaching, learning, and community service. We define ourselves as a comprehensive research and innovation-based university.


AfricaLive: You were appointed Vice Chancellor in 2018. Since then, you’ve been championing the transformation of the university into a research and innovation-driven institution to match the national ambitions. What key initiatives have you implemented to drive this transformation?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: The first area of focus was the whole philosophy of higher education to serve the Zimbabwean population in terms of its socio-economic development aspirations. The country has a vision to become an upper-middle-income economy by 2030, and that comes as a challenge that’s relevant for the university to respond to. The country needs to build its capacity for sustainable food security, industrialization, and modernization in line with that vision.

So, we had to question our philosophy of education in Zimbabwe. The government came up with the Heritage-based Education 5.0 philosophy, which entails five main pillars: teaching, research, community service, innovation, and industrialization. Among these five pillars, innovation and industrialization make a big departure point. To sum it up, we were driven by what I can call a Presidental Challenge, which is says ‘our education should produce goods and services that are relevant for the development of our nation and meet the needs of our people’.

Based on that, what we did as a university was to revisit all our academic programs for teaching and learning. We changed all our academic programs to become a 21st-century-based university. We came up with entirely new programs, so the software in terms of the university focus was entirely changed. We retired all the old programs, and our increased relevance now is because we have to come up with a programmatic approach to change this position.

When I say programmatic approach, it means that education is now based on what we have and what we want to be, if agriculture is our economic backbone, then our programs for teaching and learning should speak to that… and our research and innovation should focus on that. If we have minerals, we should focus on that. If we have a very good environment for tourism, then we should focus on that. If we have good potential for industrialization, we should focus on that, and so forth. So that’s the basis of our a programmatic approach to research and innovation. It translates to a programmatic approach to teaching and learning. Our teaching and learning programs should be informed by our capacity for research and innovation in terms of knowledge, skills and evidence.

Then we embraced science, technology, and innovation as our anchor to create unlimited possibilities and new opportunities in terms of breakthroughs to drive our socio-economic development. As far as we are concerned, science, technology, and innovation can push the envelope and the boundaries in terms of our national economic advancement. The nation of Zimbabwe wants to be a knowledge-driven and innovation-led economy. The role of universities and other higher education institutions is to be at the center of this.

After transforming the programs, we transformed the whole architecture of how we conduct research and promote innovation. We came up with innovation hubs and the development of industrial parks that are run from university-based research and innovation breakthroughs. This would then generate new companies, businesses, industries, and opportunities for communities to drive their own economic activities. We became connected to industry, and society in general, and created an entrepreneurial space as we offer opportunities for other sectors of society to tap into our innovation processes and start their own businesses or support growth of their existing businesses.

We also transformed ourselves in terms of being results-based. We have to deliver goods and services. Our students and graduates are now preoccupied with the idea of having to start their own businesses, which are startups that we’re supporting through the innovation hubs and industrial parks. They are also beginning to understand that when you are a graduate, you are not graduating so that you can look for employment. The main focus would be what you can do with yourself in terms of skills and knowledge to apply yourself to make a meaningful contribution to the economy. That has changed the mental focus of our graduates and students.


AfricaLive: One of the concerns across the African continent is the disconnect between universities and industry. What steps can you take to build bridges with industry and plant the seeds for truly impactful long-term partnerships?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: There is a disconnect, but what we realized is that this was a problem of architecture; it’s a design issue. Historically, our universities, including the University of Zimbabwe, conducted research with a focus on traditional research to publish papers. We do have good researchers in that respect, but the flaw in the design was that comprehensive research that’s more meaningful to industry was never conducted in the country.

The companies that were running industries were not drawing their knowledge base from our university but from universities elsewhere, probably in America or other continents. Our local universities offered great places for replication, but they didn’t offer places where solutions are developed and actualized. That’s what we changed.

We simply changed to say if we are the ones providing the research and innovation hub for our industries, then our industries will connect to us. If we are generating the goods and services that enable opportunities for our people to do business, for our young people to become entrepreneurial, then they will connect to the university. If society is looking for solutions and finding them from the universities, they will connect with the university.

In our transformation, we have changed that architecture to respond accordingly. What we are seeing now is an overwhelming response in terms of partnerships that are being proposed. I don’t even remember how many MOUs I’m doing now with people wanting to work with the university because it’s very purpose-driven. These MOUs are about people seeking specific solutions, and we’ve seen the rise in scholarship support for students from industry, businesses, policymakers, and government. They ask if we can have students who can address specific issues, and we test that in our innovation hubs.

I think it was a design issue, and what we worked on fundamentally was changing the DNA of the University of Zimbabwe. That radical change is now beginning to bear fruits. Even our connections with other institutions outside, and partnerships with other universities elsewhere, are beginning to reach new heights.


AfricaLive: What does the term “innovation” mean to you?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: I can try to give you a very basic interpretation. To me, innovation is about creativity that’s driven by evidence, but that makes economic sense. It means you are able to turn knowledge into solutions to make a difference in the market. So, if you are able to change market circumstances for the better, whether it’s a product, a system, or a service, then we can be talking about innovation. If there is no economic sense, there is no innovation.


AfricaLive: What would you consider the flagship projects of the University of Zimbabwe to be?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: I would start by singling out the development of our industrial parks. We focus on making not just one but several industrial parks. The one we’ve started with is an agro-industrial park where we are driving innovations based on agriculture, the environment, and of course the science, to drive specific food value chains, notably the production of edible oils. We are now producing bread and confectioneries made from traditional crops like sweet potato, maize, and millets combined with wheat. We are also producing feed and working on driving the production of livestock in the area of food security.

We have also been able to serve as part of the national solution through our innovations. We helped the country fight off COVID-19 in Zimbabwe when we started the production of PPEs and sanitizers at the time when it mattered most. It saved the nation millions of dollars that would have been spent on importation, which would not have been easy at that time. Through these innovations, the university generated such an impact for the nation to begin to recognize that universities can make a difference if they are working on the right model of the higher education system.


AfricaLive: What role do you believe Africa’s universities must play when it comes to climate adaptation on the continent and ensuring food security for nations in Southern Africa?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: The impacts of climate change are very devastating to Africa. They have been for a while already. I think there is now consensus across the globe that climate change is real, and universities in Africa should be the fulcrums for the adaptation potential of nations. Why? Because we will need to harness the genetic diversity animals and plants we have on the continent, including livestock and crops, and enhance their adaptation to the environments that are emerging now and in the future.

The future of food is possible, but we have to redefine the tastes and preferences of food on the African continent. This is why gastronomy is important. People have to understand their food systems and the new affordances of science, technology, and innovation to drive new possibilities, new types of food, new recipes, and new ways of satisfying food security requirements.

Then there’s the harnessing of our natural resources. In certain places, we need to understand that technology in irrigation systems should improve. This should be informed by the new possibilities coming from Artificial Intelligence and the Internet of Things. Of course, they come with their own dangers and ethical issues, but I think if we harness them appropriately, Ai and IoT can broaden opportunities in the production of food and the promotion of access to high-quality, affordable food by African populations.

I think the area of food security and sustainable environmental management should remain a clear focus for universities as we seek smart technologies. In Zimbabwe, we have seen how smart agriculture has changed the landscapes in smallholder production systems, as well as commercial production systems that have improved quite greatly, save for the devastating El Niño that we are experiencing in the Southern Africa region currently. But we now know that we have the capacity to feed ourselves as a country.


AfricaLive: How is the University of Zimbabwe adapting to the rapid technological change when it comes to your curriculum and the approach you take to communicating the balance of opportunities and risks that AI presents to your students and partners in commerce and government?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: Because our transformation was based on a futuristic approach, we introduced a whole new faculty of Computer Engineering, Informatics, and Communications. We have focused on creating capacity for embracing those emerging technologies. We think the university should be part of the community of practice across the globe to understand its limitations, potential risks, and the advantages it can bring to development.

In introducing these programs, we also adopted multidisciplinary and multi-institutional approaches in the way we address the issues of ICT and AI. We embraced ICTs and AI in our design processes as we sought not only to understand but also to advance new research and be part of the advancement of innovation in those areas.

One of the challenges that comes with ICT (IoT) and AI capabilities is about how we do our teaching and learning. Students now have access to information quite easily. The traditional methods of delivery in teaching and learning no longer hold as they did in the past. As UZ we are embracing that fact and devising a very strong focus on new methods of delivery, new approaches, and tools for teaching and learning. To me, that is going to be the core of the future of higher education.

The students we are going to teach should be able to take on board those changes so that we can manage them from within our institutional processes. We are not going to take AI and IoT literally or at face value, but to be part of that change. We think that we cannot exclude ourselves or be too conservative about our teaching and learning methodologies and practices if we are to become part of the solution going into the future.

As a university in a developing country, we do have quite a lot of challenges in accessing technologies and new knowledge with respect to some of those issues. But the advantage that the ICT era comes with is the quick movement of information and potential access to data. We think that we can leapfrog and harness part of the technologies, lessons and breakthroughs that we can see across the globe. In the past, the transfer of technology would take a long time.

Now, I think once we are connected well, save for any global politics that can disadvantage us, we think that we can quickly adapt if we move on that front. That on its own is a very big strength. The second dimension to that is the fact that the future of Zimbabwe is brighter than ever before: because I think one of the strongest pillars we have is having a leadership that is pro-education and practically investing in both higher education and primary and secondary education.

The investment in education in Zimbabwe as signalled by the leadership is also translated into our population. Zimbabwe invests a lot in education. The culture of producing goods and services, and the culture of business is now thriving within our society more than before. We could have our own challenges because we’re coming from an era when we had lots of socio-economic and political challenges in the past. But I think where we are going, if I look at the language that the students are using now, the language that the professors are using in their conduct of research, teaching and learning, and in communities at the individual household level, there’s a huge investment drive in education.

The focus on education allows Zimbabwe to easily become knowledge-driven as an economy, because it’s an educated country.


AfricaLive: How confident are you feeling now in the future of Zimbabwe?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: I would have very high confidence in inviting people to study at the University of Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe thrives on a very good environment and very friendly people. There are lots of tourist destinations that people of the world would want to experience, and good food that people of the world would want to experience. For that reason, I think there is every reason for people to relate to the University of Zimbabwe and use it as their entry to Zimbabwean life.


AfricaLive: Is there anything that we didn’t cover that you consider important, or any final message you would like to send regarding opportunities that exist with the University of Zimbabwe?

Prof. Paul Mapfumo: I would like to say that the University of Zimbabwe’s transformation has yielded a lot of opportunities for partnerships with industries and with higher education institutions across the globe. It’s now a place to be for those students, faculty and professionals who want progress, believe in innovation and desire to change lives: They are invited to join us at the University of Zimbabwe

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