Interaction between towers of learning and poor communities four case studies

Interaction between universities and marginalised communities around innovation activities that create or protect livelihoods, are rare in South Africa. Glenda Kruss and Michael Gastrow reports on preliminary results of a study on how universities may contribute to innovation for inclusive development.

Academics are motivated primarily by their disciplinary reputations and traditions, and change in universities is driven by their substantive role in knowledge

generation. In a context of multiple expectations of new roles for universities from government, the market and civil society, this study explored how each of four main types of universities in the South African national system of innovation responded to these expectations. The four case studies involved the following four types of institutions*, namely research, comprehensive, technology and rural universities.


The foundation of the study was a comprehensive process of mapping existing interactive practices with firms, farmers, communities, government, or social organisations. Research and innovation networks that impact on the quality of life of marginalised communities, focused on social innovation in relation to solar energy or sanitation or health for example, more commonly contribute to inclusive development.

For the purposes of this project, the focus was four in-depth case studies of networks between universities around livelihoods, meaning the way in which people or communities earn an income or a living subsistence. Each case study focused on investigating what facilitates, or constrains, interactions between universities and marginalised communities in relation to livelihoods in informal settings.
Four case studies

Sewing project

The first study was the technology transfer that takes place between a technology station (an area equipped with highly specialised technology for specific disciplines, in this case clothing technology) at a university of technology, and a hybrid NGO/social enterprise.

These two institutions were working together to address the livelihood problems of unemployed, unskilled women living in townships through a sewing project. New products were designed on cutting-edge equipment, and skills were developed to convert from domestic to industrial machinery. Support was provided to produce on a larger scale in order to access formal markets.

Fishing project

This case study involved a participatory network between an academic at a research university and a marginalised rural community aimed at protecting their fragile livelihood by supporting sustainable traditional artisanal fishing practices through research and process innovation.

Organisational innovations included training and support for a committee to represent the community in high level negotiations with government environmental authorities and intermediaries.
Indigenous cattle breeding

In this case study a network was formed between rural universities and marginalised communities to improve rural livelihoods by re-introducing indigenous cattle breeds and building new agricultural management systems. This required a community to form a cooperative to care for a breeding herd for a specified period, and then return the original herd to a pool for reallocation, based on traditional practices.

Sustainable livelihoods

This was an action research project between a comprehensive university and a local community based in an informal settlement. The project involved the development of innovative solutions for sustainable urban settlements, protected access to livelihoods, and created new livelihood opportunities through environmentally sustainable products that improved the quality of life in the settlement.


Three of the four interactions have existed for 10 years and more, which suggests that they were not driven in response to current government policy imperatives promoting community engagement or social innovation in universities.

The cases were initiated out of a confluence of interests of the university and the community, facilitated by intermediary partners such as an NGO that supports fishing communities, or an NGO that hosts a social enterprise, or local government agencies.

Three of the cases were very weakly connected to the internal organisational structures that gave incentives to and supported innovation, research and community engagement at their university. The exception was an interface structure located at the university of technology and funded by the Department of Science and Technology (DST).

The evidence suggests that this form of interaction was strongly driven by socially-committed individual academic champions who pursue their own disciplinary knowledge agendas.

The form of interaction is, however, strongly shaped by the university mandate and strategic direction. For example, at the research university, the interaction was strongly oriented to research with traditional knowledge relations and slowly evolved into a bidirectional, mutually beneficial partnership. With its applied technology mandate and commitment to work-integrated and service learning, in contrast, interaction at the university of technology took the form of technology transfer to small, medium and micro enterprise (SMME) partners with students as the main channel of interaction.

The rural university was well placed to initiate a network with local communities, extension officers from the department of agriculture, national funding agencies and agriculture students to ensure the effectiveness of the indigenous cattle breeding.

Indeed, for all of the cases, students were the main channel of interaction, bringing codified knowledge from the university, engaging on a daily basis, and consequently, benefiting through tacit learning from the community partners. The academic leader was drawn in actively at key points to give direction and high-level support.

Communities were largely driven to interact with universities by their proactive development strategies, rather than short-term needs. For example, the informal settlement community participated in a local government intermediary-led process that brought in the university academic as a neutral actor to find solutions acceptable to the community and environmental authorities, after prolonged service-delivery protests.

Initiation and maintenance of the interaction, however, relied strongly on community leadership who acted as intermediaries between academics and community members. All four cases included organisational innovations to facilitate new community structures, and educational interventions to support the active participation of some community members. For example, training community leaders in research to audit fish stocks or undertake household audits, or in new farming techniques to support indigenous breeds of cattle, or forming committees to represent the community’s interests.

The level of participation and agency possible on the part of the individuals in the marginalised communities seemed limited, and the direct benefit to their livelihoods was not evident in the short term.

The research raised critical questions about the role of the university in such forms of interaction for inclusive development.

Critical questions

The research raised critical questions about the role of the university in such forms of interaction for inclusive development.

Clearly, the boundaries of what can counts as innovation, defined as ‘a new product, or process, or form of organisation for production’, were stretched. The changes introduced were primarily new forms of organisation for production, or introducing existing technologies new to a ‘community’, in ‘doing-using- and-

interacting’ modes, rather than science and technology-led modes of innovation.

If the distinctive role of the university is knowledge generation, and most of the activity with marginalised communities is local adoption and diffusion, should the university be involved in livelihood oriented projects?

Is such work not the domain of organisations like development agencies and NGOs or local government?
Academics should not be expected to play the role of development agencies. The university’s distinctive role lies in extending its scholarship to the benefit of marginalised communities.

The answer lies in the fact that the impact of interactions on livelihoods may have been limited in their direct scale and reach, but the involvement of the university in the network meant that it could have wider implications. For example, intensive work with the small fishing community succeeded in protecting the access of some two hundred people to livelihoods, over twenty years. However, the significant research published and the engagement with government around the network could have an impact on practices in many other fishing communities.

Marginalised women in the sewing micro-enterprise improved their skills, designs and access to informal markets, but were unsuccessful in accessing formal markets or value chains. There was no sustained income source for individual members, and the reach of the project was limited to a small number of women per year. However, many women proceeded to their own micro-enterprise, students were trained, and the

technology station gained valuable expertise that could be implemented in working with other micro-enterprises.

A general conclusion therefore, is to avoid slippage in expectations. Academics should not be expected to play the role of development agencies. The university’s distinctive role lies in extending its scholarship to the benefit of marginalised communities.

*The study agreement included a confidentiality clause that the names of the institutions involved would be withheld.

Authors: Dr Glenda Kruss, director, Education and Skills Development (ESD) programme, HSRC; Michael Gastrow, research specialist, ESD.

This article is based on a report for the UNIID Africa project, funded by the IDRC Canada. Glenda Kruss, Michael Gastrow, Bongani Nyoka and Christopher Diwu, 2013. Linking Universities and Marginalised Communities: South African Case Studies of Innovation Focused on Livelihoods in Informal Settings.