Linking universities & firms in sub-Saharan Africa

Unlike the centuries-old tradition of the autonomous pursuit of knowledge and science, universities are now expected to be more accountable to society, the state and the market. The HSRC and its partners organised a series of roundtable discussions, held in Uganda, Nigeria, and South Africa, on the changing role of universities in these countries, and specifically, the contribution of university-firm interaction to economic growth and social development. Glenda Kruss and Il-haam Petersen report.


Leaders in higher education, science and technology, and business were invited to these roundtables to discuss the implications of research conducted over the past few years on the contribution universities in sub-Saharan Africa can make to national development goals through their growing emphasis on interaction with firms. The research, funded by the Canadian International Development Research Centre (IDRC), was part of an international investigation into the changing role of the ‘developmental university' in the South.

Roundtable participants

The variety of participants signals the nature of the national system of innovation in each country. In Nigeria, the roundtable was hosted by the Nigerian Institute of Economic and Social Research; participants were drawn from universities and public research institutes, reflecting the very recent policy interest in science, technology and innovation for development.

The Ugandan roundtable, hosted by the Markus Garvey Pan Afrikan Institute, had a wider range of participants drawn from universities, research institutes, a small, medium and micro enterprises (SMME) association and a farmers' cooperative, reflecting the agricultural base of the economy.

The South African roundtable, co-hosted by the HSRC and Higher Education South Africa (HESA), reflected greater networking and complexity in the system of innovation, with particular interest from universities of technology, government departments and intermediary associations, such as innovation incubators and higher education associations, as well as public research institutes and representatives from industry.

The different forms of Interaction

Globally, a range of new forms of interaction emerge: academics rely increasingly on consultancies or undertake contract research for enterprises to fund their own research activities; some universities enter into cutting-edge collaborative research networks with firms, and a few create their own spin-off firms and commercial ventures. A common starting point for deliberations in all three countries was that the models of university-firm linkages promoted in developed nations should not be adopted uncritically in sub-Saharan African contexts.

Uganda, with its agriculture-based economy is strongly reliant on donor support, and is classified as one of the successful ‘least developed countries'. It differs from advanced economies - and from South Africa, with its relatively diversified economy, the strongest in Africa. The history and current conditions of universities differ, as do the government policy and regulatory frameworks in each context.

As emphasised at the South African roundtable, in sub-Saharan Africa exports are mainly commodity-based, the informal economy is large, and markets are not akin to those of the advanced economies, making linkages complex. While it was widely agreed that universities should form linkages, there was a strong emphasis that interaction should not be limited to firms.

The Ugandan team, led by Dani Nabudere, was particularly vocal in stressing the role of the community - small farmers, small producers, cooperatives and clusters - in learning and in innovation in collaboration with universities. The discussion focused specifically on the challenges of working with the traditional knowledge of peasant farmers and small-scale producers to promote innovation in a mutually beneficial and non-exploitative manner.

Cases of university-community-enterprise initiatives were described to highlight the potential and pitfalls of linkages between universities and community farmers centred on codifying traditional knowledge and innovating to create a new export-oriented industry. Interaction between universities and firms tends to be informal, taking the form of student placements, consultancies to individual benefit, or testing of seeds and materials. Major constraints are the lack of government funding and support, and university dependence on donor funding, which shapes their research agendas and impacts on the sustainability of initiatives.

In Nigeria, John Adeoti highlighted the main constraints to university-firm interaction: poor research infrastructure, the absence of policy, the absence of intermediary organisations or government support, and the reluctance of firms and universities to collaborate. The Nigerian study drew attention to significant research and technology development that could impact on the livelihoods of small-scale farmers and producers, but that remain ‘locked' in the university laboratories and publications.

Different strategies for different universities

The roundtable discussions in the three countries raised the importance of developing strategies for a differentiated university system, with different types of universities fulfilling specific roles influenced by their historical trajectories. In Uganda and Nigeria, universities generally lack policies, structures and mechanisms that can promote interaction with firms or farmers in a way that benefit the institution. The same applies to historically disadvantaged universities in South Africa, which are largely under-developed and under-resourced, and collaboration is often initiated by individual researchers to supplement their salaries.

The roundtable discussions in the three countries raised the importance of developing strategies for a differentiated university system, with different types of universities fulfilling specific roles influenced by their historical trajectories

A shared conclusion was that a narrow focus on commercialisation and entrepreneurialism is not a solution for African universities. There were, however, distinct differences in the future vision of the university in the three countries.

The South African project leader, Glenda Kruss, proposed the notion of a ‘responsive university' that can act on the demands of industry, and meet broader societal needs. In Nigeria, John Adeoti resolved that an attitudinal shift towards a more entrepreneurial mindset on the part of academics was required, but here too it was stressed that universities should turn their resources to the benefit of society. Dani Nabudere developed a nuanced vision of a people-oriented, bottom-up approach to link the university and the community (including farmers and small enterprises). Knowledge in the community is key to research and to incremental learning for innovation in Uganda.

Tangible outcomes

The South African research succeeded in identifying the sectors in which innovation and interaction with universities do exist, which is important for understanding where interaction would work better. Recognising that the university system itself is diverse is also important to develop a differentiated and textured strategy in future.

The Nigerian roundtable drafted a memorandum that called for national policy and the establishment of a mediating structure to promote collaboration, as well as attitudinal change within universities, to stimulate research that is demand-driven and socially responsive.

The Ugandan roundtable resolved to establish a Forum for Interaction to intensify and promote the current base of informal relationships between universities, firms, communities and small enterprises. Representatives of Gulu University, Kyambogo University, the Uganda Small-scale Industries Association and the Markus Garvey Pan Afrikan Institute were mandated to establish a Forum on Interactive Learning that could link universities, small-scale industries, farming and animal husbandry communities in the conflict-ridden Northern region of Uganda.

Dr Glenda Kruss is a chief research specialist in the Education, Science and  Skills Development programme and Ms Il-haam Petersen is a research intern in the same programme.