5 ways to strengthen university-industry collaboration in Africa

Africa’s universities are on the rise. The remarkable progress made over the last decade cuts across improvement in global rankings, increase in the number of institutions, and increase in output and impact of African research. However, there remains a wide gap between academic research in the region and industry. Strengthening this linkage is essential to translating the progress and research of universities into innovations that address the numerous local challenges on the continent.

Though universities in Africa have been making efforts to strengthen their institutional capacity for collaboration with industry, they are faced with challenges largely shaped by local market structures and limited institutional capacity. Here are five ways through which university-industry collaboration can be improved on the continent:

1. Development of global partnerships

Research institutions in sub-Saharan Africa must come to terms with the fact that local industry may not yet be ready or robust enough to provide the required support for research. Therefore, universities must widen their horizons by looking global. Researchers from Africa can work with global industry partners to address societal challenges by contributing their local perspectives.

At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Senegal’s Pasteur Institute in Dakar and UK's Mologic co-developed a novel 10-minute diagnostic test kit that costs $1. This is an example of the ability of research institutions in Africa to contribute solutions to global challenges. Its universities can join existing global networks of institutions, through which they can extend their partnership reach to international companies.

2. Formal platforms for communication and collaboration

Forums, conferences and exhibitions with active participation from both academia and industry should be established. Many of these platforms currently exist in silos. Professional bodies have a unique position in making these connections happen as they often have members from both academia and industry. Research networks that are open to industry representation can also provide this opportunity. Periodic sessions with presentations from both academia and industry will provide avenues to meet and greet, and also work together in the areas of research and capacity development.

One such session was facilitated by the World Bank in 2019 to introduce multiple opportunities for Japanese companies to collaborate with African universities to conduct market and product research, research and development, commercialization of research, and prototype development. This was followed up with launch events and a pilot resulted in 12 distinct university-industry partnerships by 2021. Institutionalizing and widening the scope of similar initiatives can help to foster more and deeper university-industry partnerships.

3. Clarity of expectations with a focus on deliverables

As institutions on the continent work towards growing their partnerships with industry, numerous Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) have been signed. Unfortunately, many of these agreements lack specific deliverables from the partnership and do not result into tangible outcomes in the long term.

Institutions must move beyond agreement-signing ceremonies to delivering on specifics. This requires articulating the capability of partners, clarity on expectations and indicative timelines where necessary. MoUs must provide pathways to specific institutional, industry and/or sustainable development goals that partners intend to work on and make definite contributions to.

A partnership between Nelson Mandela African Institution of Science and Technology (NM-AIST) and Nikken Co. Ltd (a Japanese company) resulted in the adaptation of a water-disinfecting catalyst developed by Nikken. This led to the development of a prototype water purifier that can eliminate bacterial contamination of water within six hours, and identification of new partners and design of business models for the technology’s adoption in Tanzania.

4. Provide institutions with the tools needed to drive industry collaboration

Universities are likely to achieve more success in industry partnerships by finding companies with whom they share mutual interests in research areas. These can often be researched in journal publications and patent filings; digital tools such as SciVal and Web of Science make it possible for researchers to track outputs from other institutions and companies around the world. They can identify potential partners in their fields of interest to create opportunities for collaboration and commercialization.

Unfortunately, many African institutions lack access to these tools and skill sets to make the best use of them. These are specific gaps that interventions to foster university-industry partnerships can target. Initiatives such as Research4Life set up to provide low-cost access to content for researchers in low-income countries can be replicated or expanded for affordable access to research tools to drive collaborations.

5. Strengthening of intellectual property protection in African markets

Markets with strong enforcement of intellectual property rights give companies and investors the confidence to fund and commercialize research to gain competitive advantages. To make funding and commercialization partnerships with institutions more attractive to African companies, they must have assurances that the market advantage from innovations resulting from research funding is defensible. This also makes it more rewarding for institutions to build a strong portfolio of intellectual properties that can be commercialized by licensing them to industry partners.

Source: World Economic Forum