‘Academia, in­dus­try part­ner­ships key’

Lesotho Times - - Business - Retha­bile Pitso

COL­LAB­O­RA­TIONS be­tween higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions (HEIS) and the pri­vate sec­tor are key in un­lock­ing busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties in Le­sotho.

This is ac­cord­ing to Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Le­sotho (NUL) lec­turer and sci­en­tist Dr Mosotho Ge­orge in his pub­lished aca­demic pa­per: “From Re­source Scarcity to Abun­dance of Op­por­tu­ni­ties for Ap­plied Science in a Fi­nan­cially-strained En­vi­ron­ment: The Case of Chem­i­cal Sci­ences in Le­sotho.”

In the pa­per, Dr Ge­orge states col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the two en­ti­ties would re­sult in mu­tual ben­e­fits such as new prod­ucts and in­tern­ship pro­grammes for stu­dents among oth­ers.

He says the part­ner­ships would also up­lift the gen­er­ally un­der-funded HEIS such as NUL that of­ten strug­gle to pro­vide stu­dents qual­ity ed­u­ca­tion.

“With the never im­prov­ing cap­i­tal in­vest­ment to­wards pub­lic in­sti­tu­tions of higher ed­u­ca­tion in most African coun­tries, the level of in­fras­truc­ture in the uni­ver­si­ties thwarts aca­demic pro­grammes in the ap­plied sci­ences,” notes Dr Ge­orge.

“Th­ese pro­grammes re­quire that stu­dents be af­forded some in­dus­trial ex­pe­ri­ence or in­tern­ship pro­grammes while, at the same time, con­tin­u­ing the learn­ing pro­cess through re­search projects su­per­vised by both the in­dus­trial and aca­demic su­per­vi­sors.

“Th­ese re­quire­ments be­come al­most im­pos­si­ble to ful­fil with­out the nec­es­sary in­fras­truc­ture. This is the case in small coun­tries like Le­sotho, which do not have suf­fi­cient science-based in­dus­try; as such th­ese pro­grammes are se­verely af­fected.”

For the past few years, he says, NUL at­tempted sev­eral re­struc­tur­ing strate­gies aimed at mod­el­ling the uni­ver­sity into a top-rank­ing in­sti­tu­tion that pro­duces qual­i­fied grad­u­ates.

“Re­cently the uni­ver­sity es­tab­lished the An­nual Science and Tech­nol­ogy In­no­va­tion Expo aimed at en­hanc­ing the gen­eral ap- pre­ci­a­tion of the role of re­search and de­vel­op­ment in science and tech­nol­ogy to­wards eco­nomic trans­for­ma­tion which saw science stu­dents demon­strate arte­facts and science, tech­nol­ogy and in­no­va­tion prod­ucts pro­duced in­side the cam­pus’ lab­o­ra­to­ries.”

Dr Ge­orge says since em­bark­ing on the ini­tia­tive, a no­tice­able boost in science-re­lated in­dus­tries took place.

“The ini­tial at­tempt of this ap­proach has demon­strated con­sid­er­able po­ten­tial, with stu­dents en­gag­ing with small en­ter­prises in ar­eas such as waste re­cy­cling, food pro­cess­ing and test­ing, and leather tan­nery, to men­tion only a few,” he says.

“Hence, the pro­gramme has wit­nessed a pos­i­tive turn from re­source scarcity to abun­dance of op­por­tu­ni­ties, prov­ing that fi­nan­cial scarcity does not nec­es­sar­ily trans­late into a cor­re­spond­ing scarcity of ideas.”

Dr Ge­orge re­veals that to date, the NUL expo paved the way for the pro­duc­tion and po­ten­tial mass pro­duc­tion of items in the fol­low­ing sec­tors: Food pro­cess­ing, pack­ag­ing and qual­ity con­trol “Le­sotho has been con­sis­tently plagued with food in­se­cu­rity over the past two decades; hence a pol­icy shift to­wards pro­mo­tion of agri­cul­ture is widely re­garded as nec­es­sary for the econ­omy,” he notes.

Food spoilage, Dr Ge­orge says, was also an ob­sta­cle to the at­tain­ment of food se­cu­rity.

“For ex­am­ple, post-har­vest loss in Rwanda was re­port­edly be­tween 25 per­cent and 50 per­cent in 2013. A good op­por­tu­nity, then, for science-based HEIS would be in the ar­eas of post-har­vest treat­ment/pro­cess­ing of food­stuff, pro­cess­ing of dairy prod­ucts, meat prod­ucts, fruits and veg­eta­bles,” he says.

“Due to the min­i­mal use of chem­i­cals in food pro­duc­tion, most Le­sotho prod­ucts are highly val­ued in­ter­na­tion­ally as they are con­sid­ered safe and of­ten clas­si­fied as ‘or­ganic’. Cur­rently some pro­cessed (canned) fruits are ex­ported to Europe, al­though the pro­duc­tion scale is still too low to make a con­sid­er­able im­pact on the econ­omy.

“Only one lo­cal co­op­er­a­tive has part­nered with the uni­ver­sity for test­ing of their bev­er­ages, which are al­ready in the mar­ket. Th­ese ar­eas of col­lab­o­ra­tion and pro­duc­tion of mu­tual ben­e­fit should be mul­ti­plied and ex­plored fur­ther.”

De­ter­gents and cos­met­ics Dr Ge­orge in­di­cates there were a lot of small-scale man­u­fac­tur­ing ven­tures cur­rently be­ing un­der­taken by Ba­sotho, “mostly by those who do not have ba­sic or chem­i­cal sci­ences ed­u­ca­tion”.

“A num­ber of skin prod­ucts, creams and lo­tions are be­ing pro­duced and sold in the lo­cal mar­kets. How­ever, th­ese pro­duc­ers are con­stantly strug­gling to grow their busi­ness due to a num­ber of fac­tors, in­clud­ing lack of com­pre­hen­sion of the pro­cesses in­volved in man­u­fac­tur­ing and lim­ited busi­ness man­age­ment skills.”

He says it is an area of po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tion that re­ceived a lot of at­ten­tion from the uni­ver­sity and lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ers.

“Re­cently a stu­dent took an in­tern­ship with a small-scale de­ter­gent man­u­fac­turer and he man­aged to im­prove the pro­duc­tion costs by over 10 per­cent af­ter fac­tor­ing all the stages of the en­tire pro­duc­tion line in­clud­ing taxes,” states Dr Ge­orge.

“The very same stu­dent went on to start his own small de­ter­gent man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany and is still un­der the men­tor­ship of the depart­ment, to­gether with his peers that fol­lowed the same path.”

l Her­bal­ism and Lo­cal Tra­di­tional Medicines

Due to its unique cli­mate, he as­serts, Le­sotho pro­duces some valu­able and high qual­ity va­ri­eties of herbs.

“There is high de­mand in West­ern Europe for Le­sotho-grown herbs for medic­i­nal ap­pli­ca­tions, es­pe­cially since the ad­vent of HIV-AIDS.

“Lately, there is enor­mous pro­duc­tion and sale of herbal medicines in­for­mally in the streets of ma­jor towns, and one does not miss the reg­u­lar ad­verts for the same that have be­come part of reg­u­lar ra­dio pro­gram­ming in the coun­try.

“Un­for­tu­nately, reg­u­la­tion re­gard­ing pro- duction and sale of th­ese prod­ucts is lim­ited to those prac­ti­tion­ers reg­is­tered with the Ministry of Health.

Most, if not all of the herbal­ists that pre­pare th­ese medicines and sell in the streets or their homes, do not have any for­mal phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, bi­o­log­i­cal nor chem­i­cal knowl­edge.”

Dr Ge­orge notes there was a de­fi­ciency of doc­u­men­ta­tion about the com­po­si­tion, stor­age, ex­piry date, ef­fect of ex­po­sure to dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­men­tal con­di­tions such as di­rect sun­light for the prod­ucts.

“This sit­u­a­tion is made worse by the fact that some of th­ese herbs have been im­pli­cated in mur­der cases, whether homi­ci­dal or sui­ci­dal, pos­ing se­ri­ous chal­lenges to the foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tions,” he says.

“In­volve­ment of academia in ef­forts such as th­ese could add some value and ad­dress some of th­ese is­sues, pre­sent­ing an op­por­tu­nity for both pro­duc­ers and stu­dents.”

l En­vi­ron­men­tal mon­i­tor­ing and sup­port of other ser­vices

The im­pact of the tex­tile in­dus­try on the en­vi­ron­ment re­mains a con­tentious is­sue, pos­ing the dilemma of whether to en­force strict reg­u­la­tions by the rel­e­vant gov­ern­ment min­istries to the re­spon­si­ble fac­to­ries and risk sig­nif­i­cant job losses.

Since this in­dus­try is fully owned by for­eign na­tion­als, es­pe­cially from China, the own­ers al­ways threaten to close down when reg­u­la­tory bod­ies try to en­force en­vi­ron­men­tal laws and reg­u­la­tions.

In­stead of threat­en­ing th­ese in­dus­tries, ef­forts could be di­rected at re­duc­ing the en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact of their waste through col­lab­o­ra­tion with the uni­ver­sity, which al­ready has suf­fi­cient tech­no­log­i­cal re­sources for mon­i­tor­ing of wa­ter pol­lu­tion as well as find­ing ways of ben­e­fi­ci­at­ing this waste for fur­ther use.

Per­haps, one could pro­pose to use a frac­tion of the tax col­lected from this in­dus­try and plough it back into re­search in mit­i­ga­tion of the waste be­ing pro­duced.

This could also pro­vide some spill-off com­pa­nies that can work on waste wa­ter treat­ment hence con­trib­ute to the eco­nomic stim­u­la­tion.

l Pro­duc­tion of re­new­able en­ergy sources

The ef­fects of cli­mate change have led to an in­creas­ing im­per­a­tive for the con­ser­va­tion of ex­ist­ing re­sources. Le­sotho is no ex­cep­tion to this; the ef­fects of cli­mate change are widely rec­og­nized and ap­pre­ci­ated even at grass­roots level.

As the world ex­plores al­ter­na­tives to fos­sil fu­els, bio-fuel is re­ceiv­ing a lot of at­ten­tion with un­for­tu­nately, some food crops be­ing tar­geted as a source of th­ese fu­els, sparked fur­ther con­cerns about food se­cu­rity.

For­tu­nately, there are sug­ges­tions that the con­di­tions in many de­vel­op­ing coun­tries are ideal for grow­ing al­gae for bio­fu­els.

As such there has been spec­u­la­tion about the po­ten­tial for bio­fu­els to re­duce oil im­ports, stim­u­lat­ing ru­ral economies, and thus re­duc­ing hunger and poverty.

Bio­fuel gen­er­a­tion har­ness­ing the abun­dance of wa­ter re­source en­dow­ment of the coun­try is one of the po­ten­tial ar­eas for tech­no­log­i­cal and eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment in Le­sotho.

There is cur­rently one project that has re­ceived some fund­ing from United Na­tions De­vel­op­ment Pro­gramme un­der Global En­vi­ron­ment Fa­cil­ity Small Grants Pro­gram. The project de­vel­ops meth­ods for bio­fuel pro­duc­tion from sewage sludge us­ing mi­cro­bi­o­log­i­cal di­ges­tion, which seems more po­tent than the widely used nat­u­ral means of biodegra­da­tion.

While this area still needs fur­ther de­vel­op­ment, there is hope that with the amount of re­search in this area new ap­pli­ca­tions and prod­ucts will be cre­ated that will en­able in­dus­try to sus­tain­ably har­ness Le­sotho’s nat­u­ral re­source en­dow­ment.

l Ma­te­rial science and new prod­ucts de­vel­op­ments

Le­sotho is en­dowed with a lot of stone re­sources rang­ing from softer Clarence to harder basalt rocks. Th­ese stones can be ex­ploited in ei­ther en­gi­neered and carved prod­ucts or even in the pro­duc­tion of ce­ram­ics.

The col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the uni­ver­sity and pri­vate sec­tor in this area has been a re­sound­ing suc­cess with the for­ma­tion of a com­pany co-owned by the uni­ver­sity and the part­ner­ing busi­ness.

A num­ber of dif­fer­ent prod­ucts are be­ing pro­to­typed and in­cu­bated in prepa­ra­tion for com­mer­cial­iza­tion.

Be­sides big busi­ness, there is also some col­lab­o­ra­tion with CBOS which has re­sulted in de­vel­op­ing some prod­ucts that are pro­duced from waste pa­per that are al­ready on the mar­ket, al­beit at a very low scale.

Ef­forts are be­ing made to raise funds for the tech­ni­cal as­sis­tance of this busi­ness through train­ing the mem­bers in rel­e­vant chem­istry and busi­ness man­age­ment skills.

Ac­cord­ing to Dr Ge­orge, the al­ter­na­tive to seek­ing pri­vate sec­tor in­put has fur­ther af­forded stu­dents with the osten­si­bly re­quired work ex­pe­ri­ence on most job ap­pli­ca­tions.

“The im­por­tance of in­tern­ships can­not be over-em­pha­sized, es­pe­cially in the era where work ex­pe­ri­ence seems a ma­jor de­ter­mi­nant of whether one gets em­ployed or not.

“Be­sides, there is al­ways an is­sue with rel­e­vance of the pro­grams of­fered at the HEIS, in that they do not re­spond to the skills de­mand of the la­bor mar­ket.

“The in­tern­ship pro­grams can aide in driv­ing two im­por­tant goals of sus­tain­able de­vel­op­ment: in­creas­ing aca­demic rel­e­vance and the es­tab­lish­ment of pub­lic-pri­vate-academia part­ner­ships”, Dr Ge­orge writes.

l Dr Mosotho Ge­orge is a se­nior lec­turer and head, Depart­ment of Chem­istry and Chem­i­cal Tech­nol­ogy at Na­tional Uni­ver­sity of Le­sotho.

EX­HIBITORS show­case their wares dur­ing the Science and Tech­nol­ogy In­no­va­tion Expo held in March this year.

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