With only a decade in existence, the University of Mpumalanga (UMP) has an ambitious vision of becoming “an African university, leading in creating opportunities for sustainable development through innovation”. At the recent 7th Biennial Research and Innovation (R&I) Dialogue 2023, Professor Thoko Mayekiso (below), UMP’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal shared what she described as “building foundations towards what we believe will be a success story.”
The R&I Dialogue is a project of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Research and Innovation Strategy Group (RISG) of which Professor Mayekiso is the Chairperson. The 2023 event, themed Research and Innovation for Societal and Economic Impact, was hosted from the Coastlands Umhlanga Convention Centre — just north of Durban from 21 to 22 September.
Professor Mayekiso spoke on The Importance of leadership in enabling social innovation and entrepreneurship at universities: The case of the University of Mpumalanga. Alongside her, another professor representing the University of Venda, would speak on A case of social innovation at a rurally-based university.
Hers was a story on UMP’s Centre for Entrepreneurship Rapid Incubator (left), a facility established to cultivate entrepreneurial and innovative mindsets in students. The Centre provides entrepreneurship training through workshops, mentorship, coaching on business compliance and activities, business plan development and networking opportunities. It serves students from first to third year, and also caters for alumni and community members. Students whose businesses are in incubation receive business advice, financial and technological support which extends to after care support for studentpreneurs beyond graduation.
Her audience comprised deputy vice-chancellors from a number of other public universities, heads of university departments, CEOs of science councils, the Council on Higher Education and USAf, senior representatives of the Department of Science and Innovation, and the National Research Foundation.
According to Professor Mayekiso, students enrolled for the Bachelor of Economics have an option to major in entrepreneurship, even though entrepreneurial mindsets are instilled in the entire student population regardless of their discipline. She said UMP had recently submitted to the Department of Higher Education and Training (DHET), a Programme and Qualification Mix (PQM) clearance application for a Diploma in Entrepreneurship.
As stated earlier, UMP’s social innovation and entrepreneurship activities are not limited to transforming students into innovative and entrepreneurial graduates. The institution is also intentional on creating entrepreneurship and problem-solving aptitude in staff. Beyond its immediate context, UMP is committed to playing a catalytic role in innovation and entrepreneurship in its neighbouring communities and on the African continent, guided by their values including excellence, integrity, collaboration, diversity, adaptability, inspiration and relevance.
Partnerships are central to UMP’s model
Appreciating that they can achieve little in isolation, and also for the sustainability of their initiatives, UMP has partnered and collaborates with numerous other entities, nationally and abroad. Locally, their partners include the Small Enterprise Development Agency (SEDA), National Youth Development Agency (NYDA), the National Empowerment Fund (NEF) and the Mpumalanga Economic Growth Agency (MEGA).
Further afield, UMP has partnered with a consortium of nine universities in Asia. These are Chea Sim University of Kamchaymear in Cambodia, National University of Laos in Laos, Asia Pacific University of Technology and Innovation in Malaysia, Trisakti University, University of Indonesia and Telkom University in Indonesia, Palawan State University in the Philippines and Tra Vinh University and Can Tho University in Vietnam.
Professor Mayekiso said collaborating with the Asian universities has opened several doors for her institution, expanding their entrepreneurship and start-up knowledge and contributing to the effectiveness of their incubator. In addition to granting access to UMP students to weekly entrepreneurship webinars, this partnership led to UMP participating in an Entrepreneurship Summit at the Asia Pacific University of Technology in Kuala Lumpur, where their team scooped the prize for the Best Pitch in 2022.
Leadership support is also pivotal
Professor Mayekiso credits their successful baby steps to the active support of the institution’s leadership, adding that their involvement and clarity on the vision and strategic plan are essential for the success of entrepreneurial initiatives.
For instance, the Vice-Chancellor and Principal chairs the Advisory Board of the Centre for Entrepreneurship Rapid Incubator, while the membership comprises directors and heads of UMP’s faculties and various schools and departments.
Entrepreneurship is for all students
Ultimately, UMP’s Centre for Entrepreneurship Rapid Incubator is the nerve centre from which a climate of entrepreneurship on campus is nurtured. The programme of inculcating entrepreneurial mindsets in students applies to every registered student regardless of their field of study.
“Unlike in some places where entrepreneurship is focused on students in the faculty of economics, we believe that every student should have such opportunities,” she said. “This will help them test the viability of their ideas, pitch to potential investors, grow their business ventures, and expose them to potential networks and collaborators.
Question 1 by Dr Vathiswa Papu-Zamxaka (left), Deputy Vice Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Engagement at the Tshwane University of Technology: Regarding involving industry in the eco-system, I expressed a concern, yesterday, over the paucity of South Africa based multinational corporations in our environment. The majority of multinationals operating in this country are foreign companies who come with their own mandate and take little interest in solving our local problems. Understanding this promising landscape, of universities-driven start-ups, in UMP’s view, how do we scale up that process? How do we mitigate against such challenges that could be hindrances to the ecosystemic approach to entrepreneurship?
Professor Mayekiso: It is important to identify partners in industry and other institutions, communities and parastatals. As a university, you cannot scale up on your own. You have to partner with other entities.
My response to your second question is entrepreneurship training. It takes training to develop entrepreneurial mindsets in students, to instil in them the will to take risks, to work hard and understand that failure is part of the process. Students need to develop resilience.
The biggest challenge could be resources and finances, but, as I mentioned before, partnerships could help leverage resources. We learned through experience that partnering with industry beyond our borders exposes our students to global thinking. Those are some of the strategies we can put in place.
Question 2: What enabling strategies could we employ to make possibilities for students to access this type of information in all faculties?
Response by Professor Sibusiso Moyo, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University: I believe we need to apply this across the board, from Chemistry students all the way to those enrolled in Theology – an inherent part of being a 21st century university. Students must know where to access entrepreneurial information at their institution. A centre for entrepreneurship would be an ideal place to learn everything entrepreneurship. Or an incubation centre, etc. creating a meeting place for knowledge sharing, communication and mentorship.
Comment by Professor Thobeka Ncanywa (right), Acting Senior Director: Research and Innovation at the Walter Sisulu University (WSU:). I am very grateful to all speakers [who shared perspectives on Creating an enabling ecosystem for social innovation and entrepreneurship at universities]. The Theory of Change is very relevant and alive at WSU. Similarly to the approaches shared in the case studies of the University of Venda and the University of Mpumalanga, this year, we enabled our academics to design programmes empowering them to inculcate the entrepreneurial spirit in our students.
Professor Mayekiso: On involving staff, we, at UMP, also run staff workshops on entrepreneurship.
Comment by Dr Norah Clarke, Director: Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education at USAf: At the Durban University of Technology, as part of Professor Sibusiso Moyo’s legacy, all faculties have an Entrepreneurship champion whose responsibility it is to inculcate the thinking in their specific faculty. All too often, younger academics and researchers get forgotten when we discuss these interventions (to which Professor Moyo adds ‘even established staff’ get forgotten).
Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa.