How universities can play a role in solving South Africa’s almost unsolvable challenges

10-06-21 USAf 0 comment

Take a drive to the airport in Cape Town, and along the way you can see the challenges South Africa faces.

These are our wicked problems, said Professor Eugene Cloete (right), Vice-Rector: Research, Innovation and Postgraduate Studies at Stellenbosch University — instantly clarifying what is meant by these complex, difficult-to-solve social problems.

He was speaking in the discussion session that followed a presentation on Social Innovation by Professor Eugene Schwella, Emeritus Professor of Public Leadership at Stellenbosch University.  This was at the Executive Leadership Workshop hosted in Stellenbosch by Universities South Africa’s  Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme last week.

Professor Cloete’s comment was part of his answer to the question: “What is the role of universities in addressing South Africa’s wicked problems?” posed by Dr Poppet Pillay, Director of the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship (CSE) at the Durban University of Technology (DUT), who led the discussion.

Amplifying the link between social innovation and universities, he said universities create knowledge which can make a major impact on addressing these wicked challenges. Although he never spelled it out, Professor Cloete was clearly referring to the informal settlements and glaring poverty and inequality evident on the sides of the highway leading to and from the Cape Town airport. 

The SU Research and Innovation DVC said universities generate wealth of knowledge to improve society, that is, people’s wellbeing. He said he was deliberately using the word “wealth”, as opposed to “poverty alleviation” because WEALTH, used as an acronym, would help universities understand what they should do. If universities “engage on any of these topics, we are busy with worthwhile research to solve what I believe are our wicked problems”, he said.

This is how he unpacked the acronym WEALTH:

  • W is for Water;
  • E is for Energy;
  • A for agriculture;
  • L for land;
  • T for technology; and
  • H for health.  

“If we take any one of those six elements away, we are poor in one way or another,” he said. Taking WEALTH a step further, he added:

  • W is not only for water, but also how we develop and support women on the continent;
  • E is not only for energy, but also for entrepreneurship, employment, the economy, and equity;
  • A is for agriculture because with that comes food security, but also access – to water, energy and the economy;
  • L is for land, and how we use it, but also for leadership and thought leadership;
  • T is for technology, and transformation in all of its facets, down to how we work. “Even before CoVID,” he said, “I used the example of people spending hours on highways between Pretoria and Johannesburg, and Stellenbosch and Cape Town, and, when they get to work, emailing each other from the one office to the other office, and then driving two hours back in the afternoon, when they can actually do that from anywhere in the world. CoVID showed us this is possible.”
  • H is for health, and housing.

Not only was that extended WEALTH acronym a summary of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals; if universities “engage with any of these topics, we are busy with worthwhile research to solve our wicked problems”, he said.

Schools of social entrepreneurship few and far between

Very few South African universities appear to have specialised centres or units dedicated to social entrepreurship and innovation. Professor Schwella had mentioned the newly-founded School of Social Innovation, of which he is the Dean, at Hugenote Kollege.

Dr Pillay said others include the Bertha Centre for Social Innovation and Entrepreneurship at UCT’s Graduate School of Business, the Social Entrepreneurship Programme (SEP) at the University of Pretoria’s Gordon Institute of Business Science, and the University of Venda (UNIVEN). Dr Robert Martin, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Operations at UNIVEN, said although his institution was a newcomer in the field, they had created a Community of Practice (CoP) combining social entrepreneurship with the Millennium Development Goals. About six students at his institution had since created businesses, some of whose activities are shown below.

University of Venda students are involved in The Green life project, adopted in support of Sustainable Development Goals 1, 2, 3, 6, 14 and 15 and of South Africa’s national development plan 2023/2030 objectives. The Green life project, located in Thohoyandou in the Vhembe district, focuses on producing sustainable commercial farming of healthy crops and vegetables; protecting water streams to ensure water quality; and advocating for soil quality and aquatic animals. The students, in collaboration with the local communities, use indigenous agricultural knowledge and skills passed down generations from their forefathers.

Dr Martin said UNIVEN now needed to collaborate across the sector to fast track their own learning and development, especially in areas where they were struggling with a lack of infrastructure.

Alongside him, Dr Pillay shared some of the work of DUT’s Centre for Social Entrepreneurship, that she heads. Initially, work was based on her research of developing IT social entrepreneurs from rural areas and townships, and had focused on people’s strengths rather than their deficits. Since the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda) had taken over its evaluation, they had had to switch to an incubation model but had “maintained the social aspect of it as well”, she said.

The Centre has generated mainline as well as social businesses, Dr Pillay went on to inform her colleagues. These include an organic farming enterprise that works with farmers across the country, and a women’s craft-making venture. A student had developed a back-pack with an umbrella for people with disabilities, then adapted it into a wheelchair with an umbrella, and they had connected him with the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA), who had funded him and developed the prototype.

“In this way the Centre for Social Entrepreneurship can change people’s livelihoods and improve their standard of living,” said Dr Pillay. ”These examples show how universities can become very practical, how we are able to support social businesses, social entrepreneurs and social innovation.”

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.

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