What happens in neighbouring Thohoyandou is our business, says UNIVEN’s Professor Vhonani Netshandama

02-10-23 USAf 0 comment

At the recent Universities South Africa’s (USAf) 7th Biennial Research and Innovation (R&I) Dialogue 2023, held on 21 and 22 September in Umhlanga, KwaZulu-Natal, delegates heard how the University of Venda is co-creating social innovation programmes with the communities of Thohoyandou.

Addressing the topic A case of social innovation at a rurally-based university, Professor Vhonani Netshandama (left), Director of Community Engagement at UNIVEN, relayed her institution’s journey of fostering community engagement in pursuit of engaged scholarship. Their vision and approach, she said, are anchored on the American scholar– Ernest Boyer’s theory of scholarship of engagement. Boyer (1996) sees the scholarship of engagement applying on two levels:

  • Connecting the University’s rich resources to the most pressing societal challenges in the region in which it resides – rooting its plan of action in addressing those challenges; and
  • Nurturing an environment of two-way engagement with its surrounding communities to exchange ideas and knowledge in common pursuit of everyone’s wellbeing.

The story of UNIVEN was presented to the R&I Dialogue alongside that of the University of Mpumalanga as two case studies demonstrating how universities might create an enabling ecosystem for social innovation and entrepreneurship.

“Mine is an imperfect journey but which I’m proud to share with you this morning,” was Professor Netshandama’s point of departure, who stated quite upfront, that she was presenting from a point of recognising UNIVEN’s situation of opportunity, “one of abundance rather than lack.” This, she said, stemmed from her university’s opportune location in one of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) biosphere reserves, and closer to Mapungubwe National Park.

Professor Netshandama said UNIVEN desires to integrate entrepreneurship, innovation and biodiversity — underpinned by engaged scholarship — to yield sustainable development and positive impact in society, driven by these three pillars.

In designing social innovation programmes, Professor Netshandama said they were following the ecosystem approach that had just been championed at the Dialogue, by Professor Eric Stam, a visiting Dutch academic and a recognised authority in this regard. Strongly believing in utilising what they have in that region of the Limpopo province to be socially constructive, Professor Netshandama said, at UNIVEN, “we take our responsibility as pacemakers and anchor university seriously… We are situated in Thohoyandou. So, what happens in Thohoyandou is our business,” she said. 

Her audience was made up of universities’ executives, senior academics and researchers, CEOs of research and other councils including USAf’s, and higher education policymakers.

Involving staff

She then spoke about two programmes of the University, called Demystifying Innovation and Entrepreneurship Campaign and Local Economic Innovation Champions. The former mainly sensitises the executive leadership, academics and support professionals to how each individual and department can locate themselves from the point of strength and understand their role in UNIVEN’s cultivation of social innovation and fostering entrepreneurship in the institution and surrounding communities. The latter programme is expounded on further on, below.

“Our strategic plan talks about integrating entrepreneurship, innovation and biodiversity, underpinned by engaged scholarship to yield sustainable development and impact in society,” she said.

As a university priding itself on a rich African heritage and indigenous knowledge systems, Professor Netshandama said they are driven by: (a) transformative education, (b) transformative justices, (c) digital transformation, (d) appreciative inquiry, (e) social networks, engagement and social marketing, (f) positive psychology, and (g) capacity development.

University leadership as an enabler

However, implementing all of the above takes a progressive and enabling leadership. She stated how the Deputy Vice-Chancellor (DVC) of Corporate Services, Dr Robert Martin, plays a pivotal role in driving these programmes. “He is a selfless and brilliant leader who connects us with various partners and resources, even internationally,” she said. 

In the first semester, UNIVEN piloted a Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) programme in social entrepreneurship with intent to gauge how they might grow students and staff capacities. Although her direct line manager is the DVC: Research and Postgraduate studies, Professor Nosisi Nellie Feza, Professor Netshandama reports to all the university’s deputy vice-chancellors, depending on a particular initiative’s focus. For matters concerning curriculum infusion of innovation and entrepreneurship, she reports to the DVC: Teaching and Learning, and for commercialisation related initiatives she reports to the DVC: Research and Post graduate Studies. The DVCs also work together transversally because their functions in these social innovation programmes are often linked across departments and faculties.

Involving community leaders

Now that UNIVEN has fostered the entrepreneurship culture internally and, being deliberate about not leaving communities behind, Professor Netshandama explained that one of their programmes entails going out with students to the most rural areas to embark on collaborative learning with the community. This includes working with traditional leaders on the identification of training needs, recruiting and profiling potential entrepreneurs. These learnings are then taken back into the classroom, where they devise solutions.

A group of Tshivhase traditional leaders deliberating in a reflection circle on their roles and responsibility in community development. In the group are Honours and master’s students, together with academic staff. His Majesty Thovhele MPK (third from left, in light jacket facing the camera) is an active participant in the deliberations.

Having listened to points made earlier on the Theory of Change made by another guest speaker (Professor Eric Stam from Utrecht University in the Netherlands) Professor Netshandama said she saw this theory in practice at UNIVEN. According to Professor Stam, the Theory of Change is about knowing the weak and strong points in one’s ecosystems, concentrating on the weak points in drawing action plans.

“We have made so much progress that you get a chief himself coming to campus to do workshops with his constituency on community-based planning and prioritising where we need to anchor the training about innovation, entrepreneurship, planning, etc.,” she said. 

To demystify the concepts entrepreneurship and innovation, UNIVEN instils a clear and in-depth understanding that this is about value creation.  This increases students’ comprehension that it pays to have an entrepreneurial mindset.

Roping in youth from neighbouring communities

Regarding the second programme, the Local Economic Innovation Champions, facilitated by Professor Joseph Francis from UNIVEN’s Institute for Rural Development, Professor Netshandama mentioned that UNIVEN deliberately and carefully selects young people from different municipalities, in collaboration with municipal representatives and traditional leaders. These young people are strategically deployed in various sectors to acquire knowledge on the integration of innovation.

Trainees identifying an entrepreneurial opportunity from complex problems during Univen-Socio-next Rural Entrepreneurship Training titled “Starting a business with nothing” at Vele Resource Centre in Gogogo village within the Rambuda Traditional Council.

“We instil the understanding that you do not necessarily need the beautiful buildings and infrastructure to be innovative,” she said, “…but rather, to look around in your backyard.”

Having mobilised the young people across different municipalities they do the mapping and have conversations on why, where and how to start social innovation projects. The programme is sponsored by the Department of Science and Innovation and is run as a national pilot programme that seeks to bridge the gap and build capacity in the ecosystem.

UNIVEN believes it is a catalyst for development in the Vhembe District and Thohoyandou

With various projects in the pipeline, Professor Netshandama asserted that they do not expect less from their students and communities. “These programmes bring awareness and birth innovation from the grassroots, with the principle of inclusivity and frugality. We all become part of the solution.”

Concerning youth and graduate unemployment in the country, UNIVEN believes that the new thinking they are fostering will inspire these groups to begin to seek opportunities to create jobs rather than looking for them elsewhere.

“With social innovation and entrepreneurial thinking, we understand that we need to be patient and look at intergenerational learning,” she said. This requires intentionality, having contextual awareness and embracing a mind shift in boundary crossing.

UNIVEN students and community stakeholders in Intergenerational learning. See Vho Makhadzi, wearing a black beanie, engaging on eco-friendly enterprises during an Engaged Scholarship Workshop.

“We cannot teach innovation or entrepreneurship the way we teach in the classroom. It is not working. We have realised that we need to be deliberate.”

One of the ways UNIVEN is infusing this mindset shift, and actions, is through collaborations with institutions outside South Africa, in countries such as Botswana, Lesotho and Uganda, to create borderless and diversity crossing solutions.

“All we ask of policymakers is that they create an enabling environment. Our students need support, especially when they land across the borders. They need data to transcend the globe and access collaborative online learning.”

In her concluding remarks, Professor Netshandama said UNIVEN also aspires to develop student leadership through Student Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation ambassador programmes, where students mobilise other students and take turns to lead a team and manage a project from conception to completion using the design thinking framework.

“We screen them, pay attention to whether they stick to their commitment and monitor and check whether they are doing well in their academics as they do peer leadership in the entrepreneurship space. That is working for us — using students to recruit other students and show the way.”


Question by Dr Phethiwe Matutu (left), CEO of Universities South Africa:  I am interested in the involvement of communities in the University of Venda’s entrepreneurship ecosystem. The University of Toronto’s approach does not only serve students; community members also come in to incubate their businesses. To what extend does UNIVEN also practise that?

Response 1: Professor Netshandama: We are very intentional about inclusivity – an idea that resonates with the political leadership who encourage sharing resources.  We use a local TVET college that is best resourced in incubation services and encourage our students and youth from the neighbouring communities to team up in accessing those facilities.

Response 2: Professor Thea van der Westhuizen, (right) Academic Leader: High Impact Community Engagement and Internationalisation at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal (UKZN): UKZN also encourages community members to come to the campus. Recently we had a business development speaker visiting our campus to mentor students; another time it was a member from the Chamber of Commerce. The combined effort enables additional ecosystem support plugging students into further support beyond their graduation.

Van der Westhuizen, who also addressed the Dialogue in her own right on System Action Learning and Action Research (SALAR) as an enabling tool for entrepreneurial universities, added that in any university context, “systemic action combines community engagement outside our universities – an incredibly complex concept. It takes embedding entrepreneurship throughout curricular in all disciplines, then bringing in action research to generate impact for society. I congratulate colleagues at UNIVEN for what they are doing and encourage that we keep talking.”

Nqobile Tembe is a Communication Consultant at Universities South Africa.