Disrupting the Conventional: Universities as a Space for Collaborative Problem Solving

October 6, 2021

Scientists, innovators, students and UNDP Tanzania Accelerator Lab members in a group photo at Mbeya University of Science and Technology (MUST) in Southern Tanzania. ©UNDP

The context

UNDP recently published a report called "Collective Intelligence for Sustainable Development: Getting Smarter Together". It is a report by the UNDP Accelerator Labs and Nesta's Centre for Collective Intelligence Design that surveyed the current state of the field and suggested key areas for action to make the most of the combined efforts of people, data, and technology. The report further highlighted what role traditional universities can play in realizing the potential of collective intelligence for the SDGs while building on what is already underway. The report explicitly highlights that: Universities could help build the skills and experience that graduates will need to work in a collectively intelligent way. Many are now using the ‘challenge-based’ model where, alongside their degree, students work on practical problem solving in teams that draw on multiple disciplines as well as insights outside of higher education.

In Tanzania, most university innovations or inventions come from two sources: (1) newly established innovation spaces and programs in some institutions, and (2) research projects undertaken by students as part of their academic degree requirements. During this time, the innovations nurtured in incubators/innovation spaces receive business development services (BDS) organized by institutions or partners, and in some cases, seed capital and technical assistance are provided to selected enterprises/innovators on a case-by-case basis. Some colleges and universities have formed Special Purpose Vehicles (SPVs) to aid in the promotion of new ideas, and some students have even gone so far as to form their own businesses.

In Tanzania, most innovative businesses struggle to grow and remain viable due to  failure to commercialize research outputs or innovation products. Recent studies indicate that academic institutions are struggling with commercialization due to a variety of issues, including universities' inability to acquire resources to support infrastructure and early-stage funding for new technologies. University researchers and students also have a hazy understanding of the industrial environment and a lack of awareness of the market's dynamism, making it difficult to develop market-fit products with little traction and market penetration.

Mr. Justin Justine (Engineering Student) delivering his business pitch at MUST's pre-incubation workshops. ©UNDP Acc lab

Untangling the complexities of adversity: What is the Acc Lab doing?

In September 2020, UNDP Tanzania signed MOUs with the Nelson Mandela African Institution for Science and Technology (NM-AIST) and Mbeya University of Science and Technology (MUST) through the Accelerator Lab programme.  Most of the technologies being incubated at NMAIST focus on up-scaling green technologies for climate change mitigation or adaptation, improved food and nutrition, data-driven solutions, and solutions related to information and communication technologies.

MUST, on the other hand, houses a Centre for Innovation and Technology Transfer (CITT). CITT's role is to bring and manage innovation, technology, and entrepreneurial development in Tanzania as well as Entrepreneurship and Business Management. In line with MUST's vision, the centre aims to help MUST achieve excellence in its primary operations of training, research, and consulting to Tanzanians and the global community.

Furthermore, in collaboration with the Accelerator Lab, the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT) design studio decided in March 2020 to join hands with several techpreneurs in the innovation ecosystem to address the COVID-19 pandemic. The partnership included Bits & Bytes and Robotech (private sector), which were among the makers who collaborated with the studio at the time. In this endeavour, the AccLab worked with a ‘3D makers community' to design, fabricate, and distribute Personal Protective Equipment (PPEs) to frontline health workers around the country, notably those working in COVID-19 quarantine centres at the time. This was critical given the lack of medical supplies and specifically PPE for frontline health workers in Tanzania at the onset of the crisis. Our work on COVID19 has been featured in this blog published on Nest360 website.

But what’s more interesting about this dynamic engagement with academia is that, in a co-creation style (with the above-mentioned institutions), the lab encouraged a "challenge-based" model as a problem-solving approach to be adopted by innovation hubs inside the institutions. This approach has enabled university students to mix up with entrepreneurs, high school students, the private sector, and members of the non-profit sector to collaboratively re-imagine 21st century fast-paced challenges.

In most cases, programme participants are selected through a meticulous online application system where selection criteria are pre-determined. Solutions crafted are designed to respond to opportunities and prospects as indicated in respective regional investment guides – a UNDP supported blueprint providing investment information to prospective local and foreign investors with the aim of attracting them to exploit investment potential in the region in order to stimulate business and enterprise development as well as execute development pathways.

Students indulged in a "pain storming" session in one of the pre-incubation sessions at MUST. ©UNDP, Acc Lab

 As part of the MOUs, the lab assisted in redesigning the pre-incubation "curriculum" to accommodate a "challenge-based" model that allows for collaborative problem solving by tapping into the collective intelligence of non-academic groups such as entrepreneurs, non-profit actors, and lower-level students. Selected candidates undergo training in key innovation and business fields such as business modelling, human-centered design, digital marketing, and business pitching, to mention but a few.

So, what exactly have we seen so far?

Our immediate hope is that these solutions will find funding for their development, but we also expect that these innovators will move to become full-fledged business owners or entrepreneurs. Some notable solutions have recently emerged from this process, and some innovators have been able to concretize their business models. The following are examples of solutions we have seen so far:

·       Paulo Zebedayo Sulley-Gas-powered Poultry Egg Incubator

·       Scholastica M. Milanzi -Automated Home Security Systems

·       Amani Sadiki Mlipu -Foot operated hand washing machine

·       Anangisye Mwakyusa-IOT based Smart irrigation system

·       The Waluo Stove-Used car oil-powered stove

·       Ignas Mashauri-The agro-checker-Plant Disease detection App

A renowned Nanotechnology Scientist, Prof. Hulda Swai, gave a masterclass during one of the pre-incubation session series ©UNDP

·       Edith Edward Lugela-Solar-powered automatic fish drier

·       Davis David Safari – Voice-controlled home appliances management system

·       Glory Owen Waane-Cashew nut processing machine made using local materials

·       Godfrey Steven Raymond-Automatic Potato Harvester

·       Anastazia Godwin Mbwaga–App-based digital library system for high schools

  • Seth Misago-Paper Based rapid diagnostic test for Helicobacter pylori and Hepatitis B
  • Never Zekeya-Bio-based insecticide for pest management
  • Christina Charles-Omega-3 DHA Superfood

Ms. Christina Charles pitched her Omega 3 DHA superfood project in one of the pre-incubation sessions at Nelson Mandela University in Arusha, Tanzania. ©UNDP

·   Raymond, Jofrey –1) The Nutrano-A baby formula made from local ingredients. 2) The SimBar-A nutritious, healthy snack made from sesame seeds and 3) Fish feeds from local ingredients

·       Issakwisa Ngondya-Plant-based bio-herbicide and native plant seeding technique

·       Angela Mkindi-Plant-based pesticides for field insect pest management

·       Athanasia Matemu-Tomato Powder processing technique,1) Cashewnut Butter, 2)  Fermented African Nightshade, Athanasia Matemu3) Dried African Nightshade

·       Becky Nancy Aloo-Rhizobacter-based fertilizer for improved potato production

The above mentioned are some of the key solutions at a prototype stage; others not mentioned in this blog are still in the idea validation stage. As a program we are working to ensure that most of these solutions are mapped and uploaded to our online solutions database (work in progress), which can be found at https://innovate.co.tz/app/ to promote collaboration, partnerships, and attract potential investments.

Coaches and students in a group session and Mbeya University of Science and Technology ©UNDP

So, what comes next?

Redefining the role of R&D institutions in the advancement of digital and non-digital innovations is necessary to meet the 21st century's rapid development challenges. With Industry 4.0, digital innovation needs new skill sets. Universities in Tanzania and sub-Saharan Africa in general must evaluate their mechanisms for creating graduates that support the distinctive qualities of digital technologies to create dynamic innovation scholars. Research and development organizations must keep up with the rapid changes in technology and the job market.

So, what are the next steps for these solutions? You may be wondering; the truth is that the need to find a suitable path for product commercialization is pressing. These institutions mentioned in this blog are trying to do just that, combining academic excellence with business intelligence from outside of university campuses. To ensure the success and sustainability of university-based innovative businesses, we must develop strong business cases for these products. It is our conviction that universities can be supported in a variety of ways to assist with market entry for their innovative businesses. 1) Financing for innovation2) carrying out a scientific situational analysis3) Improving cross-sector collaboration and partnerships 4) Experimentation using a "challenge-based model" and collaborative problem solving, and 5) advocating for intellectual property protection and promotion at the institutional level and beyond.

At the time of writing, the UNDP Accelerator lab in Tanzania  teamed up with the FUNGUO-a newly launched programme for innovation run in partnership with the European Union (EU), the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), and the Tanzanian Commission of Science and Technology to solicit the services of a consulting firm or consortium of individual consultants to carry out a feasibility study for the commercialization of research outputs and innovations coming out of Tanzanian higher learning institutions. The study results are expected to inform UNDP’s and its partners’ programmes and contribute to the public dialogues on the subject.

We call for increased collaboration and partnerships, particularly in fostering the academia-industry nexus in this space, to support the commercialization of research outputs and innovative products, so that graduates (mostly young people) can be job creators rather than job seekers, while also working to accelerate the achievement of global goals.

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Special thanks to: Dr. Ahmed Mpangule, Director at Cebtre for Technology Transfer, MUST; Justin Mwakatobe, Head of Innovation and Incubation Department, MUST; Harieth Rogath, Head of Business and Entrepreneurship Department, MUST anf Prof. Hulda Swai, Associate Professor Department of Life Science and Bioengineering, NMAIST

Written by: Peter Nyanda, Team Lead and Head of Exploration, UNDP Accelerator Lab