From Concept to Reality: Establishing the Makerere University Innovation Pod

March 11, 2024

Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director, Regional Bureau for Africa launches the Makerere University Innovation Pod alongside partners

Public Universities are known to be centers of academic excellence, offering both theoretical knowledge and practical skills across many disciplines. From time to time, students have attended university in Uganda to gain theoretical knowledge, submit a research paper, complete their degree, and begin searching for employment. Similarly, teaching staff have completed research for purposes of publication, at times not being converted into innovative products and models. 

The UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab is confident that these trends are coming to an end with the establishment of the Makerere University Innovation Pod (unipod). This has been made possible through the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) timbuktoo initiative, a new development model that aims to transform Africa’s public universities into centres of innovation while nurturing innovation and start-up ecosystems across the continent.

A student operates a CNC Milling Machine within the Makerere University Innovation Pod

Uganda's Startup Ecosystem

In 2022, the UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab team embarked on an assessment of Uganda's Startup Ecosystem in Uganda, helping inform design of the National Startup Strategy Roadmap. Cognizant of contributions of the Startup community to Uganda’s economic growth, especially through emerging fintech, food-tech, software, and data startups, the sector is still ranked low as indicated by Startup Blink 2022 rankings.

Major bottlenecks stifling the emergence of new enterprises from the innovation ecosystem are:

i) Limited linkages between academia and industry due to fragmentation of various players and resources in the technology and product development value chain.
ii) Inadequate specialized facilities and human capital to support technology development, product development and commercialization in various innovation clusters.
iii) Absence of necessary regulatory policies to support growth of clusters of technology development within the ecosystem.
iv) Inadequate private sector participation in enhancement of the innovation ecosystem.
v) Limited capacity for policy implementation in Uganda’s innovation ecosystem.
vi) Inequality in distribution of innovation and research opportunities – most being urban based.

With these limitations, the government and other stakeholders, both private and public, have established innovation spaces in Uganda with the hope of nurturing innovations or startups to become meaningful enterprises that would greatly contribute to the country’s economic growth.

Makerere University student from Fushion Design and Industrial Arts exhibits her designs from the Textiles Unit of the unipod

UNDP's timbuktoo initiative

The UNDP Uganda Accelerator Lab has been engaging with Uganda's innovation ecosystem and crafting models on how to influence the ecosystem in an impactful way. UNDP's timbuktoo initiative, under the leadership of Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa, UNDP Assistant Administrator and Director, Regional Bureau for Africa, presented an opportunity to transform public universities in to centres of research and innovation. This Pan-African vision nurtures the ingenuity of young people to weave a bright future by creating innovative solutions.

“In our world today, the difference between success and its absence is that those with the opportunity can grow and multiply their talents. I am convinced that the Makerere University unipod will be a place where transformative & world-changing ideas will be birthed and nurtured," said Ms. Ahunna Eziakonwa. 

Through timbuktoo, the unipod will provide young innovators with a Maker’s Space, Design Space and Collaboration Space to create a multidisciplinary approach to innovation, as well as a Technology Transfer Office to facilitate the transition of research and prototypes to market and allow for enterprises to be built from these innovations. Established strategically within Makerere University, the unipod will seamlessly link with research and knowledge already in place at the institution through its faculty of technical experts.

Makerere University Vice Chancellor Prof. Barnabus Nawangwe welcoming Hon. Monica Musenero Minister of Science, Technology, and Innovation to the unipod

Makerere University Leadership

Makerere University leadership including Vice Chancellor Prof. Barnabas Nawangwe have bought in to the vision of the unipod, eager to drive Makerere University's strategy to be a research-led academic institution. The unipod provides a breeding ground for research to evolve in to innovations and commercialized businesses, with Prof. Nawangwe hoping to see students graduate with not only academic credentials but also with skills and experience to start their own enterprises.

To be continued...

By Hadijah Nabbale, Head of Solutions Mapping; Nathan Tumuhamye, Head of Exploration; and Berna Mugema, Head of Experimentation.