Podcast: April 03, 2023

Topic: Universities and Research and the Role of Private Sector

Monday this week, I met the Makerere University Vice Chancellor, Prof. Nawangwe, and his team of lecturers under several faculties at the invitation of Mrs. Lorna Magara, Chairperson of the University Council, and Prof. Vincent Anigbogu of the Institute for International Transformation. First, I need to thank Lorna Magara, for being the educationist she is, she is able to point out the link between the private sector work and Universities and the urgent need to do research and collaborate with businesses and develop an ability to commercialize findings, and turn them into an enterprise opportunity. She had listened to me the previous day at a Sunday service at the Covenant Nations Church, explain the effort we are undertaking to raise USD6bn in the next five years and the hurdles we are going through to marshal the efforts of government and the private sector to see the same direction and agree on joint outcomes.

Because of the low connection between universities and businesses, we have poor product development that has limited research and therefore, we are leaving so much money on the tables of foreign markets. So, the US market, an 18thrillion dollar consumer spending market only consumes USD46m yet the coffee market is about USD7bn in this market alone. New York alone has more than 240 cafes in many countries that produce coffee but Uganda, with all its strategic UN mission building, isn’t tapping into this market effectively. For fresh and dried fruits, plantain, bananas we only are bale to sell USD1.7m in the huge US market of USD22bn. Overall, Uganda sells to the US not more than USD180m and our next-door neighbor – Kenya, does USD1bn. South Korea sells USD210bn in this same market, almost the entire GDP of East Africa! There are many reasons ranging from long distance and logistics, lack of export finance, quality, and sustainable marketing but research, driven by universities to support the inventions of young enterprises, is a key missing component.

Why are our universities not leading and scaling research that supports trade and entrepreneurs? The answer lies in our history. The business was traditionally left to one class of people, the Asian community, and Africans were socialized to produce primary products and not allowed to process them. Coffee, tea, cotton, tobacco was grown by Africans but the processing and was only for the Asian business community. This killed the business acumen and initiative. The educated class aimed at joining the government and were connected to the sources of wealth. I have often wondered why there is an unhealthy disrespect of the private sector by some public sector officials. We don’t think of building a strong private sector because we don’t always value them as partners. I know this because it has been a struggle for our exports advisory committee to convince a number of public sector players that we should announce and accompany the President on all trade missions where possible. Universities, ivory towers of intellectuals, and social progress do research but many times don’t see the link with commercialization as long as they get good grants and write reports. This is a very big disconnect in an economy. Our small Gross domestic expenditure on research and development which is about 0.14 of our GDP (or some USD150m), is given 47% to the government, and 46% to higher education institutions like Makerere University (actually Makerere gets about UGX30bn shillings annually) and the private businesses consumer a very minuscule figure of 4%. I assume this is partly why the World Economic Forum (WEF) ranks Uganda as uncompetitive in this space. The WEF puts Uganda as the 114th country out of 137 countries in the world. We are doing poorly on many parameters that rank countries as competitive and this deeply worries me. If we can’t connect university research to businesses and be intentional about it, we will not grow our exports and we will suffer reputational damage on the market as unserious yet I know how many young people in our country are so creative but their energies are not harnessed through provision of good research on key sectors. This is the reason I went to Makerere to make a case for this integrated thinking between our companies and our universities. R&D in own businesses needs to be incentivized with tax rebates, grants from Government and so promoted to allow our private sector contribution in this area to move higher.

Whether it is basic, applied, or development research, it is time to connect our universities to the private sector. I looked at the patents the US filed in 2021 and what we did about the same time and I was embarrassed. It is good to rank ourselves with our neighbors but I encourage our people to and compete with the best because I know we can make it. I use the Americans and their market because the reason they are at the forefront of innovation in science, medicine, and computing, even if they are under threat by rising nations in the East, is all about the R&D at the company and government level. It is also the healthy respect they give to the private sector and the feeling that life and success for many young people begin and end in the private sector not with Government. America filed some 374,000 patents up from 182, 218 some decade or so ago. Uganda’s WIPO (World Intellectual Property) applications in 2018 were only 6 and this rose to 13 in 2020! Nigeria made 1,174 and Rwanda stood at 68. This is why Uganda ranks 108 out of 119 countries in terms of number of patents, according to the WEF. This poor showing rather than astound and embarrass me, I use them as a measure of what more we can do because others have done it; they demonstrate the possibilities with better leadership in this area. Therefore, the four interventions we are making to drive export increase in the 13 products (Markets, standards, infrastructure, and export funding), will require partnerships in research and application of findings with universities in Uganda and private companies. The companies can domesticate the research findings, help with the apprenticeship of students that work on the outcomes of the research findings, and work with the private sector to help communicate the work of scientists better than we are doing. I think of the work for example done on cassava by Prof Ogenga Latigo in the Agriculture department before he joined politics or what Doctors Jacob Agea and Dorothy Nakimbugwe did on mass breeding of Nsenene (edible grasshoppers), a delicacy in Uganda and central and west Africa. DRC, Uganda, Cameroon, and Zambia dominate the market for edible grasshoppers yet I am aware the Dutch have been working hard on producing edible mealworms or maggots, crickets, etc. for the EU market.

Uganda grasshoppers are rich in dietary fiber more than peas, beans and bananas yet the poor branding, packaging and sale of our grasshoppers, recently became an embarrassment on one of the Uganda Airlines flights. Recently the airline told us they serve Katogo, Rolex and some 80% of the foods from Uganda. Should we not connect research by these scientists, Agea and Nakimbugwe done some 10 years ago, to our business people so that they can save our mothers and sisters from selling Nsenene in polythene bags? I need us as leaders to develop integrated, contextual thinking when we think about exports and business growth for Ugandan enterprises. We need to see more than less in what God has given our country. When people see us outside, they don’t see the Export Promotion Board or UIA or UNBS; they see Uganda and they want to know more about our institutional readiness, how coordination to sell products and services are we, they look for our broadband penetration and usage by businesses, they look for technology readiness – And these parameters don’t need which party you belong to or religion you profess and tribe and village you come from. They are things that hurt businesses of young people if we don’t fix them.

I haven’t even talked about research on our ancient grains – Finger millet and sorghum traded with India and the Far east for more than two millennia.

What are universities, research institutions and businesses working on to protect them and help the next generation keep gluten free foods? How about our large sweet and juicy pineapples and Avocados that the global distribution networks tell us they are too big to fit on a shelf or in a box and therefore, according to them, unmarketable? For our country to move from Agriculture to electronics, to automobiles, telecoms switching gear, to automation, to chemicals etc., we have to focus on the connection between universities and research and how the private sector commercializes this. Korea, which sent us an expert last week to speak to Uganda public and private sector leaders about the Korean journey of transformation from peasantry to the world’s 11th economy, built up a war chest of research grants and funding – some USD75bn or 4.8% of their GDP and the private sector runs neck to neck with the public sector on funding and commercialization of research.

I am glad we are beginning to find a connection with Makerere, the ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation and the private sector exporters and business so we can create a platform for this work.




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