From research to market: Universities have a key role to play in the transformation of societies

Universities provide the rich scientific knowledge base, which is the foundation for innovation and economic development. The African Institute of Science and Technology (AUST) in Nigeria is one of the six African universities that have received financial and technical support from the Regional Scholarship and Innovation Fund (RSIF) to create an enabling environment for innovation and entrepreneurship in the university. With initial funding support from the African Development Bank and in collaboration with innovation hubs in the region, the university inaugurated an institutional based technology business incubator called AUSTInspire, to bridge the gap in innovation and research commercialization especially in healthcare, energy, shelter, water, oil and gas sectors in the region. RSIF financial support has picked up to further help the hub implement several activities as well as attract additional funding for its operationalization

RSIF financial and technical support has enabled AUST through its Pan African Materials Institute, African Centre of Excellence in Materials, to strengthen and expand the capacity of AUSTinspire and support and promote a culture of entrepreneurship and innovation among its faculty and students.

Through this support, a strategic policy document on innovation and entrepreneurship including intellectual property (IP) and commercialization of research outcome was developed with support from the National Office for Technology Acquisition and Promotion (NOTAP), Nigeria.  Further a capacity building workshop on innovation and entrepreneurship was facilitated to 105 students and 65 faculty in collaboration with various industry and government trainers.  A follow-on ten-day innovation and entrepreneurship bootcamp was organized which attracted participation of 150 students and 25 faculty. The bootcamp was culminated by a pitching competition where 13 groups presented their ideas to a panel of judges from the business innovation space. Five start up projects with support from RSIF grants were selected to receive business incubation support from the AUSTInspire.

As an offshoot of bootcamp, which was partly sponsored with matching funds provided by the African Development Bank (AfDB), the university received additional support from the AfDB to operationalize the AUSTInspire hub. Part of the AfDB funding was used to carry out a feasibility study of some innovation and incubation hubs in the country to draw lessons and best practices for the operationalization of the AUSTInspire hub.

AUST Centre for Lifelong Learning (AC4LL) was launched as an off shoot of the RSIF support. the funding is what supported the establishment of the Centre for life long learnning and rolll out of the courses. The centre offers opportunities for many working-class persons to engage in various continuing professional education programs especially in entrepreneurship, project management and other relevant subjects. Four short courses have already been launched under this program, one on Entrepreneurship and Business Innovation, one in Advanced Project Management and two on Monitoring and Evaluation. A total of 55 persons have successfully completed these certificate courses in AC4LL.

AUSTInspire has enabled the university community to engage and collaborate more with innovation hubs within Abuja thus improving our ability to solve real life problems through innovation. Prof. A. P. Onwualu, Ag Vice Chancellor, AUST

The university also organized an industry open day that attracted 28 industries from various sectors of the Nigerian economy to exhibit their products and services and interact with the students and faculty. It was also an opportunity for the university researchers to showcase their research outputs from different departments for possible collaboration with industry partners.

To foster University-Industry collaboration, the AUST Industry Advisory Board (AIAB) was launched in April 2022, with a membership of 11 industrial partners, the board will work closely with the university to strengthen its linkage with relevant industries to enhance it capacity in innovation development.

Higher education institutions are gradually embracing the importance of innovation, commercialization, and entrepreneurship, and creating value for their communities. African governments together with their development partners have committed to support the strengthening of research and innovation capacity of African universities through the RSIF program of the Partnership for Skills in Applied Science, Engineering and Technology (PASET). Read here for more information on RSIF funded projects.

Nicknamed “Professseur” by my peers, I was inspired to pursue a PhD

Jean Baptiste HABINSHUTI from Rwanda is a PASET-RSIF Scholar in Material Science and Engineering at African University of Science and Technology (AUST) in Nigeria. Being a recipient of RSIF PhD scholarship opportunity meant a lot to him. First, it was an avenue to upgrade his academic qualification, but it also gave him a chance to realize his high school dream to earn the title of professor after having been nicknamed “Professseur” by students from his community for organizing science tutoring sessions during high school holidays. Little did they know that it was a catalyst for him to build himself and achieve his personal goals and development.

Picture of Baptiste taken in the lab during sample preparation for analysis

He was awarded PASET-RSIF scholarship to pursue a PhD degree in Material Science and Engineering in the thematic area of Mining, Mineral and Materials Engineering at AUST (Nigeria).  At AUST, the PhD program comprises two components: course work and research. To-date, Jean has completed his course work and is now on a sandwich program at Worcester Polytechnique Institute (USA) for part of his research. His research has four projects, of which he has completed two of them, while one is ongoing. He has one manuscript for publication under-review and he is working on the second one.

Why study material Science and engineering?

Jean believes that his study will add significant value to African mineral resources. The research focuses on processing and extraction of tantalite ores using simple, affordable, and environmentally friendly techniques. He is exploring how these techniques can be applied in mining and processing of African tantalite ores and add value to the mineral resources from Africa instead of exporting them in their raw form. By working closely with academic institutions, relevant investors and governments, and other stakeholders within sub-Saharan Africa; this specialized knowledge will be integrated in the region and transferred to the future generation.

When the Covid-19 pandemic spread to Africa, Jean, like many other scholars away from home had worries about his family and they were also worried about him. Getting updates about the Covid-19 status in his country was part of his daily activities. Regular calls to his family and relatives to raise their awareness and help them understand the importance of implementing and following the government preventive policies, was a need. USA was one of the most affected countries in both confirmed cases and mortality, something that caused more worries to Jean, his colleagues and his family. Consequently, staying indoors was the only way to avoid being exposed to the virus. Psychological instability resulting from repetitive activities and being away from the family members begun to affect him and other colleagues.

COVID-19 and the future

All his social life was affected by COVID 19 and as far as his research work was concerned, he had done some of the preliminary experiments before the pandemic paralyzed the activities in the University. When the University was closed in March 2020, access to facilities such as the Laboratories and Libraries became impossible and some activities shifted to remote access. The regular meetings with supervisors for discussion and presentation of research progress also slowed down significantly.

Covid-19 affected Jean’s research work plan because there was no laboratory work during the pandemic. The University has since resumed laboratory access with some restrictions. He admits that he has quite a lot of work to do, as recommended by his advisors, and he is currently trying to maximize on literature review, such that when things normalise, most of his time will be focused on laboratory work. However, there is a clear delay in his work plan, but he is committed to squeeze himself and work hard as he can see the possibilities of meeting the planned timeline to achieve his goals and objectives on time. The only big challenge is about his sample stuck in France due to radioactive material detected in. He, with the help of his host University tried to work on the shipment of other samples from Africa, but the samples were missed completely. FedEX has requested that he file claim to the shipping agency.

Jean is very grateful to RSIF and all collaborators of the program for giving him such an opportunity to shape his future, that of his family and his Country. He urges the management of RSIF to be aware of the impact and delays caused by the pandemic and work collaboratively. The University must do their best to allow access to facilities and tools that enable students to achieve their academic targets on time. RSIF should communicate with student advisors and encourage them to respond as fast as possible when students write to them seeking guidance and or recommendations.

Contact Jean Baptiste Habinshuti via