How innovation has saved millions for Zim

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Harare - When Professor Amon Murwira was made Minister of Higher and Tertiary Education, Innovation, Science and Technology Development in Zimbabwe in 2017, he immediately announced a new academic trajectory.

It was a radical change from the traditional way universities operated. Seasoned academics and bureaucrats branded him a mad scientist whose excitement over his appointment had scrambled his marbles.

Prof Murwira began his ministerial tenure with strong advocacy towards what is termed Education 5.0.

It is an approach meant to see institutions of higher learning responding to needs of societies they exist within through conversion of knowledge into goods and services.

Not entirely a new concept, but it was yet to be implemented in Zimbabwe.

The first step was establishment of innovation hubs, and now all major state universities - including the University of Zimbabwe, the National University of Science and Technology and Great Zimbabwe University – all have dedicated space to test ideas before they are unleashed for mass application.

Prof Murwira`s insistence on education expanding its scope from  teaching, research and community service (Education 3.0), to add innovation and industrialisation (Education 5.0) was to prove to be inspired.

In the new age of COVID-19, the universities are producing a significant quantity of consumables and in the process saving the country millions of dollars in imports.

To date, education institutions in Zimbabwe have reportedly produced more than 10 million litres of hand sanitisers.

Five litres of hand sanitiser, on average, costs around US$25 in the country.

According to Prof Murwira, the government of Zimbabwe made an investment of US$426,000 in its institutions of higher learning and the result has been production of consumables worth over US$12,1 million.

But the institutions are not only innovating for a profit. They are also doing it as a national service.

Prof Eddie Mwenje, the Bindura University of Science Education Vice-Chancellor, rallied his colleagues to donate sanitisers.

“We have an obligation as universities to help our country in this time of need. We have the skills, this is a time to put them to good use,” Prof Mwenje said then.

Africa University, owned by the United Methodist Church, produces its own sanitisers and has been donating them to hospitals.

Impressed with the baby steps made already by Education 5.0, Prof Murwira is hungry for more.

He recently told The Southern Times Business that: “Our society has complained that we have book smart graduates who theorise but never contribute towards national development.

“I would have wanted for us to work on (other) innovations but we are facing a life-threatening enemy (and) our institutions have to prove their worth.”

The University of Zimbabwe is producing all the face masks being used by the Zimbabwe Republic Police.

Now Prof Murwira wants institutions of higher learning to save the country more money – and to save more lives – by filling the gap in the supply of the protective clothing.

“We have instructed the Harare Institute of Technology and the National University of Science and Technology to produce N95 masks and testing reagents. These have been costing a lot of money to import,” Prof Murwira said.

The Harare Institute of Technology has gone beyond just masks and is putting final touches on a ventilator which the institution says has already gone through scientific testing and is being calibrated according to public health expectations.

A ventilator costs around US$8,000 and Zimbabwe – and indeed Africa - is woefully short of them.

Harare Institute of Technology director of communications international relations Mr Tinashe Mutema said it all came down to two things: determination and reverse engineering.

He added: “We are putting a lot of effort into understanding the make-up of these key components in the fight against COVID-19 so we can set up machines to produce them locally. Our engineers are already working on N95 masks which will come in handy in the medical sector, we feel we are up to the task.”

Zimbabwe is aiming to be an upper middle-income economy by the year 2030.

One of the key pillars of that strategy is import substitution, and it seems it took a pandemic for the concept to move from rhetoric to application.

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