University Cooperations as Platforms for Sustainable Economic Development of the Private Business Sector in Sub-Sahara Africa

Universities in the developed world and in Sub-Sahara Africa have established and maintained numerous international partnerships of varying intensity for decades. The rationale has been, among others, to carry out research in areas which require field work in the respective countries, to assist African universities in improving their academic level and performance, to develop an intellectual human resource base for the development of the region, and to enrich international campus life through the exchange of students and faculty.

However, especially universities in the Western hemisphere have another asset to offer besides academic research and teaching: a vast network with businesses, often based in the same region where the university is located. Particularly faculties specializing in practice-oriented research and teaching (e.g., engineering, management, sciences) often maintain an intensive exchange with the corporate world. In Sub-Sahara Africa, universities have started to develop similar ties into the private sector but lack the long-standing experience of benchmarks in the industrialised economies.

Traditionally, the prototypical university graduate in Sub-Sahara Africa is part of the country’s elite, usually holding a leading position in a government agency or a large, state-owned company. Ties to business were rather frowned upon. Educating the (future) elite, not the middle class, was the main objective of the older, well-established universities.

The panel will explore how university partnerships between the developed world and Sub-Saharan Africa, with their respective corporate networks, can serve as platforms for sustainable economic development of the private business sector, especially entrepreneurial start-ups and SMEs.

Private sector development is a crucial prerequisite for the creation of a substantial middle class and a self-confident citizenship. A vibrant private sector generates the critical mass of middle-class citizens which can exert the political power to soften inequalities between social groups.

Linking universities with the private sector offers a number of developmental advantages:

  • Universities create the skilled workforce for the private sector. Well-planned development initiatives on tertiary education level therefore bring about long-lasting effects and provide the basis for a vibrant, innovation-driven economy. However, for this end universities must feel responsible for educating not only the elite, but the future middle class.
  • Our research reveals that company executives are often unsatisfied with the competences of university graduates. Universities can exploit corporate networks to improve application-oriented teaching and research, and make graduates better qualified for a job in the private sector.
  • Companies are in need of academically-based advice and consultancy. Faculty and advanced students, after proper skills development, can provide such services.
  • The financial basis of universities would allow them to take over application-oriented research tasks with highly uncertain profit outcome which private companies are unable to fulfill.
  • Universities with a focus on entrepreneurship can play a role in qualifying and developing entrepreneurs which provide employment for themselves and others, and contribute to the dynamic development of the private sector. Entrepreneurs are typically quite articulate when lobbying for more ease in doing business, and demanding inclusion in political decision processes, which in turn helps to develop citizenship and a more active middle class.

University partnerships between Sub-Sahara Africa and the industrialised world promise high returns on investment:

  • The link between academia and the private sector in Sub-Sahara Africa is still under-developed. Partnerships with experienced universities (e.g., the German “Universities of Applied Sciences”) can help to improve this situation.
  • Different from typical “aid projects”, university cooperations are long term, based on personal relationship, sometimes friendship, and are maintained even in times where funding is scarce.
  • Sub-Saharan universities, through their business networks, have something to offer to universities in industrialised countries and their respective business networks. University partnerships can be a platform for companies to find and develop corporate partners in the respective countries.

The contribution of university partnerships for private sector development has scarcely been explored so far. The German Ministry of Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) has begun in 2012 to fund the “University-business-partnership programme”, coordinated by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and in which the panel members are involved.