As pressure mounts on universities to be relevant in addressing key challenges facing society, one of the key areas is engaging with private sector. The universities and private companies have always worked together in an ad hoc and personal basis with no formalised arrangements on how to engage with each other. Part of the reasons for the ad hoc and personal basis of partnership is due to limited understanding of the interest, mode of operation and motivation for each of the parties and more so the convergence of these. The Regional Universities Forum for Capacity Building in Agriculture (RUFORUM) being a network of universities striving to create vibrant and transformative universities catalysing inclusive agricultural development to feed and create prosperity in Africa, has, as its objective, to link universities to the private sector and find a common place for the two to work together.
As part of finding an intersection between the two, RUFORUM organised a private sector briefing to its Secretariat staff to understand better, how the private sector operates, how they can benefit from the university work and how they can work with the universities through areas of intersection.
Mr. Arnold Rwabogo, the operations director at Reco Industries Uganda Limited, a private sector company dealing food processing, and Mr. Moses Engwau Ekudu, an entrepreneurship coach and facilitator at the Business Development Centre, Kampala were invited to give their perspectives on what the universities and the private sector could do together. It emerged that there is a lot that universities and private companies could do together to transform economies but the differences between them is causing much divide. The conversation that could help universities transform themselves and work with private sector are summarised below.
Private companies and academia can complement each other but the divergence is in the structure of the two
Private companies are fast and continuously evolving institutions which are always looking out for innovations that will keep them afloat and competitive in a free market economy. They are always looking out for what the customers would love and how they will outcompete others in providing such a product or service. Their structures are therefore flexible and adaptive to allow them prevail in the current situation. They do this in many ways. In Reco for example, we have a specialised Research and Development unit to develop new products. Our CEO reads newspapers every day, we listen to news to know what is trending said Mr. Rwabogo, the Operations Director of Reco Industries. Mr. Rwabogo also added that they attend agricultural shows to know the latest technologies in agriculture so that they develop products around them. Universities on the other hand are structured and rigid, less adaptive to new trends and operate on established rules. Processes take long because of the procedures that are set and must be adhered to, which in most cases, private sector organisations cannot bear with. Universities are like fortresses that are difficult to penetrate, who operate within the set rules.
Academia and private sector are pursuing different interests
It emerged from the discussions that universities and private companies are chasing different interests. While universities are always researching for new knowledge and teaching students, which all end in publication and graduation respectively, the private sector is always looking out for where is more money. Mr. Rwabogo clearly stated that in each meeting, activity or engagement, the issue is, where is the money? Whether it is a partnership for training or research, it must result into increasing the revenue of the company. Therefore, the gap between private companies and universities is widening because there is no or very limited effort for the two to have dialogue and understand each other’s need. Each of them is operating in their own comfort zone yet they could benefit extensively from the complementary expertise from each other. The question that lingers, is “who has the convening power to bring the two into a formal dialogue to listen to one another and agree on a common point without exerting power on the other?”
Is there a convergence point between the private sector and the academia?
Surprisingly yes, there is more that private companies and universities can do together than what they cannot do together. Private companies need real-time research data on consumer preferences, quantities, cost-benefit analyses of products, innovations on products and processes for efficient production of goods and services, which the universities can provide. Few private companies have research capacity and could therefore rely on universities. However, they need to understand when, at what form the private sector needs this information/products/knowledge. The rigour of university research will provide the private sector with the relevant and sound research upon which to make sound business decisions. Universities and the private sector can work together to develop technology and innovations that can be commercialised. However, the share for each of the parties should be clear. For example, the universities can develop the prototypes of technologies, which the private companies can commercialise while they pay royalties to the universities. Caution should be taken to engage the private sector right from the inception of the ideas to their operationalization. The universities and private companies can jointly train students. While the universities provide the theoretical understanding, the private sector companies provide practical training to the students through internships and mentorship.
The universities and private companies can effectively work together by providing a regular platform where the two can interact, identify ideas that they can implement together and learn from each other. Universities should be restructured to have a private sector arm to that links to private sector and understands how they operate. Champions with experience in working with the private sector will play a key role in leading the transformation of universities into flexible institutions which work seamlessly with the private sector, trained to integrate business thinking and research ideologies. Within the universities, a mentorship mechanism needs to be established to support transformation.