Inside technology struggles at Uganda’s universities
What you need to know:
Several universities in the country have come up with innovations meant to improve the lives of Ugandans. However, funding from the government has been low and many end up disappearing.
Government’s ‘empty commitment’ to fully funding innovation initiatives is a constant cause for concern in mainly public institutions of higher learning.
Dr Monica Musenero, the minister of Science, Technology and Innovation (MoSTI), said while they would love to support all students’ innovations across the country, the ministry remains constrained by limited funding.
During a recent interview, she said her ministry has only received 33 percent of its total Shs247 billion budget, “yet we are already in quarter three”.
“We are not sure whether we shall have any money in the coming financial year,” she said. “Just that we are utilising the little we have, we would have taken on a lot more projects by now if the money we budgeted for was released on time.”
The MoSTI was established in June 2016 and later moved to the Office of the President in June 2021, with a mandate of providing guidance and coordination for scientific research and development in national innovation.
It executes its mandate through four programmes including the science, technology and innovation (STI) regulation; research and innovation; science entrepreneurship, and general administration and planning.
Currently, the ministry is overseeing innovation development through its agencies including the Uganda National Council for Science and Technology (UNCST); Uganda Industrial Research Institute (UIRI); Kiira Motors Corporation; and the Presidential Initiative on Banana Industrial Development (PIBID).
It also supports a few initiatives in higher learning institutions.
“Each innovation needs at least three years in order for it to take off,” the minister said, adding, “Remember, the funds we give them is not a rollover. Any year we don’t have money, the innovation has to stop, and some things get wasted. So, we are hoping that they release the money during this remaining period and as well appropriate funds adequately in the coming budget.”
Dr Musenero said her ministry supports science-related innovations in all universities in the country.
“At STI we do not directly support students. Our funds pass through the university projects. We build human capital for science and that goes through the university. The projects we fund are in specific colleges. For example, if you are working on a vaccine, then you will get a student to work on a specific component,” Dr Musenero explained.
Several student innovators, institution administrators and experts told Daily Monitor that their innovations generally die off because of inadequate financing, a narrow mindset and scalability.
On April 14, Prof John Baptist Kirabira, team leader on the Mapronano Ace project at Makerere University told the parliamentary Committee on National Economy that their $6 million project is at a take-off stage but cannot progress on account of limited funding.
The project is among those receiving support from MoSTI.
The Africa Centre of Excellence in Materials, Product Development and Nanotechnology (Mapronano Ace) is a pioneer initiative in Africa situated in the College of Engineering at Makerere University. It is part of the Eastern and Southern Africa Higher Education Centres of Excellence project (Ace II) coordinated by the Inter-University Council for East Africa.
As a multi-disciplinary centre cutting across engineering and health sciences, the plan was for it to train Master’s and PhD students in nanotechnology; materials and product development and nano-medicine.
Low funding, despite some support from the World Bank, now stands in the way of a project which should strengthen research and training in materials science and engineering; nanotechnology and nanomedicine -- to develop human resources in applied science engineering in the Great Lakes region. Some of the projects are in seed development, diesel engines, tractors and next generation water pumps, all which are still prototypes.
“We could be now at commercialisation stage if we had enough funding,” Prof Kirabira said.
He explained that a majority of these projects are developed from students’ ideas.
“But unlike Masters and PhD students who have time, undergraduate students always bring prototypes which are assessed and developed to the next level. We only provide guidance and monetary support where necessary,” he said.
Mr Allan Duncan Byamukama, the IT systems and networks supervisor at Innovation Village, said: “You will find that to get adequate funding to carry on your innovation beyond research level requires not just ‘money’ but sustainable funding. For a scientific artefact, model, product or innovation to attain or to see its break-even point, it may take not less than five years of continuous improvement, which is costly.”
Innovation Village describes itself as a destination where start-up tech innovators are inspired and supported to develop and transform their ideas into fully established businesses.
Mr Byamukama added that some innovations die early because of other factors including; scalability and complexity of the innovation, educational dynamics and the hardness of scientific research.
He said students may come up with very good innovations, new knowledge, new discovery but fail to progress their idea because of technical limitations associated with Uganda’s third world environment.
“That is why one would rather invest all their effort in an innovation to at least earn world recognition in publications and get them awarded other than taking on a journey with little or no hope of achieving it here in Africa,” he said.
Is ICT the future?
While it is generally agreed that the future of the world lies in ICT development, in Uganda there doesn’t appear to be a deliberate effort by the government to invest in this sector.
Students who are engaged in ICT innovations, for example do not receive direct funding from the ministry of ICT.
Two former computer science students of Nkumba University could not hide their frustrations.
Mr Ismail Guma and Desire Mugisha in 2017, developed a social media platform dubbed Zaychat as a study project. Its success encouraged them to further develop it past the research level.
“When the President banned Facebook in 2020, we utilised the opportunity and launched Zaychat to the public. By January 2022, we had attracted 200,000 followers up from 500 in 2020. Our happiness was however short-lived,” Mr Guma said on April 2.
“We were forced to temporarily suspend it until we get some solutions. We need approximately Shs5 billion to purchase the proper Infrastructure which will host our servers,” he explained.
Mr Guma said he can’t count how many times they have visited both ICT House and STI Secretariat seeking for help but in vain.
Mr Paul Kabagambe, the ICT officer at the ministry of ICT, said although individual student innovators should be supported, the ministry is able to only support them through their universities’ innovation hubs. The ministry, he said, supports innovation hubs in public universities including Kabale, Muni, Soroti, Mbarara and Makerere.
“We put our support in one place so that everyone can access. Remember innovation is a process and we, therefore, support them by starting with establishing the infrastructure; at research level; commercialisation, up to the marketing stage when we link them up with investors,” Mr Kabagambe said.
“We are also funding private innovation hubs including Outbox, Hyve co-lab, RAN, Camtech, and Innovation Village,” he added.
There is additional direct support to youth innovators through the National ICT Initiatives Support Programme (NIISP), according to Kabagambe. Direct funding under NIISP has been extended to 112 innovations of which 57 percent are female owned, he revealed.
The NIISP was established following a presidential directive in 2017 to the then ICT minister Frank Tumwebaze to establish an ICT hub in Nakawa and other innovation parks countrywide, and to put aside Shs15b for youth innovators in ICT.
In April 2020, with Covid-19 hitting hard, two students of Islamic University in Uganda, Mr Horus Lucky Mwaka and Mr Mansoor Muhammad assisted by their lecturer Dr Umar Yahaya, developed an automated hands-free dispenser for washing hands.
A few weeks later, the two innovators received a $20,000 (Shs76 million) grant from the Islamic Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organisation (ISESCO) to enable them produce 100 dispenser sets from free distribution to schools, hospitals, markets and other overcrowded places.
The funds enabled them to improve the prototype and one complete improved set now required two tanks, a rechargeable battery, a solar panel, sink, dispenser box among other things. Up to 30 complete sets together with 130,000 litres of hand sanitisers were produced.
Government was among the first beneficiaries with five units worth Shs31 million being donated to the Office of the Prime Minister on May 22, 2020 by IUIU management as a contribution to the pandemic fight.
But currently, the innovation has stalled at the university’s Kibuli campus’ Motion Analysis Research Laboratory.
Dr Yahya, who now heads the laboratory, said they have eight more innovations dying in the lab despite being ready for next level development on account of no finances.
Dr Cathy Mbidde, director of Makerere University’s Innovation Hub on March 28, said: “We have a lot of students’ innovations currently going on but we cannot do much especially when it comes to funding students’ innovations”.
Annually, the university gets Shs30 billion from the government to majorly facilitate research but last year the University Council passed a resolution to divert Shs2.7 billion of this funding to commercialisation of these projects.
“None of the students’ projects have been considered in the 20 that will be supported in the first cohort. We also have a lot of innovations from our staff that we want to start with,” she said.
On April 4, Makerere University partnered with UK-based Plymouth-UK and Addis Ababa Science and Technology University to train 20 female students in future mentoring for female students in science and technology.
Dr Mbidde said while such partnerships help instil innovative knowledge in students, they but still do not directly support their innovations financially.
The director, however, revealed that working with the United Nations Development Programme, Makerere plans to set up 10 design labs to help student innovators in creative art, mechanical engineering, agritech, foodtech, electrical, virtual reality, woodwork, textile and embroidery, photography and videography, and gaming.
At IUIU, Dr Yahya said their enrolment into the Technology and Innovation Support Centre (TISC) network of the World Intellectual Property Organisation is helping them realise some of their goals.
“We have put measures in place to assist innovative students and staff to protect the intellectual property rights in their innovations. This will make it possible to commercialise the innovative solutions arising out of the university,” he said.
What should be done?
Mr Allan Duncan Byamukama, the IT systems and networks supervisor at Innovation Village, suggests that the government should get more serious in providing sustainable funding.
“There should be establishment of exchange programmes with top research centres around the world so that if a student came up with a new discovery, they should be put in touch with a renowned institution that specialises in that field,” said.
“Collaborations with innovation hubs would be great where top innovations are given a chance to further grow after university. This should be a government-led initiative,” he said.
He said that cash prizes and incentives should be attached to great innovations since research is an investment.
Dr Umar Yahaya, lecturer at IUIU, says there is in need for a more goodwill at the national level for tech innovations in schools and institutions so that they are further incubated.
“More effort and intervention from the government is required to ensure that the innovation ecosystem within the country is working towards significantly improved outputs from innovations,” he said.
Dr Monica Musenero, the minister of Science, Technology and Innovation said the innovation sub-sector has the capacity to absorb jobless youth.
“We compiled statistics of one economy and realised that the pathogen economy alone when we started in 2020 was employing less than 100 scientists in multiple institutions ..,” she said.
“I can guarantee you as long as we are funded in the next 10 years, Uganda will be an innovation hub for Africa .... All we need is proper funding and everything will move on smoothly,” she added.