University of Cape Town: Public–private collaboration crucial to Africa’s development

It may have brought with it a deluge of unprecedented challenges, but the COVID-19 pandemic has also highlighted just how important partnerships and collaborations are in the fight for human lives and thriving economies. The University of Cape Town’s (UCT) annual Research Function, held virtually in November 2021, provided a platform for crucial conversation around strategic partnerships.

In her welcoming address UCT’s Executive Director of Research Dr Linda Mtwisha acknowledged that with lockdown restrictions hindering travel and in-person interactions, one of the biggest challenges facing researchers has been finding ways to develop existing working relationships and foster new ones, especially across vast distances.

Yet, as Dr Mtwisha pointed out, never have collaborations been more important “for sharing of resources, [and] leveraging the unique strengths partners bring to increase the impact of their respective endeavours” during a time of communal crisis.

Strengthening strategic partnerships

Picking up on this theme, the event was kickstarted with a robust and lively conversation about fostering a culture of collaboration in South Africa. Hosted by Vice Chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng, it saw Dr Phil Mjwara, the director general of the national Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and Stavros Nicolaou, the strategic trade executive at Aspen Pharmacare, sharing their insights about ways in which public–private partnerships (PPPs) could be harnessed to bolster South Africa’s economy and retain talent in the country.

“If I were to wave a magic wand and say what the three areas are that we should be focusing on in terms of restoring and revitalising the economy, restoring livelihoods and basically getting back to normality, it would be the following: entrepreneurship, innovation and localisation,” said Nicolaou.

Encouraging entrepreneurship

Nicolaou highlighted the fact that the corporate sector is currently not in a position to create the type of employment opportunities that can help solve poverty and inequality in South Africa, which is why greater emphasis must be placed on preparing young people for entrepreneurship at tertiary institutions.

“We’ve largely and regrettably inculcated in our young people a culture of dependency,” Nicolaou said. “Tertiary institutions and universities are where we can start changing that.

“We need more out-of-the-box thinking: young people who are going to solve problems through innovation.”

“We need more out-of-the-box thinking: young people who are going to solve problems through innovation.”

As an example of this, he mentioned Aspen’s partnership with the University of the Witwatersrand’s (Wits) Faculty of Pharmacy, where third-year students have to do a group project geared towards innovation and problem-solving, which can be as simple as solving the problem of getting vaccines to people in rural areas.

Three finalists are chosen to present their idea to the Aspen holding board, giving them the opportunity to gain invaluable real-life entrepreneurship experience.

Harnessing university expertise

Mjwara emphasised the important role universities and other tertiary institutions play in paving the way for the establishment of more successful South African PPPs.

He noted that one of the hurdles to creating these kinds of partnerships is offering the private sector the type of solutions that they would be ready to absorb into their existing business models. Using the example of vaccine development, Mjwara said that establishing demonstration plants that produce active ingredients is crucial to building confidence and trust with private sector partners.

“We’ve been trying to think of consortia where universities will bring different expertise and the science councils will bring their upscaled expertise to assist in getting intellectual property to technology-readiness level,” he said.

“Potential private sector partners will then be able to see how the demonstration plant can be upscaled into a fully-fledged plant and make a more informed decision about investment.”

He added that several PPPs have already been established for the development of mRNA vaccines in South Africa.

Leveraging local talent

Picking up on the vaccine development theme, Nicolaou highlighted the fact that Aspen has signed a deal with Johnson & Johnson (J&J) to fill and finish 300 million COVID-19 vaccine doses at their plant in Gqeberha.

“We’re the only ones in the southern hemisphere and Africa doing this,” he said.

While this is certainly a feather in South Africa’s cap, Nicolaou suggested that, due to policy alignment and coherence issues around localisation, we are missing the opportunity for backward integration.

“We should be putting up a supply plant in the country for all the equipment, the labelling, the printing, the packaging, the robotics.”

“Imagine up- and downstream you have two or three young entrepreneurs that are going to print the labels, the cartons and the package inserts. Those entrepreneurs are going to employ people, they’re going to pay taxes and boost the economy,” he explained.

Nicolaou also mentioned that, if you take a vial of J&J vaccine, the biggest expense is the rubber cap sealing the top, which – along with the glass vials – are currently being imported.

“We should be putting up a supply plant in the country for all the equipment, the labelling, the printing, the packaging, the robotics.”

Time is of the essence

As the conversation drew to a close, Professor Phakeng raised her concern that while precious resources are going into discussions around policy alignment, we are steadily losing talented entrepreneurs and professionals.

“Time is running out,” she said. “Our top people get poached by corporates from elsewhere in the world.

“We’re giving our talent away.”

Phakeng concluded by asking a few tough rhetorical questions: “How do we keep talent here? How do we make sure that it’s well supported?

“It’s very clear that we can only strengthen the social and economic development of the continent through collaboration,” she said.

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