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Bridging gap between academia and businesses will increase exports  

The just-ended Zimbabwe International Trade Fair revealed exciting products from across the country, which indicates a positive trend in the development of products and services.

As for the exciting products presented, there has been a massive shift in offerings from learning institutions, where the focus is no longer on exhibiting only the different degree programmes they offer.

This time around, learning institutions showcased different innovative products, some targeted at end user, while some presented as business solutions to local companies.

These innovative solutions follows the agenda spearheaded by President E.D Mnangagwa for learning institutions to be innovative and concentrate on coming up with products that respond to every day problems, rather than being theoretical.

Speaking a few days ago at the inaugural Presidential Innovations Fair and Awards, President Mnangagwa challenged learning institutions to take up the lead in developing innovative products and services that can contribute towards economic growth.

“Given the shift from concentrating on the teaching of theory to practicals and entrepreneurship, our various institutions of higher and tertiary education should be torch bearers of innovations aimed at producing quality goods and services.

“Nyika inovakwa nevene vayo/Ilizwe lakhiwangabanikazi balo,” said President Mnangagwa.  

The level of innovation shown by the value-added products on display from learnings institutions at ZITF shows they understood the assignment.

For example, Chinhoyi University of Technology (CUT) is venturing into the pharmaceutical industry, producing plant-based treatments for diseases such as bilharzia, ear drops, and mouth wash with anti-bacterial properties.

CUT has also developed anti-bacterial products to treat general infections and are further improving the formula to treat sexually transmitted diseases.

The Midlands State University has also value-added zumbani plant to develop herbal inhaler products, nasal sprays, bug repellants, essential oils, as well as hacha and mazhanje wine.

Harare Politechnical College has produced several innovative products, including activated carbon from marula nut shell for gold recovery.

The National University of Science and Technology, as well as Zimbabwe Open University have developed agriculture products linked to mobile application, that will help local farmers to monitor their crops and fields remotely.

On the other hand, the Bindura University of Science Education (BUSE) has value-added masau fruit to produce Vitamin C syrup, wines, and essential oils.

BUSE has also developed herbal soaps and tooth paste from locally sourced plants.

The University of Zimbabwe has developed healthier snacks such as pasta, instant porridge, and cheese flavored puffs from traditional small grains.

All these products, once commercialized will help grow the economy through exports and import substitution.

To ensure these products will grow beyond Zimbabwean borders once commercialized, ZimTrade – the national trade development and promotion organization – is working with higher and tertiary institutions to link them with leading experts and buyers in international markets.

Further to coming up with good products that can be exported, learning institutions who exhibited at ZITF also presented practical links with businesses that must be cultured towards growing the country’s exports.

The link

Today’s captains of industries or experts were once students, and it will be a waste if their success stories and knowledge are not imparted to young generations.

Through close interactions with education systems, most of the successful businesspeople who have made a mark on the export market, have created strong brands that resonate well with Zimbabwean quality.

Some learning institutions were able to demonstrate how they are taping into the knowledge of successful business persons and experts to produce students that are not only theoretical but largely practical.

Such practical skills can help local businesses to grow beyond borders, through – for example – producing products that respond to global trends.

Local businesses must therefore leverage on resources and expertise that local learning institutions are endowed with, such as innovative young minds with practical research skills.

Need to create strong links

As local businesses are looking to grow beyond boarders, there is urgent need to create stronger linkages between exporting businesses and learning institutions.

Through acquired knowledge, learning institutions play a crucial role in improving businesses, provide research and innovative ideas that will make local companies competitive on the export market.

This increased interaction between learning institutions and industry will help inculcate an export culture and contribute to nation’s export growth.  

Undoubtedly, a stronger union between learning institutions and private sector is critical in strengthening local businesses with viable export strategies, including developing products and services that respond to global changing tastes.

Learning institutions, as pinnacles of knowledge have potential to assist businesses with research that inspires economic growth and increased exports.

Such research will ensure that local businesses come up with competitive strategies that will make it easy for them to penetrate the global export market.

At the same time, business people will have an opportunity to mentor graduates so that when they establish their own businesses that are export oriented.

So, what are the key offerings of learning institutions to businesses?

Educational institutions are the foundation upon which industry is built and it is here where the fundamentals of industry are taught and theoretically instilled in the would-be captains of industry.

One of the key and strategic offering of academia is research.

Most companies, especially in third world countries do not have dedicated research and development departments that can contribute to strategic direction of the company.

With ever competing demands, many SME companies have shelved the research department citing budget and time constraints.

However, research remains important in studying markets, understanding their behaviors and exploring ways to counter, aggressive competition.

Therefore, there is room for learning institutions to offer support to exporting companies to conduct researches on their behalf.

Such researches can be incorporated as part of student research projects and local companies can fund such researches, especially those that cover their specific areas. 

Some startup companies and SMEs do not see the benefits of having a research and development department.

However, it can save the company a lot of money through ensuring that the products and services are made to specific requirements of the market and can be streamlined with the dynamic tastes of that market.

Heeding austerity measures, companies can also harness the various researches done by universities at a nominal cost.

Most SME’s do not incorporate research departments in companies, resulting in them being unable to develop samples or prototypes for trial in the market.

It therefore makes sense for companies to engage academia, given their vast expertise in research and development, to test their theories and prototypes prior to launch of their products or services.

For example, a company can organise product trials targeted at youths and can use one of the local universities to test the success of their products.

At the same time, local companies can also make use of students to conduct the tests as part of their studies.

This symbiotic relationship is a win-win because it enables students to fulfill their research requirements for their various programmes to enable them to graduate, while at the same time offer support to private sector.

In addition, as more learning institutions in Zimbabwe are creating innovation hubs, the unchartered, creative, limitless and innovative minds of the students in academia present a ripe minefield for exploration by corporates.

Due to their inexperience of countless failures, students know no boundaries when it comes to crafting fresh ideas and have capacity to influence turn-around strategies of some exporting companies.

Such innovation, which can cost less if locally sourced, can be adopted by exporting farmers who are looking at improving their competitiveness on the export market.

This will also provide solutions and remedies to correct the trade imbalances the country is facing.

Further to researches, learning institutions can offer training and development to local businesses, particularly emerging businesses.

Arguably, one of the challenges affecting small and medium businesses is lack of soft skills, such as human capital management, time management, business etiquette and work ethic.

Thus, learning institutions, as part of their service to the business community can offer affordable short courses that small businesses can benefit. 

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