How Higher Education Can Foster Creative Potential and Sustainable Development in Africa

By Raymond Erick Zvavanyange

Twitter: @zvavanyanger3

Speed read

  • Higher education is the key to unlock the creative potential of African people and economies for sustainable development.
  • African governments can help unleash the power of universities through fostering creativity and partnerships building with other global institutions of higher learning.
  • African universities should strive to produce a new breed of graduates who can drive science, technology and innovation.

Higher education is redefining the creative potential and sustainable development in Africa.  When one looks at the statistics of men and women enrolled in universities, and those moving to startups, some observations and conclusions can be made.  First, knowledge is a critical driver of sustainable development.  Higher education is the conduit to knowledge creation.  Higher education is sustainable development redefined.  It is contributing to the much-needed human capital in Africa, who happen to constitute the bedrock of institutions.

According to a recent article on life, work and play posted on the World Economic Forum, these three aspects we hold dear in life have become integrated in a knowledge-based economy.  What this means is that, people should be on both sides of the learning platform: as a teacher and as a student.

Higher education will allow “knowers” and “learners” to thrive as co-creators on the learning platform.  As co-creators in the production of knowledge, African universities can also experiment with approaches and lens to study the world.  For example, co-creators who take science, technology, engineering and mathhave different approaches when compared to their counterparts who take the arts and humanities.  Ironically, these subjects prepare the students to lead in a multitude of role in society.

A recent United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation[i] (2014) study observes that “Zimbabwe lacks the critical mass of researchers to trigger progress in research and innovation”.  According to the University of Zimbabwe Research Board’s draft Strategic Research Agenda[ii] (2014 – 2024) crafted in response to the nation’s drive at sustainable socio-economic transformation, the research agenda “is a direct response to increasing calls for a ‘business unusual’ approach to addressing national social, economic and ecological problems that undermine current and future potential for sustainable development”.

The University’s Research Board identified a total of fourteen (14) priority research areas: cultural-and heritage-based socio-economic transformation; emerging advances in science and technology innovations for sustainable development; food and nutrition security; natural resources development, extraction and beneficiation; climate change adaptation and mitigation for a resilient economy; law, justice delivery and the African question; business and market innovations development and adaptation for stability of fragile economies; agro-ecology, agricultural commercialization and sustainable natural resources management; strengthening veterinary services at the livestock. Wildlife and human interfaces; social services delivery, economic empowerment and sustainable livelihood systems; securing human health; education for a socio-economic transformation and sustainable development; research communication, capacity building and intellectual property; and ecological designs and environmental management.The institution through its strategic research agenda will in the short -, medium- , and long-term contribute to the critical mass of people who lead in social, economic and political development.  Furthermore, the institution is re-positioning itself at the frontiers of knowledge and the science of discovery.  Creative potential will enhance the capacity of the institution to provide tangible results through research and innovation.

Creativity and its discontents in Africa

Creativity spurs sustainable development in Africa.  Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) is a vehicle to illuminate the connections among creativity, products and services African universities can deliver.  STI will also position African universities as business incubators, technology hubs, accelerators and hacker spaces.  In order to achieve all this, African universities should seek for guidance from available continental and international frameworks, such as those made endorsed by leaders and experts: Agenda 2063; newly adopted Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs); and the Science, Technology and Innovation Strategy for Africa – 2024; and the Science Agenda for African Agriculture.  Even though agriculture features prominently in some of the continental frameworks, it is one of the means to achieve the sustainable development targets.

The African Union through its network of African Institutes of Science and Technology (AISTs) has lend its support for a plan to set up a Pan African Mining University of Science and Technology (PAMUST) in Zimbabwe.  AISTs were established by African Heads of States and Government.  PAMUST will provide instruction and learning in beneficiation and value addition of minerals in tandem with Africa’s mining vision.  Coupled with the World Bank’s Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology (PASET) and other skills building programmes, Africa can build its human resource base.  PASET, launched in 2013 recognizes the need to strengthen science, and technology capability for the socio-economic development of sub-Saharan Africa.  The Partnership “champions a regional approach which complements individual country efforts, bridging the gap between public and private sectors, and strong leadership by Africans for Africa”.  These intelligent pursuits are an indicator of our creative potential and its limits.

Reinventing African universities and economies

Strategic and forward-looking leadership is a must for African universities.  According to Araya and Legas[iii], “[Professor Calestous] Juma is proactive towards the African institutions of higher learning and needs to transform the landscape from a ‘first generation’ to a ‘new generation’ of universities that will be characterized by the use of new knowledge in research and development by working closely with the private sector and other public research institutes”.

Professor Calestous Juma suggests broad yet specific recommendations on the radical transformation of the system of higher education in Africa.  The scholar’s brilliant recommendations include: the idea that universities should not operate like de facto political parties; building technical competencies and technological innovation to propel Africa’s economic growthfostering agricultural innovation through the creation of agricultural universities under the relevant line ministries; and to asserting that Africa can unleash the power of universities.

The President of Mauritius, Professor AmeenahGurib-Fakim also had similar observations on education, science and technology, but this time focusing on the commitment of African governments to research and development.  The Mauritian president opines that “science could offer solutions – if we invest in it”.  The former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan weighed in on the importance of universities that serve the continent’s needs.  He argued:

“The university must become a primary tool for Africa’s development in the new century.  Universities can help develop African expertise; they can enhance the analysis of African problems; strengthen domestic institutions; serve as a model environment for the practice of good governance, conflict resolution and respect for human rights, and enable African academics to play an active part in the global community of scholars”[iv].

These expert opinions suggest that African universities can overcome the obstacles to innovation in higher education.  African universities can leapfrog and thus harness available technical and scientific technologies as a ‘late comer’ to global development.

Way forward in African Higher Education

The philosopher, Plato called the process of higher education a process of dialectic – whereby the soul turns away from sense-perceptions and climbs upwards to the knowledge of ideas and forms.  To challenge the systems of thought is to challenge the entire notion of the organization of ideas and institutions built to support those ideas.  When African universities foster the climb upwards to the knowledge and ideas and forms, critically engaged students who champion their nation’s sustainable development emerge.  The Women’s University in Africa is making advances to “address gender disparities and foster higher education in Zimbabwe”.  For example, enrolled male and female students take a wide range of courses, all of which have a gender dimension.  Women’s University in Africa is helping to shape new systems of thought in society.  The institution is contributing to SDG Goal 4 (Gender Equality) and SDG Goal 5 (Quality Education).

The National University of Rwanda’s hosting of the 2nd AfricaLics International Conference 2015 attests to the role African universities play in stimulating debate on sustainable development.  The Association of African Universities (AAU) and Ashesi University decision to lead the 2015’s celebration of the African University Dayunder the theme “Internationalization of Higher Education” is also timely. For example, in preparation of the day the AAU Secretariat recruited 118 online social media reporters to drive the campaign around the celebrations of African universities.  Together with other global efforts such as the African Higher Education Summitbuild like-minded institutions and an African higher education movement as part of the continent’s integration drive.  African universities have a reason to celebrate the ideas and forms in higher education.  They have a reason to get their research and development priorities right.  It is so that African universities can successfully partner with other global institutions of higher learning in delivering quality education to its citizens.

End Notes

[i] UNESCO. (2014). Mapping Research and Innovation in the Republic of Zimbabwe

[ii] University of Zimbabwe Research Board. (2014) Strategic Research Agenda (2014 – 2024) [draft], August 2014. Harare.

[iii]Mesele Araya and HabtamuLegas. (2014). Higher Education and Innovation in Africa,, @ADAPT_bulletin, 20

[iv]United Nations Information Service (2000): “Information Technology Should be Used to Tap Knowledge from Greatest Universities to Bring Learning to All, Kofi Annan Says.” Press Release No: UNIS/SG/2625. August 3, 2000. Internet. is a news platform with in-depth coverage of under-reported issues in rural communities in Nigeria and across Africa. We report on Agriculture, Health, Women and generally on Rural Development. To pitch a story idea or submit a report, please email:

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