University of The Free State: Partnership and Research the Keys to Africa’s Future

The economic indicators show that the South African economic climate will remain challenging for the foreseeable future
BLOEMFONTEIN, South Africa, March 9, 2020/ — University of The Free State ( Vice Chancellor Profesor Francis Petersen has called for stronger ties between the higher education sector and industry in order to create South African entrepreneurial success stories during the fourth industrial revolution.

In an interview with (, Prof. Petersen highlighted the need for South Africa to adapt to new technologies, improve its entrepreneurial success rate, and to foster innovation in the agribusiness sector.

The fourth industrial revolution can be defined as the impact of advances in computing, workplace automation, artificial intelligence, robotics, genetic engineering and other emerging technologies. The impact on emerging markets will be significant, and Prof. Petersen sees the role of universities as preparing economies for the future while assisting and safeguarding the current workforce; “It is not merely about the new jobs that will be created, but also about considering those who are currently working” Petersen says.

“There is a need to look at the effect the fourth industrial revolution will have on them as well. Whenever I am faced with the question of what we are doing to ensure readiness, I highlight two key things that we are currently focused on. One is the future world of work, and the second is the digital environment.

“Most of our research projects are driven by these two areas. Agriculture is also a key topic that is related to these two areas, whereby we centre our research on how the current digital environment can help improve our agriculture. This research can be used to inform the future world of work.”

Relationship between research and commerce

In order to inform the future world of work effectively, Prof Petersen and the University of The Free State (UFS) see strengthening the relationship between higher education and industry as vital.

“The relationship between industry, private sector, and commerce is emphasised in whatever we do. We work to ensure that the research does not end up gathering dust on library shelves, but is used to better society. As a higher education institution, we are prepared to sit at the table with other stakeholders such as the private sector and the public sector.

“All this is embedded in our vision which is translated into a strategic plan, as well as our integrated transformation plan. In a nutshell, we want to be seen as an institution that is a thought leader producing quality graduates and paying its dues to the cause of social justice.

“We want to make sure that the next generation of graduates that leave our institution are not self-centred, and feel the need to uplift others.

“We have created what is known as the industrialisation group within our institution. The group is designed to focus on three areas – the first is an industry focus on our academic programmes which entails our students and some staff members meeting with industry officials regularly. This fosters an ecosystem where the relationship between academia and industry becomes easy. The establishment of fifty-five advisory boards across various schools in the university helps us cement our relationship with industry.”

Building Synergies The Key to Africa’s Future

The economic indicators show that the South African economic climate will remain challenging for the foreseeable future. The numbers are particularly damning in relation to entrepreneurship, with a small business failure rate of over 80% within the first three years.

UFS prepares all students for the realities of running a small business, as Prof. Petersen explains “Our approach to tackling this is systematic. We feel that there is a need to understand what entrepreneurship and innovation is. All our first-year students are, therefore, exposed to a module on entrepreneurship to sensitise them. We then have programmes that absorb students that remain interested in entrepreneurship after their first year. These programmes see people in the industry, who have set up start-ups, mentor our students. We also have a financial student incubator where students are exposed to modules on financial planning and business. The incubator provides a platform for entrepreneurs that had some failed ventures, to speak to our students on where they went wrong in their businesses.

“The support we lend to start-ups is therefore mostly related to business knowledge, with our focus mainly on sharing information on the requirements and what it takes personally to start and run a business. One of the biggest challenges facing start-ups, especially those that deal with government, is cash flow problems. Government projects face payment delays that affect their ability to execute new projects. If the payment delays persist, cash flow is affected which ultimately compromises the business. We therefore, have a role to play in creating awareness of the need for capital inflow sustenance.”

For South Africa and the African continent to fulfill its potential, however, Prof. Petersen repeats his call for a collaborative approach and for the further efforts to drive collaboration between stakeholders; “The message I would like to send out to all stakeholders is that Africa has a bright future. This future will only be realised if stakeholders come together in a bid to build synergy”.

“The keys to our development are partnerships, collaboration, and framing our key foci for our continent. We may not get a full consensus on what we should focus on, but we can all find common ground.”

Partnership and Research Opportunities at UFS

As the University continues to prepare South Africa for the challenges of the future, there are opportunities for both the private and public sector to form partnerships around the following critical areas of development.


Agriculture dominates the landscape of the UFS’s home province, with the majority of its residents living in rural and farming areas. The Free State is often called the ‘breadbasket’ of South Africa, as more than 70% of the country’s grain is produced here.

Over the past six decades, the UFS has made a crucial contribution towards establishing and maintaining this status and continues to explore and develop innovative farming techniques to work towards food security and the sustainable use of natural resources.

With its Agribusiness Transformation Programme, the university has joined forces with the public and private sector, leveraging existing expertise, skills, and infrastructure to develop black commercial farmers and sustainable black-owned agribusinesses in the province. Not only are these farmers given practical exposure to the very latest developments in farming methods and technology transfer – they are also instructed in entrepreneurial skills. 

The Faculty of Natural and Agricultural Sciences is widely acclaimed for its ongoing efforts towards improved food security in Africa through the genetic improvement of staple crops. In its Department of Plant Sciences, seeds are developed with an inherent resistance to disease, as well as genetically ‘built-in’ higher levels of iron, zinc, provitamin A, and essential amino acids.

This is all done through conventional techniques with no genetic engineering, leading to better nutritional value and the alleviation of mineral, vitamin, and protein deficiencies.

Indigenous knowledge and health products

The UFS subscribes to the conviction that indigenous knowledge systems represent an important component of global knowledge when it comes to development issues. The Department of Pharmacology focuses specifically on integrating indigenous knowledge systems with the pharmacology of medicinal plants.

The UFS is the first and only university in South Africa to be issued and granted a research permit for cannabis and is seen as the leader in pharmacological research and product development of cannabis in Southern Africa. Research work on the use of cannabis in treating drug-resistant cancers has been widely recognised and awarded.

Researchers in Plant Sciences on the UFS Qwaqwa Campus in the Eastern Free State also contribute to the expansion of indigenous knowledge systems with their work on the antibiotic, antioxidant, and antidiabetic working of local indigenous plant species.

Fostering Entrepreneurship

South Africa’s economy strains under an unemployment rate of around 30%. The UFS wholeheartedly supports the notion that entrepreneurship has a vital role to play in combating unemployment and preparing young job seekers for the ever-evolving world of work. Equipping students with an entrepreneurial mindset is therefore a high priority, with ‘entrepreneurial thinking’ one of the university’s key graduate attributes.

Towards this end, the UFS has a unique approach in using its compulsory module, UFS 101, to expose all its students to aspects of entrepreneurship. Students from all faculties and study fields learn about the nuts and bolts of starting a business in their respective industries, marketing their skills through online platforms, and showcasing their work by creating their own websites. 

The UFS Business School has developed diverse initiatives and training programmes specifically aimed at entrepreneurial enterprises. The Centre for Business Dynamics reaches out to the business sector, helping companies to stay competitive by bridging the gap between existing skills and those required by each industry. Short courses in entrepreneurship are among the tools they use to do this.

The UFS Student Business Incubator provides practical impetus to students with business ideas, while initiatives such as Young Entrepreneurs and a UFS chapter of Google’s Startup Grind U further stimulates entrepreneurial thinking.

Climate Change Research

In the light of growing global concern about climate change, the Department of Soil, Crop, and Climate Sciences plays an increasingly critical role in the African research endeavour in this field – through teaching and learning, academic research, and the provision of community services in the soil-plant-atmosphere continuum.

The focus is on investigating the effect of weather and climate on crops, trees, grasslands, and livestock production systems. With climate change increasingly becoming the key driver shaping agricultural systems – air, water, and heat transfers as related to biomass development – are studied in agricultural environments, including the socio-economic consequences for farmers and other decision-makers. Agrometeorological services, such as early warnings, irrigation scheduling, microclimate manipulation, and weather forecasts, are developed to cope with a changing and increasingly variable climate.

Technology-driven healthcare training

The very latest technology in clinical simulation and virtual reality is used by the Faculty of Health Sciences to train specialists in various fields. Students can be exposed to a whole range of simulated medical emergencies, with the huge advantage of improving patient safety and reducing complications and mortality rates. This technology enables training surgeons to practise complicated medical procedures as often as needed and offers far greater precision in assessing students’ practical work.

The Cardiac Simulation laboratory situated in the Faculty of Health Sciences on the Bloemfontein Campus, is the only one of its kind in Africa. It forms part of the university’s distinguished cardiothoracic programme, which is designed to become a training hub for the whole of Southern Africa, combining distance learning with an on-site high-fidelity simulation and assessment centre.

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