Entrepreneurship is the missing ingredient in our curriculum

By Prof. Keolebogile Shirley Motaung

It is no secret that university education is becoming progressively diverse, with a greater emphasis on the whole experience, not only the academic side of things. Students are starting to take on extracurricular activities and additional classes in order to learn more about how to succeed in business.  Multidisciplinary work and a culture of collaboration is becoming the norm, with the average student being more exposed to entrepreneurial activities and innovative thinking.


As a professor, research scientist and entrepreneur, I aim to help my postgraduate students to conduct research that will make them world-class scientists. But I also teach them about becoming entrepreneurs, creating jobs for themselves or even becoming employers at a time when jobs are scarce and unemployment high.


Entrepreneurship is practical – it is not just about understanding business concepts in a theoretical way. It's about taking risks and thinking on the spot about how these concepts can be applied practically.  Scientists should not be judged only on the number of peer-reviewed journal articles one has published, but on how their research can be applied to develop and commercialise products and services. In my experience, the key ingredients of entrepreneurship can be summarised as purpose, passion and perseverance. And you need a dream!


You need a strong, clear purpose driving you to succeed in business.  An entrepreneur in the science, technology and engineering innovation fields must have the passion to create value from their research findings, and make sure that they contribute to making people’s lives better.  I had to overcome many challenges to succeed at this, and I found that it was important to persist in my efforts, and not be afraid to use my academic experience in the commercial space.  


Lastly, I had a dream.  It was my dream and it was therefore my responsibility to make sure that it came true, which meant understanding my weaknesses and building on my strengths.


When I look at our current educational curriculum, from primary school to tertiary level, I notice that a critical element is missing.  Do we get our learners and students interested in entrepreneurship?  Do we inspire them to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics?  Do we push them to think outside the box?  Do we encourage them to work towards creation of jobs?  At university level, do we encourage students to use their research and realise its commercial potential, or do we just want them to get a degree?  And then what?


Entrepreneurship is the missing ingredient. Academic excellence is important, but the future of economies will be determined by innovation in science, technology and engineering. Being top of your class does not necessarily guarantee that you will be successful in life. You can excel in finance as a subject, but that doesn’t mean you have the ability to generate money. So, we need to add entrepreneurship 101 to the curriculum, from primary to tertiary level. Countries like Finland have already done so. Obviously, schools, universities and universities of technology in South Africa cannot adopt the Finnish model as it stands.  We need to develop our own model, based on our own resources and needs.


Here are some of my suggestions for curriculum reform. Academics need to be encouraged to see a connection between enterprise and employability. When recruiting academic staff, experience with entrepreneurship education should be considered.  Best practice seminars to showcase effective entrepreneurial teaching should be held.  Lecturers should be encouraged to visit small and medium businesses in the local community.  Social scientists should work closely with academics in the natural sciences to create spin-off companies from universities.


National authorities like the National Research Foundation, the Human Sciences Research Council, the Medical Research Council and the Department of Higher Education and Training should ensure that funding for entrepreneurship education is made available only if training meets strict criteria for quality.


As an assistant dean of research and an entrepreneur, I try to lead by example. I have a spin-off company, Global Health Biotech (Pty) Ltd, based on my research at the Tshwane University of Technology. I used my expertise in plant-based morphogenetic factors in tissue engineering of bone and articular cartilage to manufacture a natural anti-inflammatory ointment called La Africa Soother from medicinal plants.  The product offers athletes and sports and fitness enthusiasts a long-lasting natural alternative to relieve muscle and joint pain, treating pain at the source and speeding recovery. It can also be used before exercise to prevent injury.


My experience makes me certain that the growth of South Africa's economy and our ability as a country to compete in the global market depends on a deliberate effort to enable entrepreneurship and grow its appeal. I challenge policy makers and implementers to address the deficiency in entrepreneurship in the country in a more structured manner.


Prof. Motaung is the Assistant Dean of Postgraduate Studies, Research, Innovation and Engagement in the Faculty of Science at the Tshwane University of Technology, and Founder and CEO of Global Health Biotech (Pty) Ltd.


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