African universities' collaboration still strong after almost 20 years

24 Oct 2014 - 11:30

Fellows from across Africa gathered at UCT to reminisce about their experience with USHEPiA, a ground-breaking programme aimed at building institutional and human capacity at African universities.

Transformation Debate

Front row from left: Hangala Siachiwena, Norma Derby, Carol Ojwang, Prof Evance Kalula, Prof Thandabantu Nhlapo, Dr Mary Nakabugo and Dr Njeri Wachira. Back row from left: Benita Fisher, Dr Christine Noe, Prof Len Newton, Dr Juliet Muasya, Dr Norbert Musekiwa, Dr Richard Oduor, Prof Crispino Ochieng, Dr Jim Ayorekire, Dr John Ochora and Jody Felton.

A life-changing experience for both participants and supervisors.

That is what USHEPiA (Universities Science, Humanities, Law and Engineering Partnerships in Africa), an initiative aimed at building institutional and human capacity at African universities, has been since its inception in 1995.
USHEPiA fellows gathered recently at UCT for a reunion - an opportunity to share accounts of the impact the programme has had on their lives.

The initiative's goals are primarily institutional capacity building, promoting collaboration among established African researchers, and the generation and dissemination of knowledge among African universities. It offers PhD and master's fellowships to staff members from the programme's partner universities in Africa.

UCT's partners in the original initiative were the Universities of Botswana, Dar es Salaam, Nairobi, Zimbabwe and Zambia as well as Makerere University in Uganda and the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

"The benefit for these universities is the unbelievably high retention rate of fellows. No fewer than 98.4% of USHEPiA fellows are still at their universities," explained Professor Thandabantu Nhlapo, recently retired deputy vice-chancellor tasked with spearheading UCT's Afropolitan drive, at the reunion.

Nhlapo pointed to the goodwill extended to UCT by its African counterparts at the commencement of this initiative: "[It was] a warm, validating thing to happen to us in the context of South Africa being newly re-admitted to the African community of nations".

He affirmed his belief that the unique structure of the programme stands it in good stead. USHEPiA fellows are provided with joint supervision, which meant they have a supervisor in their home country and a UCT supervisor: "The twinning of the supervisors invariably led to further collaboration because, from supporting the fellow, the two supervisors formed a relationship," he said.

USHEPiA's funding model allowed for cross visits, where UCT supervisors visited and became familiar with the local conditions the fellows had to grapple with and their counterparts visited Cape Town. The fellows also chose a local topic for their research.

The cross visits led to what Nhlapo considered the most important benefit to UCT - the "life-changing experiences".

"The reason why the same academics agreed over and over again to supervise USHEPiA students was because they'd become 'born again', if you like, about Africa. [They became] the best ambassadors for the continent. That was huge for UCT. If anything, it made my work to push the Afropolitan ideal easier."

Student benefit

Prof John Ochora, a former USHEPiA fellow from the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology credits the programme for not only giving him the knowledge but also the funding for his research.

"As a result of the programme I received a Carnegie small grant, which helped me so much in terms of what I do. The grant helped me construct a greenhouse, where I am conserving orchids. We did well and published four papers out of that. I thank USHEPiA for that because the greenhouse still exists and the orchid conservation still goes on," he stated.

Dr Mary Goretti Nakabugo from Uganda who works for Uwezo/Twaweza, a literacy and numeracy programme operating in three East African countries, spoke of the competitive edge the programme gave her. "After going through rigorous training and exposure, my skill and intellect was refined so that I can compete anywhere in the world. When you are at UCT, you are exposed to the best."

Story by Abigail Calata. Photo by Je'nine May.