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Innovation Scholars Program Excursion

Field study inspires Malawian faculty, administrators
Spring 2017

While visiting the seed processing unit at the University of Nairobi, Abel Sefasi witnessed the symbiotic relationship between a Kenyan university, a government agency, and regional farmers. A horticulture professor at Malawi’s Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (LUANAR), Sefasi was struck by the amicable relationship between the university and the national seed certification agency, and by the revenue generated from selling seed.

Currently in discussion with officials from Malawi’s national seed certification agency, Sefasi’s efforts were reaffirmed. “We have something to gain by working with the private sector, the seed company,” he said. “They have done it here in Kenya.”

A participant in the Innovation Scholars Program touring Nairobi on a three-day Field Study for Innovation in African Food Systems, Sefasi experienced an “a-ha” moment that program leaders had hoped to trigger.

Buzzing around the capitol city in a coffee-colored bus, the group of Innovation Scholars visited a variety of student innovation hubs, start-up launch pads, and research-for-development institutions. Led by Michigan State University’s Global Center for Food Systems Innovation, one of eight global development labs in USAID’s Higher Education Solutions Network, the Innovation Scholars Program took LUANAR faculty and administrators to University of Nairobi, Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, Catholic University of Eastern Africa, United States International University, International Potato Center, International Livestock Research Institute, and local tech incubators Nailab and iHub.

Part of the year-long capacity building program, the field study allowed Scholars to see innovation systems in action, gain understanding of how the centers functioned, and brainstorm how they might incorporate novel ideas into the context of LUANAR and the broader Malawian food system.

The need for a hands-on capacity building program at LUANAR surfaced after GCFSI helped launch the campus Innovation Hub. While the Hub provided space for collaboration, sheer academic skill was not enough to shift the needle towards innovative thinking in the classroom or at the institutional level. LUANAR needed to harness local knowledge, build partnerships, and explore new avenues to food security challenges. Guided by the idea that innovation is a process that can be learned, the first cohort of faculty and staff joined the co-created Innovation Scholars Program in June 2016.

Running through August 2017, MSU experts in higher education and adult learning are leading program participants through the use of design thinking and systems thinking. Via periodic workshops, engagement with the private sector, and actively researching solutions targeted to an aspect of the local food system, Scholars discover how collaboration and innovation can help solve the region’s development challenges.

Traversing through the non-linear steps of empathy, problem definition, idea generation, prototyping and testing, administrators practice design thinking as they reflect upon and rethink university organization, procedures, and assessments. And, by working on real-world projects, faculty develop an understanding of how design thinking supports academics, in and out of the classroom.

To give students practical experience and revolutionize their learning, professor Sera Gondwe implemented an internship program that got her future graduates thinking about agribusiness management from the perspective of the farmer. “The design thinking skills are coming in. We are now trying to use an approach where we are [involving] the various stakeholders. We are now taking the students, getting them to work with one of the stakeholders, which are the farmers, so they can get to understand what it is that are the problems, other than just reading about them—but actually to experience it.”

Scholars at JKUAT banana tissue culture lab.jpgScholars visit a banana tissue cultivation lab at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.