It would probably be safe to say the previous phases of the development plan were aimed at laying the groundwork and putting structures in place. With NDP4, we have entered the implementation stage along this noble national trajectory.
This certainly has implications for those of us in academia. Not least because we are tasked with helping to shape the edifice of industrialisation through the graduates we produce. A critical mass of knowledge workers is crucial to seeding the take-off of industrialisation in any country. Appropriate illustrations of this point are the east Asian Tigers, particularly Singapore, South Korea and Malaysia. These countries have large pools of knowledge workers in the technical fields of science, engineering and technology. Their reaching the tiger status is therefore neither mystery nor surprising.
The past 20 years has seen the training of a large number of young Namibians in various fields critical to national development. This trend will hopefully continue for some time to come. Tens of science graduates have been produced by the national university as it continues to have its hand on the national development pulse. However, upon closer inspection, the emphasis is slanted towards resource management and not value-addition. And so many graduates in science are botanists, zoologists, conservationists, general chemists, physicists and other general scientists. They are making a valuable contribution in their respective areas.
Nevertheless, I would argue that NDP4, being the implementation phase, requires a slightly different set of skills as Namibia moves from resource management to value-addition. For example, the new graduate should observe bacteria growing in hot springs such as Gross Barmen or Ai-Ais and realise that such bacteria probably possess valuable thermo-tolerant enzymes. He/she is expected to know how to extract the enzymes and protect his intellectual property. He/she is expected to know how to evaluate the economic viability of these enzymes and to follow the necessary steps towards full commercialisation.
Therefore, national institutions, particularly Unam (University of Namibia), should produce biotechnologists who would observe a marine sponge and realise that this organism is likely to be a potential source of valuable active metabolites such as anticancer drugs or novel antibiotics since sessile animals use chemical defence mechanisms. The next Unam graduates should be plant tissue culture specialists instead of botanists. Equally, chemical metabolites from many local plants are potential sources of fragrances, flavourants or dyes. A chemistry graduate trained with value-addition as the focus will have that tacit knowledge embedded in his intellectual DNA to pounce on a commercial opportunity.
To this end, there has to be a paradigm shift in how students are trained. The science student will have to be given a good dose of business courses relevant to commercialisation of discoveries as part of the degree courses. Students trained this way are likely to have commercial awareness and therefore the ability to recognise a niche opportunity.
A comparison between science curricula of African and Asian universities reveals that Africa still trains generalists: typically botanists, zoologists, biochemists and the like. However, the much-clichéd knowledge economy drinks from the pond of tacit knowledge embedded in workers. Equally, a curriculum that is focused on value-addition is more likely to fuel industrialisation than one that is not.
The challenge is for Namibia’s tertiary institutions to respond to this battle cry to train the cogs in the wheels of industrialisation.
* Dr Vetja Haakuria holds a PhD in Biopharmaceutical Production and Vaccine Bioprocess Development from the University College London (UK). He currently lectures in the Biological Sciences Department at the University of Namibia.