Big Ideas Abroad: Supporting Student Innovation at Makerere University

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By Sarah Bernardo

Makerere University is Uganda’s largest and one of its oldest post-secondary schools. It was established in Kampala in 1922 as a technical school teaching trades like carpentry and mechanics. The university has expanded over the years to become an institution of higher education, and it began offering post-school certificate courses in 1937. Today, Makerere University is a leading institution in innovation with increasing numbers of students participating in research and innovation through many programs, including Big Ideas@Berkeley.

Deborah with Students_300PXwThe Blum Center’s Big Ideas contest has been offered at Makerere University since 2013. Each year the number and complexity of proposals has increased. Deborah Naatujuna, Engagement Manager for the ResilientAfrica Network lab at Makerere, has observed several ways that the competition has fostered student collaboration and innovation.

One highly noticeable effect of the contest is the increase in interdisciplinary engagement among Makerere students. Naatujuna explains, “One of the requirements of the contest is to have a strong team, so students who ordinarily work alone have been able to onboard students from other disciplines. For example, engineering students will work with business students. We did not have this interdisciplinary engagement before, but the contest has improved collaboration between students from different disciplines.”

The contest has also had a significant impact on students’ relationships with faculty members. Naatujuna says, “Big Ideas has fostered an innovator-mentor relationship that is not intimidating. Students at Makerere are used to working with academic supervisors in an environment that can often be intimidating for the student, but mentorship through Big Ideas is focused on constructive feedback and collaboration. Participating in the contest has helped students work with their professors in a friendlier manner and develop close relationships with their mentors.”

Student involvement in Big Ideas has also evolved over time. More Makerere teams are participating each cycle, and these teams are becoming more diverse. Max Aaronson, Graduate Student Researcher for the Big Ideas contest, conducted a comprehensive study on the involvement of Makerere students.

According to his research, Makerere students are now making up a larger proportion of teams entering the Big Ideas contest than in the previous two years. The interdisciplinary nature of Makerere teams is also increasing. Teams are no longer predominantly computer science majors or engineering majors. The social sciences (in particular health science) were greatly represented in the 2016 competition, and Makerere teams seem to be gravitating toward the Global Health contest category. Additionally, there has been an increase in the overall diversity of the contest entrants. The undergraduate and male dominance of Makerere student teams has declined significantly.

In regards to gender inclusion, Naatujuna remarks, “In the beginning, we had very few females taking part in Big Ideas, but now we have more females involved. Some of the teams are led by women while other teams are completely female. When female students work with their male counterparts, the male students often do all the major work, but now we are seeing all-female teams in which everyone takes part.”

However, more progress can still be made. As of last year’s cycle, Makerere teams are still less interdisciplinary than UC Berkeley teams. Additionally, without regular access to entrepreneurial development resources that are widely available in the United States, Makerere students sometimes need greater support and encouragement for their proposals. Their passion for addressing key social problems, however, is unmatched.

Olivia and team_300PXwEach year that Makerere students have participated in Big Ideas, they have become increasingly competitive. In 2015,  the Mama-OPE team (comprised of Makerere students Besufekad Shifferaw, Olivia Koburongo, Power Mukisa, Brian Turyabagye, Namwase Angella, and Akangumya Viola) developed a cell phone-based lung-monitoring device to help improve the early diagnosis of pneumonia. Their project won 2nd place in the Big Ideas Global Health category. Mama-OPE went on to win Honorable Mention in the Scaling Up category in the 2016 competition.

Also in 2016, Grace Nakibaala, Isah Ssevume, and Molly Mbaziira Nannyonjo from Makerere University formed the PedalTap team. To prevent the spread of infection, PedalTap developed a free-standing, universally-fitting connection called the Tippy Tap which includes a foot pedal that people can use to turn on the water at communal hand washing facilities in rural areas in Uganda. Their product won 3rd Place in the highly competitive Global Health category.

In order to better support student teams at Makerere, Aaronson has suggested a list of additional resources that the Big Ideas contest can offer. This includes additional on-site or remote reviews of Makerere proposals prior to submission, increasing interdisciplinary team numbers through more mixer events at Makerere or virtually targeting an array of students, more remote mentoring from small and medium-sized enterprises in the US (who unlike some local mentors do not expect remuneration in return), and additional support from Blum Center staff and graduate student researchers through resources such as FAQs and application review.
To address some of these suggestions, Big Ideas has ramped up its engagement with Makerere this year. Former Makerere University Big Ideas winners have been appointed as ambassadors and student mentors to inspire and advise prospective applicants. Big Ideas has also held information sessions tailored for Makerere students and will organize a final editing workshop to provide the students with the feedback they need to develop compelling proposals.With a more robust support network, Big Ideas aims to tap into the potential of more students at Makerere University and encourage students from all disciplines to innovate.

Sarah Bernardo is a 4th year undergraduate student double majoring in Legal Studies and English.