Making inroads in Africa fits UI's long-term goal, officials say

Making inroads in Africa fits UI's long-term goal, officials say

URBANA — The African continent has the highest proportion of people under age 30 in the world — more than two-thirds of its population.

Between now and 2050, according to U.N. projections, Africa will account for more than half of global population growth, and 26 African countries will at least double their populations.

That growth, and potential, caught the attention of University of Illinois administrators, who hope to increase ties to the continent through new partnerships, research exchanges and student enrollment.

Chancellor Robert Jones recently returned from a two-week trip to southern Africa with the director of Illinois International, Reitu Mabokela, a native of South Africa and UI alumna who oversees international programs on campus.

Africa provides an opportunity for the UI to "think bigger and more strategically about the impact we must have on this continent and other places around the world," Jones said. "The main goal was to try to establish an international and global presence in a place where we really don't have as strong a presence as we need to."

Jones and Mabokela spent about a week in South Africa and five days in Malawi, a country where the College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences already has strong ties. Accompanying them were Professor Alex Winter-Nelson, director of international programs for the College of ACES, and representatives of UI Extension who work in Malawi.

They arrived Feb. 19, just a few days after a significant political change in South Africa — the resignation of embattled President Jacob Zuma, who is facing charges of corruption, money-laundering and racketeering. Zuma was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa, whom Jones had met at a coffee shop in 1985. Ramaphosa was a struggling businessman fighting apartheid, and Jones, then at the University of Minnesota, was working with Archbishop Desmond Tutu to help U.S. universities recruit black African students denied education there.

"I haven't seen people this excited since Nelson Mandela was released and they had their first free and open election," Jones said. "That kind of energy was pervasive through the whole country."

The UI delegation visited with representatives of the University of Pretoria, Stellenbosch University and the University of Johannesburg — as well as the country's Ministry of Higher Education, National Research Foundation and the private Africa Institute for Mathematical Sciences, which prepares students for graduate studies in STEM fields.

Jones said officials were eager to partner with the UI to build up their programs and attract more graduate students and faculty to drive research and innovation there.

"At the end of almost every one of these meetings ... there was a plan on the table," Jones said.


'Long-term' investment

The trip grew out of the chancellor's interest in South Africa and a campus strategic planning exercise looking at where the UI should invest now to yield benefits over the long term, Mabokela said.

The African continent is poised for significant growth over the next few decades, even as other continents start to see population decline, she said.

"When one thinks about where the needs are going to be, the African continent clearly stands out as an area where we need to think about investing for the long term," she said.

The campus already has ties with Africa, particularly through the College of ACES but also the Center for African Studies, School of Social Work and College of Engineering. They're engaged in projects on food and nutrition, water resources and sustainability, among other areas.

But "as an institution, we have not been as engaged on the African continent as we could be," Mabokela said.

The existing partnerships date back to the 1960s, when the UI helped establish a new agricultural university in Sierra Leone, Njala University, said Winter-Nelson. The UI helped Njala administrators learn how to run a university and develop their teaching and research programs. The collaborations continued through the 1980s but were interrupted during the country's civil war in the 1990s, when the school's infrastructure was destroyed.

Over the last five years, the UI has been working with Njala again, with joint research projects in agriculture and health, study-abroad programs and online courses, including one taught by Winter-Nelson. UI faculty in engineering, bioengineering and veterinary medicine are also hoping to get more involved, he said.

The College of ACES is also engaged in several major projects funded by the U.S. government to improve food and nutrition in Africa, which Jones toured during his visit.

The college received grants for two projects from "Feed the Future," which works with universities to improve food and agricultural systems in high-poverty countries around the world.

The first, Strengthening Agricultural and Nutrition Extension, set up a system in Malawi to help small farmers, particularly women, communicate with the government about the challenges they face in food production and nutrition. The project is also designed to funnel new ideas to farmers so they can improve their agricultural practices.

It's part of a larger effort called AgReach in the College of ACES, which aims to strengthen Extension systems around the world.


'Life-changing' experiences

Another Feed the Future program is the Soybean Innovation Lab, which is addressing a rising demand for soybeans in Africa — both as a protein source for people who often face protein deficiencies, and as food for fish and poultry, which are in demand by Africans enjoying a rising standard of living, Winter-Nelson said.

"Africa has experienced a lot of economic growth lately, not as rapid as some other parts of the world, but still incomes are rising particularly in urban areas," he said.

The Soybean Innovation Lab is creating a system to allow small-scale farmers to produce the crop and earn income by selling soybeans to companies making food for human consumption or feed for fish and poultry.

Jones, a crop scientist, said he was working with the U.S. Agency for International Development when Feed the Future was launched, and he is proud to see the UI leading one of its major initiatives.

The projects are helping farmers control armyworms in their corn crop and testing 30 varieties of soybeans to determine which would thrive in Malawi so Africans can move away from a corn-based diet and develop new fish and poultry industries, he said.

They are having an impact on "people in real life trying to eke out a living. This is what it's all about in terms of international work," Jones said.

The College of ACES is also involved in research partnerships in Ethiopia, Gambia and Ghana. One consortium involves faculty in agriculture and bioengineering partnering with nonprofit groups and universities in Ethiopia and Burkina Faso to develop better tools and machine implements so small farmers can adopt more sustainable and productive practices.

"It's been really good for our college to be there," Winter-Nelson said. "We are able to discover things in terms of research that we couldn't discover otherwise. Our researchers are able to have an impact that they couldn't otherwise have in terms of improving people's lives. Our students get educational experiences that are really life-changing. And we're able to train Africans to have remarkable impact in their home countries when they go back," he said. "And they remember Illinois."

One UI graduate, Kandeh Yumkella, is currently running for president in Sierra Leone.


'The broader world'

Jones and Mabokela hope the new connections with South African universities will produce more research partnerships and bring more African students to the UI, for degree programs or shorter-term study.

The University of Johannesburg, which is setting up a new medical school, is particularly interested in working with the UI's Carle Illinois College of Medicine — which will also feature a "global immersion program" for medical students to do some of their training around the world, Mabokela said.

South Africa's Ministry of Higher Education is also working on an initiative with several American universities to send more students to study at Illinois and other select U.S. colleges, she said.

The plan is not to increase the UI's international enrollment but diversify it, officials said.

As of last fall, the campus had 107 students from Africa, just under 1 percent of the UI's 10,834 international students.

"It's important in the same way that we value diversity in our domestic students," Mabokela said, to provide broad perspectives and create a classroom that reflects "what the broader world looks like."

There's also a practical aspect. Given population trends, not recruiting in Africa would be a "missed opportunity," she said.

"Institutionally, it just wouldn't make sense for us not to engage in a region of the world where we know there's going to be growth, particularly when one looks at how young that population is," she said.

The UI hopes to send more students to Africa as well. The campus already has study-abroad programs in South Africa, and those will likely be expanded, she said.

In the future, the UI may explore partnerships with institutions in other African countries where it already has academic ties. Mabokela plans to work with colleagues across campus on a regional strategy for Africa.

Mabokela and Jones see the effort as a global extension of the UI's land-grant mission.

"Our vision is to have global impact," Mabokela said, "not just engagement for the sake of engaging."

Go figure

The UI has academic ties around the globe and hosts thousands of international students and visitors each year. A numerical look at a few:

144: Members of the first class of students accepted last fall at ZJU, a new engineering college at Zhejiang University in China run jointly with the UI, with a focus on engineering, data science, environmental science and related areas.

459: Institutional agreements the campus has with universities in 63 countries, including China, Russia, India, Australia, Indonesia, Brazil and most of Western Europe — research partnerships, faculty exchanges, study-abroad opportunities and even degree programs.

2,200: UI students who participate each year in 300 study-abroad programs in dozens of countries around the world.

10,800+: International students from 114 countries who attend the Urbana campus, both undergraduate and graduate.

32: Visiting delegations from 21 countries the UI hosted in 2016-17.

UI going global

The UI has a presence around the globe, with 459 institutional agreements in 63 countries. Among them:

CHINA: The Zhejiang University/UIUC Institute, a new engineering college run jointly by the two schools, accepted its first class of 144 students last fall.

ENGLAND: The Birmingham-Illinois Partnership for Discovery, Engagement and Education, signed in 2014, has led to 70 research partnerships in science, engineering, the humanities and social sciences at the UI and the University of Birmingham.

SINGAPORE: The UI recently launched a cybersecurity initiative, funded by Singapore’s National Research Foundation, designed to make information systems trustworthy and resistant to malicious attacks.

BRAZIL: Students in an international business immersion program — one of 300 study-abroad opportunities at the UI — learn about global management in South America, then take a two-week study tour in Brazil visiting multinational corporations, regulators, farmers and local companies.