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Stellenbosch University (SU) has embarked on a high-level collaboration with JSE-listed Imperial Logistics (Imperial) to address real-world problems related to healthcare, as well as climate change in Africa.
The University recently signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with Imperial to cement this agreement.
“This initiative, along with the MoU that now supports it, enables us to look at present-day challenges through a different, multidisciplinary lens,” says Prof. Sara Grobbelaar from the Department of Industrial Engineering at SU.
Imperial has committed to providing bursaries for a group of postgraduate research students from 2021 to 2023. The company has earmarked R3 million in support of this initiative. The collaboration already involves postgraduate students across three faculties and will be expanded in future.
The bursaries that are awarded as part of this initiative are aligned with research topics that SU and Imperial have jointly developed. The initiative aims to maximise students' exposure to research fields that are relevant to the provision of Imperial’s services to prospective clients and principals.
Grobbelaar says the initiative is designed to ensure cross-pollination between the industry and academia, as well as inter-field collaboration. “This initiative comes at an opportune time – by combining our complementary strengths, we can co-develop relevant and sustainable solutions for both healthcare and climate change challenges,” she says.
SU and Imperial will collaborate through means of joint research and student supervision, the exchange of scientific and technical information, the sharing of infrastructure and experimental resources, and professional exchange visits between the two partners.
Imperial also provides infrastructure and industry expert support in order to create an enabling research environment for students, with an operating base for the students and their academic supervisors at its Technopark office near Stellenbosch.
“Imperial’s strategic purpose is clear – we want to improve lives across the communities in which we operate,” says Mohammed Akoojee, Imperial’s Group Chief Executive Officer. “Our vision is to connect Africa and the world, and to improve people’s lives through access to quality products and services. To this end, we look forward to expanding this collaboration initiative to other African tertiary institutions.”
Addressing topical and future challenges
Cobus Rossouw, Imperial’s Executive Vice President: Digital & Information Technology, explains that the initiative’s broad focus is on supply chain responses to COVID-19 and other healthcare challenges, as well as the impact of the fresh food supply chain on climate change. “In future, emphasis will also be placed on research topics related to data engineering and management sciences,” he says.
There are currently six students participating in this initiative who are registered for masters and doctoral degrees at SU. Their research topics are diverse, yet aligned to the broader research fields prioritised by the partners.
Christi Herbst, an MEng student in SU’s Department of Industrial Engineering, is exploring the scaling potential of the Unjani Clinics Network’s business model of setting up nurse-owned and -operated container clinics. These clinics offer affordable primary healthcare services and medicines to those who are uninsured and underserved but employed and able to pay a small fee towards their healthcare needs.
Johann Slabbert, another MEng student in the same department, is considering alternative construction methods for this clinic network and other patient-serving healthcare facilities that can be employed in sub-Saharan Africa. Both Herbst and Slabbert are employing a data-driven approach in their investigations.
Data science can provide insights into the state of healthcare access in lower-income and otherwise disadvantaged communities in South Africa, and track core indicators concerning the health outcomes of the patients.
Suzanne Stofberg is creating a toolkit to assist in the training of individuals involved in the COVID-19 vaccine supply chain. Stofberg is an MCom student in the Department of Logistics in SU’s Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences.
These students and other beneficiaries of the collaboration are generating new knowledge that can inform responses to real-world problems. Grobbelaar explains: “The healthcare supply chain research theme of this initiative is built on the realisation that balancing the COVID-19 response with other health priorities is crucial, as other programmes are at risk of being neglected.
“In the long term, the infrastructure that is being rolled out during the pandemic should serve the higher purpose of creating stronger healthcare systems in Africa. We want to ensure that we develop the necessary capacity and infrastructure to respond to COVID-19 but also ensure that health system improvements are sustainable, relevant and useful beyond the pandemic.
“We also need to plan for the impact of climate change on the continent and do our bit to reduce our footprint in this regard. This means developing the relevant capacity and infrastructure to minimise our mobility energy needs in every one of our cold chains.
“We believe this collaboration supports the partners’ efforts to conduct research for impact on the continent and have large-scale and real-world impact.”