2 - 4 November 2020 | Hosted by the University of the Free State

CoVID-19 ignited students' creativity in entrepreneurship

Entrepreneurship coordinators at South Africa's public universities have forged ahead, notwithstanding CoVID-19 and lockdown, and continued to guide and inspire students.

Ms Karen Snyman

Ms Karen Snyman (left), Student Life & Projects Manager at Nelson Mandela University, says the Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Intervarsity competition finals taking place later this week is living proof of that.

Snyman, who is NMU's co-convenor of the EDHE Community of Practice (CoP) for Student Entrepreneurship, was speaking as part of this CoP panel at the Student Entrepreneurial Week (#SEW2020), earlier this month.

She said the upcoming intervarsity finals show "that universities have been working and pushing their students amidst crises, health issues, mental health and isolation and all those other negatives that came with the pandemic".

She said CoVID-19 had, nonetheless, sparked innovation among students, which for her "has been the greatest plus, in this whole crisis''. Many students had grabbed the opportunity to extend their businesses, and had shifted the way they think, she added.

How students innovated because of CoVID-19

Ms Onica Matsheke (right), Entrepreneurship Lecturer at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) and the Faculty of Management Sciences' Advisor for VUT's branch of the entrepreneurship organisation, Enactus, said some students' businesses had become obsolete during lockdown while new ones had arisen from the pandemic. She cited one student who had sold smoothies on VUT's one campus. When his market vanished overnight during lockdown, he had pivoted to selling students smoothie sachets, which they could make on their own.

Another student had come up with a solution for those travelling by taxi to avoid unnecessary physical contact. He had developed an app for passengers to swipe their payment instead of paying with hard cash for their rides.

Matsheke said she was so inspired by these initiatives, she was considering looking for opportunities to become an entrepreneur herself, instead of merely being an "edu-preneur".

Ms Onica Matsheke

Professor Thobeka Ncanywa, head of the Department of Economics at the University of Limpopo (UL), said she had been very excited to hear about a venture that one student had initiated while locked down in his home village. He was helping high school students apply for university admission. Even though he offered this assistance for free, while the students gathered - in a socially distanced manner – waiting for their turn to be helped, he sold them kotas and cooldrinks (for a profit).

The move to digital during lockdown was a bonus for some

Ms Caro Buitendag, Technology Transfer Manager and Marketing Coordinator at the InnUvation Junction at the University of Johannesburg (UJ), said lockdown had forced a lot of people to go online. This had been "an awesome opportunity" because it had opened up free access to courses and workshops they could share with their student entrepreneur community.

Previously, they would have tried to present these type of activities themselves, but these online ones were readily available so they added efficiency to convenience.

Lockdown exacerbated communication issues

Almost all the universities reported a problem of communicating with students during lockdown. The provision of laptops did not happen as quickly as the situation demanded and universities had to devise their own way around this. Furthermore, despite the deal made with service providers for all students to receive monthly data, connectivity remained a problem as many rural areas have no internet access. Even Sol Plaatje University (SPU) in Kimberley in the Northern Cape, where all students have devices because the first-years are given a laptop when they register, reported communication as its biggest lockdown challenge.

The messaging platform Whatsapp became the biggest savior to communication problems. Matsheke, at VUT, and Professor Ncanywa, at UL, in particular raved about how Whatsapp had helped them. It was convenient, as most students could access it on their phones if they had data. And with whatsapp, they could send messages, form groups, make free calls, and send videos.

Matsheke said students had whatsapped their Intervarsity competition videos to her. Although their content had been OK, the domestic background of the videos had not always been ideal.

Professor Ncanywa (right) said UL had also asked students to send videos. But creating these videos on cellphones, some with poor cameras, had affected their quality. UL students had also struggled with what to include in their videos. Many just showed themselves talking, and did not feature their actual businesses. This disqualified them from competing further.

And loadshedding did not make things any easier.

While the students were trying, but were challenged by their technology, lecturers also faced a similar challenge when accessing and operating digital platforms. Engagement on entrepreneurship got easier once most students were back on campus, and had connectivity.

Professor Thobeka Ncanywa

Communication was not the only problem during lockdown

Ms Caro Buitendag

Buitendag (left) said UJ's students had suffered less with connectivity. But those in the ideation or early development phases of their businesses had battled to connect with their potential markets. They had not been able to go out and talk to people, and find out whether their ideas were viable. Others had battled to access parts needed to build prototypes, and with supplies to start their ventures.

"We all know entrepreneurship can be a very lonely road to walk," she said. This loneliness became worse for some during lockdown, and they felt increasingly isolated.

UJ's Technology Transfer Office had tried to break down that barrier by being in regular contact with students. This was not only to help with tips regarding suppliers and other such practicalities, but also to help psychologically. The weekly catchups to ask how they were doing, were ''just those little things that really helped us to connect with our students", said Buitendag.

Snyman said the mental wellbeing of students had been a global problem. At NMU they had formed little groups to maintain contact with students.

Lockdown changed attitudes towards entrepreneurship

Ms Gail Motlhaudi (right), entrepreneurship lecturer in the Department of Management Sciences at SPU, said entrepreneurship is very new at her institution. It features in only one module in a BCom degree. But now it has become much more than just a subject in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences (EMS). Thanks to the pandemic, the students' mindsets had changed, and this showed in their increased attempts to find solutions to real-life problems back home, sharing business ideas on Whatsapp groups while some had started businesses to sustain themselves economically while at home.

Ms Gail Motlhaudi
Ms Nadia Waggie

Ms Nadia Waggie (left), Head of Operations at the University of Cape Town's Careers Service, and convener of this CoP, said this shift of mindset had probably been the biggest highlight of this period for all of them. There had always been this buzzword "entrepreneurial mindset" but it been difficult to define. "Now we have started dabbling, and getting into that mindset," she said

Twenty universities and four technical and vocational education and training (TVET) colleges also took part in #SEW2020. The event, held online this year, is a project of the EDHE programme, which is a partnership of the Department of Higher Education and Training and Universities South Africa (USAf). USAf is a representative association of South Africa's public universities.

This article concludes the series we have been publishing on this platform from #SEW2020.

Written by Gillian Anstey, a freelance writer commissioned by Universities South Africa.

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