BusinessDay

Bridging the Industry-Academia Gap Off-Grid

The academics and industrial world should live together – not exist apart

Academia is the source of all inventions

Academia has played notable roles in the success of the most impactful technologies for several centuries. For example, Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and others are products of Academia who can be considered heroes today because of their inventions and innovations. In addition, Bell Labs in California can be seen as the world’s top contributor to math, science, and engineering advancement.

Academia laid the foundation for the theories and principles that industries built on in all of these periods. For instance, Thomas Edison invented the first light bulb in the Menlo Park lab, and then the first steam engine was invented [National Park Service, USA]. These inventions form part of the foundations on which the global electricity sector stands today. Likewise, solar PV modules are becoming more efficient in the off-grid sector, and the same goes for batteries. Today, Academia urgently needs to replicate the same impact it has had in other parts of the world in Africa’s off-grid industry.

Do University Curriculars Match Industry Requirements?

Most institutions do not offer courses relevant to industries, which has led to a disconnect between Academia and industries. For example, most systems in the off-grid renewable energy sector use equipment such as solar panels, inverters, and batteries. The academic courses that provide the required skills to produce and install such solutions include Electrical Power Engineering, Energy Systems, Energy Finance, Materials Science, Electro-chemical Engineering, Data Science, and Machine Learning. However, most Nigerian schools do not offer these specialised options in undergraduate programs, and in schools offering them, poor-quality teaching and lack of relevant practical sessions discredit the system.

Read also: Is there a future for Local Manufacturing for Nigerias Off-Grid Sector?

As the off-grid industry in Nigeria grows, it is expected and logical that some institutions would be collaborating with relevant industry partners to creatively prepare curriculums that will help train students to be skilled to cater to the needs of the off-grid sector. Contrary to expectations, only the University of Ibadan is known to have a School of Energy Studies in Nigeria.

Such a scenario can be compared to the petroleum industry, where some Nigerian universities started petroleum engineering programs to train more petroleum engineers to serve the oil and gas industry. Also, government agencies like Petroleum Technology Development Fund (PTDF) cater to indigenous skilled professionals in the oil and gas industry. Hence, this blueprint can also be applied in the off-grid sector. Therefore, the off-grid sector can study and replicate the model applied in student capacity building in Petroleum Engineering.

Research in Academia

To improve the relevance of formal education to electrification, Academia needs to engage in research that addresses the needs of the off-grid sector. Several research problems in the off-grid space have been identified and are begging to be answered. For instance, tons of batteries are being used in the sector. However, there is still no research institute working towards manufacturing batteries locally, optimising battery life based on data collated on different battery types. Lastly, there is still no concrete framework for recycling used batteries, although sector stakeholders, including the Association for Battery Recyclers (ABR), are working towards such a framework. Likewise, the same questions can be asked regarding solar energy and solar panels – manufacturing solar panels, data on usage and performance, and recycling. Therefore, Academia needs to engage in substantial pioneering projects that can attract players from the industry because industries will only want to invest where they are certain the research results and outcomes will contribute to their profits.

Choosing Thesis Topics beyond the Four Walls of the Classroom

Many student thesis works end up on the shelves because most university departments choose most thesis topics without consulting industry experts to understand industry needs and realities. Consequently, in many cases, research is only good enough for the journals and publications without bridging any gap between the Academia and off-grid.

Collaborations between Academia and industry in deciding final thesis projects and joint mentoring of thesis students will lead to useful project research work by students. When there is a collaboration between both parties, the industries should be more willing to support and follow through with the research to solve their problems. In the long run, industries can establish research centres in universities, fund them, and become advisory board members of the engineering departments.

Why we need more Independent Research Institutes

Academic research should not be confined within the walls of institutions as universities and schools cannot bridge the gap between Academia and industries alone. Presently, there are few independent research labs in Nigeria, especially those specialised in electrical power engineering. Therefore, highly skilled professionals must be encouraged and given incentives to develop their research labs. For example, Bell Labs is one of the most successful labs globally in Electrical Engineering and Information Science. The inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, established the Bell Labs, and several other labs have achieved and are equally achieving remarkable feats in the US today.

In Africa, there is a need to establish labs dedicated entirely to research in off-grid electricity systems. The lack of such establishments is one reason why the off-grid sector in Africa lacks adequate innovation. Industries would become more interested in collaborating with Academia when there is more innovation from the Academia.

Academia-Industry Collaboration Benefits

Successful collaboration between Academia and industries should birth many benefits in the off-grid industry. In the off-grid sector, local innovation will thrive, and there will be a lesser focus on importations. Coupled with these, companies will find Nigerian engineers to be at par with expatriates, who are usually more preferred. Therefore, this will lead to increased employment in the country.
In conclusion, the Academia in Nigeria should consider souring for alternative funding and support systems since not many industries in Nigeria actively support research in universities. Some universities in Africa have already formed strong partnerships with their counterparts in other parts of the world. For example, many Nigerian universities doing solid research on malaria get funding from the African Union (AU), the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the World Bank. Likewise, research in the off-grid sector can also be supported in this way.