On a sunny Wednesday, 10 students from Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources (Luanar) set out on a research journey to Lilongwe City.
Led by Rose Sakala, the group moves from one service station to another, speaking to staff.
They are third-year Bachelor of Science in agribusiness management students putting their textbook knowledge into practice. Theirs is a tough task—gathering business insights from even unwilling interviewees.
With their classmates attached to various organisations, a prerequisite for undergraduate students, Sakala and her team are working with Luanar Business Centre to develop a business plan as the university envisage opening a service station to boost its income.
“We are trying to understand how a filling station works,” explains the coordinator of the business centre, Sebastian Phiri.
This is doable, he says. Initially, all university campuses had a service station or pump for their fleet. Now, they want to expand the existing structures to generate income while reaching out to the community.
The business centre under construction gives a glimpse of a spirit of entrepreneurship gaining sway at the public university’s main campus at Bunda.
Since Bunda was delinked from the University of Malawi (Unima) to form the nerve centre of the new university in 2012, Luanar has not been doing business as usual anymore.
Apart from housing the fuel business, Emmanuel Kaunda, deputy vice-chancellor of Luanar, envisages the business centre comprising a secure shopping mall complete with restaurants, banks and other service outlets.
To him, gone is the time of entirely relying on injections from government and partners.
Higher learning institutions cannot thrive on partners alone, he says.
“We are solving a lot of problems,” Kaunda says. “We have to tackle shortage of accommodation and class space especially for first year students in addition to investment projects that particularly address gaps affecting people around the university and beyond.”
According to Phiri, those behind the project are not just building ‘a small town’.
He feels the investment taking shape will lessen the burden of convincing organisations to accommodate students for internship every year.
If it succeeds, the project will offer lessons to other State-run higher learning institutions on how to wean themselves from chronic financial woes which water down the quality of education.
It also defies the narrow view that universities offer nothing other than teaching and learning.
It offers the students an opportunity to use their research and entrepreneurship skills progressively.
As the ‘business researchers’ were at work, their colleagues were in the villages surrounding the Bunda Campus—working with local farmers to try new knowledge on farms.
Local farmer Joseph Banda has fond memories of such encounters with the students at his farm two years ago.
It made farming real business, he says.
“Some trials were on soil, plant spacing and use of organic manure. Adopting the news skills have helped reduce production costs and increase yield,” Banda says.
He reckons the service station and shopping mall will help the residents of Bunda, Mitundu and neighbouring localities who travel over 20 kilometres to buy paraffin and other necessities.
Most importantly, Luanar is demonstrating that there is a university which is willing to break away from the ‘begging syndrome’ in the struggle to fulfil its role of producing highly skilled labour and research findings in response to prevailing economic needs.
Like many, Kaunda is excited that approaches that challenge the students to put their knowledge into practice are transforming the university’s financial standing, relevance, public image and relations with various communities.
“Most academic practicals are no longer done in campus, but in villages where the farmers live,” he says.
Additionally, the university has a demonstration farm where interested people go to learn sustainable farming methods as well as to buy a diversity of produce: vegetables, milk and meat, among others.
The farm brims with a lot of farming technologies as the country strives to overcome effects of climate change.
David Mkwambisi, Luanar programmes coordinator, is convinced the country needs more than prayers because the harsh climate conditions are man-made and can only be solved by embracing new cultural values.
He says it is the role of government to identify such gaps and engage expertise from higher learning to catalyse mindset change.