Prof Totolo unlocks science, innovation

SHARE   |   Thursday, 18 October 2018   |   By Ditiro Motlhabane
Professor Otlogetswe Totolo Professor Otlogetswe Totolo

When he talks about delivering a knowledge-based economy, Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST) Vice Chancellor Professor Otlogetswe Totolo lights up and almost turns hypnotic as he enters a trance of a man possessed.

In clear unambiguous language tactfully crafted to avoid complex jargon he sets out to demonstrate how every aspect of daily life, regardless of simplicity or complexity, can be unravelled and understood through methodical scientific research. He speaks with conviction of how BIUST has deliberately adopted a hands-on problem solving approach to learning, to produce graduates that will create jobs rather than roam the streets unemployed.  Such talk has become Totolo’s trademark at every forum, emphasizing ‘research & innovation’. Speaking at the end of a recent whirlwind media tour of BIUST Faculties on campus in Palapye, Prof Totolo could not conceal his gratitude following the approval by cabinet of a P1.3 billion budget to drive the 2016-2022/23 Strategic Plan. He boasted that Botswana is a pioneer because comparatively, no other African country spends more than one percent of their Gross Domestic Product (GDP) on research and development. Even the world over, the best performers spend only around five percent of their GDP to fund science, research and innovation.  “Our aim is to move away from a consumer society to manufacturing of goods and services. BIUST will research, innovate and incubate then pass the prototypes to citizens to produce/ manufacture final products ready for the market. Our target is to produce graduates of international calibre, who can work anywhere in the world, “said Prof Totolo. 

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The university currently enrols 1256 male students alongside 625 of their female counterparts. Of these, 1 687 are undergraduates (1084 at Faculty of Engineering and 603 at Faculty of Science) while 194 are post graduate learners. Prof Totolo

In fact, true to their commitment to transform the lives of citizens to develop a world class population of researchers and innovators, the prestigious university has adopted the tag line “delivering change”. Prof Totolo enthused that Botswana's is an economy in transition from heavy reliance on natural resources (particularly mining) dominated by semi-skilled labour to a diversified economy characterised by a high quality skilled labour force. He said such social transformation that has a direct correlation with economic growth can be driven by a knowledgeable and highly skilled human capital, which is a direct result of research and innovation. "Pure and applied research can make Botswana a serious player in the international market place. At BIUST we aim to transform Botswana to a knowledge society," said Prof Totolo, citing the example of South Korea where every family has at least one member studying at a university. 

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As part of initiatives to continually engage the public and other strategic stakeholders BIUST will host the annual Southern Africa Mathematical Sciences Association Annual Conference (SAMSA) from 19th - 22nd November 2018 in Palapye, Botswana. The theme for the conference is “Mathematical Sciences: A Catalyst in Driving a Knowledge Based Economy”.

The SAMSA conference comes a few months after BIUST played host to a successful Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) festival, which brought together students from local secondary schools who are pursuing science subjects. Hailed as a catalyst for innovation and skills development, the annual STEM festival provides a platform for industry, organisations, innovators, researchers, students (tertiary and pre-tertiary) to showcase their achievements and dreams.

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During the annual media tour in August, media corps were taken through projects in different phases to completion that BIUST researchers and learners are currently undertaking.  These innovations will impact a wide range of sectors of the economy among them defence& security, mining, agriculture, manufacturing, health and education. They included;

       Faculty of Sciences

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       Specialised laboratories with advanced microscopic lab for the analysis of geological and exploration findings. For example, BIUST has the technology and capacity to conduct soil tests for farmers, contractors and residents. In fact they can test samples from anywhere in the country and will in future do so, but for a nominal fee. In fact, researchers at BIUST have already done so for farmers, albeit on a small scale, in the Palapye and neighbouring area. 

       GIS lab equipped with sophisticated computers valued at over P75 000 each that require specialized software that is upgraded at a cost of P1000/ month each. BIUST has partnered with BDF to collect, analyse and share spatial data with the specialized computers, which could be used for espionage and national security.

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       Physics and astronomy. Researchers in the department are developing new technology on applied nuclear physics, by intensifying research on the use of radio isotopes to cure cancer tumours creating a health benefit. Others are working with BMC to develop new technology to sterilize meat to improve packaging and extend its shelf life for export and local market. Innovative solutions are also being researched to improve shelf life of different food types.

       As the deadline for the total ban on the use of plastics bags fast approaches, retailers and other users are pinning their hopes on researchers at BIUST to intensify research they are currently conducting on new technology to develop degradable plastic bags. Botswana Government has put November 2018 as the deadline for the ban on the use of plastics to kick in. The astronomy department at BIUST has been engaged for a P5 billion project at Sir Seretse Khama Airport. Further, the university boasts of two world class gigantic electron microscopes each valued at over P70 million.

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       Biological Sciences and Biotechnology Labs. Already researchers are studying biological uses for toxins extracted from some of the most venomous spiders found in Botswana, which they are keeping in captivity.

       Chemical & Forensic Science lab whose objective is to develop experts in disciplines of chemistry and material science. They conduct analysis of food chemistry and to develop technologies to analyse impurities in food samples. Using state-of-the-art equipment BIUST is working on developing and improving technology for material testing, which can establish the DNA of any material.

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For example; technology for breadth analysis for alcohol. To this end, BIUST has already developed a partnership between Botswana Police Service (BPS) and Palapye magistrate court to assist with evidence based research and analysis of exhibits/ samples collected from the crime scene. In fact, some of the labs called crime rooms used by learners are designed to depict a reconstruction of a crime scene where students are challenged to resolve mysterious crimes using forensic science.

       Faculty of Engineering and Technology

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It has five departments.

The Department of Chemical Materials & Metallurgical Engineering is at an advanced stage to sign a Memorandum of Understanding with Morupule Coal Mine to process waste into useful products, the concept of conversion of coal to liquids.

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Department of Computer Science in the process of developing algorithms (a computer based system) that will partner with other disciplines for the translation of Setswana to English. This breakthrough is expected to pave the way for research in translation for other languages used throughout Botswana, which in turn will improve access to information technology to learners (and the general public) at an early age. This will improve learning because it will simplify scientific concepts to be understood better at elementary level (e.g. pre-school) in education. 

The department is also conducting extensive research on the use of drones. Already UNFPA, Latitude (NASA subsidiary) has already approached BIUST to partners in multi million project to produce prototypes for the delivery of goods e.g. medicines to remote areas, to address high cost of MMR. The department also plans to establish a Cyber-Security Centre at BIUST. 

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Other innovative projects already at prototype stage include the BIUST Farm System, which can be used by farmers to monitor the herd and manage their farms from anywhere in the world, and the manufacturing of bath soap using fat from cattle. The soap is available for use, only awaiting certification and commercial production for the market.



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