Many African higher education institutions are under tremendous pressure to produce innovative research to solve local problems. They are encouraged to produce their country’s next generation of innovators. Scholarly journals and the popular press call on these institutions to drive their nation’s development. Yet most of them are underfunded and tasked with enormous teaching loads. External donors and their priorities, rather than local demand or need, tend to drive institutions to mimic the work of the developed world. Evidence suggests that these approaches are not effective for deeper changes. Relying too much on external donors rather than local drivers means innovative improvements fail to become standard practices. It’s clear now that different models are needed. Researchers at the Lilongwe University of Agriculture and Natural Resources in Malawi and Michigan State University in the US joined forces to test a different approach. We used design thinking in a bid to help researchers in Malawi produce innovation research to improve local food systems. Design thinking is,
a human-centred approach to innovation that draws from the designer’s toolkit to integrate the needs of people, the possibilities of technology, and the requirements for business success.Increasingly common in academia, design thinking helps faculty and leaders think past their immediate structures to find systemic challenges and solutions. The 18-month project, which involved 22 Malawian faculty and leaders, over 50 farmers and about 10 entrepreneurs, was a success. Farmers learned about faculty research, and in turn welcomed academics to conduct studies on the land. Community cooperatives learned about market based pricing and in turn welcomed student interns to participate and observe in the cooperatives. The project is being replicated – and adapted – at a second university in Malawi and represents a way to match research with local needs.