On Sunday 15th of July, Zhejiang Normal University was the site of dynamic discussions on youth entrepreneurship and innovation. With scholars, government officials, business people and students, the theme of the conference was people-to-people exchange and wisdom sharing by the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC).
The Zhejiang Normal University is uniquely placed to host such a forum as is it was the first university in China to have a formal African Studies program, and is the alumnus of numerous African students from its rich exchange program with many African and South African universities.
The forum, which formally began on the 14th, with warm words of welcome by the Vice-Dean of the University’s Business Studies Faculty, and went on to discuss the pre-launch of the China-South Africa College Students Entrepreneurship Education Alliance.
The following day, there was a packed agenda, composed of various VIP speeches, keynote speeches, and over 22 presentations under the umbrella of ‘China-South Africa Cooperation and Youth Innovation and Entrepreneurship’ and ‘Experience Sharing of the New Makers from China and South Africa’. Some of the VIP speeches were made by Professor Zheng Mengzhaung, who is the president of the Zhejiang Normal University, the Deputy Mayor of Jinhua City, in which the university is located, Her Excellency Debora Balatseng (Minister Plenipotentiary, South African Embassy in Beijing) as well as His Excellency Mr Ghaleeb Jeppie, the Chief Director for International Relations in the Department of Higher Education and Training, South Africa.
Participants from the University of Johannesburg, included Professor Edwin Bbenkele who is a Lecturer and a Researcher at the Department of Business Management in the Faculty of Management, and Mr Bhaso Ndzendze, who is the Research Coordinator at the University of Johannesburg Confucius Institute (UJCI).
Professor Edwin Bbenkele, who also chaired the session on ‘Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the Age of Great Change’, spoke on ‘The University of Johannesburg at the Leading Edge of Entrepreneurship and Innovation Development in South Africa.’ Drawing from his extensive background in research and teaching on entrepreneurship at the University of Johannesburg, he made various points about the need to equip professional degree students in engineering and chiropractic to be entrepreneurial so that they can breathe new life into their profession while at the same time solving real-world problems. He also spoke on his findings around “innovation for its own sake” in which new services or products are devised “not as a result real market-driven demand” and therefore fail relatively early. In addition to this, he argued, “internal structure harmonisation in tertiary institutions is needed” due to the collaborative nature of successful entrepreneurship. Professor Bbenkele also highlighted the need for close cooperation between Chinese entrepreneurs and South African youths as part of the people-to-people exchange going forward and asserted that the newly founded China-South Africa College Students Entrepreneurship Education Alliance had this as one of its first priorities.
Mr Ndzendze’s contribution was centred around a comparative analysis of entrepreneurship in South Africa compared to China since both countries had undergone major reforms and changes in the late twentieth century (China in 1978 and South Africa in 1994). The findings made seemed to point to the fact that while China is now characterised by a large private sector, a monument to Chinese entrepreneurship, and South Africa by a smaller entrepreneurship returns, the country still had some reasons for optimism as it took around twenty years (the late 1990s) for Chinese entrepreneurship to gain momentum. “As the legacy of poorly-trained teachers wains, and the newer generations are inculcated early on with entrepreneurship, we can expect a ratchet or snowball effect, with each cohort building on the successes of the previous one, this is what we saw in China, and there are already pointers in recent surveys that this is already taking place in South Africa,” he said. He stated that he intends to develop his research further on this and would publish the paper by the end of the year.
The Forum was concluded on a high note with young entrepreneurs sharing their experiences in starting and building successful businesses, and answered questions in a roundtable discussion. The scholars’ journey to Zhejiang Normal University was concluded with a tour of the city’s innovation centres, an automobile factory and a museum dedicated to the commercialization of food in China, particularly ham, in the city of Jinhua. Both scholars expressed their gratitude to the organisers, especially Professor He Shurong, for the invitation and hospitality, as well as their various department management, including Professor Peng Yi, Dr David Monyae and Geoff Goldman for the recommendations to go into the Forum. Professor Peng also stated that it is her aim that the next forum meeting takes place within the University of Johannesburg, and particularly facilitated by the UJ Confucius Institute.