Professor Totolo demystifies science to inspire change
It’s almost six years since Professor Otlogetswe Totolo was appointed Vice-Chancellor (VC) of the Botswana International University of Science and Technology (BIUST).
Since then, a lot has happened in terms of infrastructure development and student enrolment numbers.
Totolo, an Environmental Scientist who has held key senior positions at the University of Botswana (UB) such as Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic Affairs) and Director of Centre for Scientific Research Indigenous Knowledge and Innovation is proud of what the University has achieved since he arrived in 2016.
He recently sat down with The Voice BUSINESS WRITER, KABELO ADAMSON to talk about some of these achievements, challenges as well as plans for the research-based University he leads.
Q. You have been at BIUST for almost six years; give us a brief reflection of your stay at the University.
A. When I arrived, we were right at the beginning of everything.
The University was at its infancy in terms of buildings, student hostels, lecture rooms, teacher theatres, and student numbers were also relatively low.
But as facilities started increasing, student numbers also started to grow and now annually we admit around 500 students, but by then we were admitting around 200.
It is a good number because facilities are still a limitation but because of COVID-19, we have realized that you do not only need classrooms for teaching and we are currently exploring online teaching because students don’t need to physically come to classes.
Q. How is the University doing in terms of research?
A. In terms of research, the university was a little bit on the low side, but with time we have seen our research noted across many institutions.
The citation index for BIUST is close to one, which means everyone at BIUST publishes.
The highest in Africa is the University of Stellenbosch, which stands at 1.5.
So, for a relatively young university, you can see that we are getting there and have surpassed many universities that have long been in existence.
Q. Besides research, what is the University working on?
A. Besides that, we want to develop products and services that can be taken to the market and I can tell you that we are getting there.
We have developed the Smart switch system; it has been tested by Botswana Power Corporation.
Hopefully, it is one product that we can take to the market.
We are using the fly ash from Morupule, which comes after they burn coal for some formulations in the civil engineering department to come up with roofing tiles.
Once you have experimented, done the research, and come up with the product, the next stage is commercialization.
I must admit that we need to partner with other people because we do a lot of research, but commercialization is not something we are schooled in.
We need partners like Local Enterprising Authority (LEA) and Botswana Innovation Hub (BIH) so that they can help us take these products to the market.
Q. You spoke mostly about research what else does the University offer?
A. There are three things that are fundamental to what we do at BIUST.
The first thing is academic excellence; our academic programmes are subjected to the scrutiny of accreditation and because we are accredited by Botswana Qualifications Authority (BQA), we think we are giving our students a very good education.
For every programme that we have, we have advisory boards for each one of them. These board members are captains of the industry and they know what the market and customers want.
Furthermore, everyone who teaches at BIUST, unlike other universities, is required to have a Ph.D. Ph.D. as you know is a research degree, and some people may say we are a bit stringent but it was for a purpose because the University was set up to be a research-intensive university.
With research intensity, we should be able to transform this nation from where it is to a knowledge-based economy.
The second thing is that we want to be known as a commercially attractive university, in other words, we want to do business with the likes of Botswana Oil, SEZA, and Debswana for example.
This is because we have something to offer and we must conduct ourselves in a business sense.
Q. And the last one?
A. We must be socially relevant; I cannot be in Palapye and not want to understand what is happening in Hukuntsi, Kang, or Maun. We need to understand the challenges people face and work with them so that whatever solutions we come up with are immediately applicable.
Q. What challenges have you encountered along the way?
A. The truth is BIUST is a project and because of that, there are certain things that we do lack unfortunately.
For instance, we do not have a student centre. How do I give a student the best student experience at a varsity without a student centre?
The student centre is supposed to be a recreational place where there is entertainment and all kinds social interaction.
We also lack adequate accommodation for our students.
Q. Botswana has the largest coal reserves, which remain largely untapped, are you carrying out any research with regards to this mineral?
A. True, at the moment in time it is only used for power generation.
But even then, as BIUST we are not so happy. Not that we don’t want the power to be generated.
We are simply saying, the methods that are being used are not clean and emit a lot of gases into the atmosphere causing a lot of pollution.
We are doing research around clean technologies and some PhD students are working with Morupule on clean technologies to power the plant using coal but not emitting all these gases into the atmosphere.
At BIUST, we have a plant called the Pyrolysis Plant, which is at a lab scale.
But through it, we can convert coal into liquids and from those liquids, we get diesel and petrol.
We also produce tar through the pant.
We have got in contact with Botswana Oil to say, this is what we can produce at a lab scale, and we would like to produce at an industrial scale.
We have the largest coal deposits, maybe in Southern Africa and those coal deposits must be used for the benefit of this nation and it is possible.
Q. What programmes do you have to instill interest in sciences in young learners?
A. We have been designated by the government to run two programmes; The STEM Festival and a programme called Science Week.
But we also have ours that the government is not leading called Demystifying Science, and with it, we go around the country to schools and make science some kind of a play, to be fund.
Traditionally people think science is difficult, but it is not
Science is everything we do, and we should make it as simple as that.
I think we are on the right track and we even introduced basic computing skills to primary schools.
Q. You spoke about establishing partnerships with some local institutions, are you also planning to look outside the country?
A. Universities are the natural partners for us to work with, but we are also working with some international companies, for example, we are currently working with an industrial company based in the Netherlands that is known for making drones.
We have partnered with them to make drones.
We didn’t do the frames, but the intelligence of these drones was done by us. We have brilliant people.
We are in discussions with a lot of people, including Toyota, which has shown interest in taking some of our students to do an internship at their Headquarters in Japan to learn vehicle engineering.
Q. How did your university respond to COVID-19 in terms of research?
A. When the pandemic hit, we responded with basic things that everybody would probably say, ‘We know the formulation of soap; we know the formulation of a sanitizer’.
Yes, they are commonly known but we responded.
We turned our lab into a production place.
The point is, concerning the virus, you need to understand it.
I am happy to share with you that we do have virologists in the Department of Biology and Biotechnology.
However, you don’t play with viruses in ordinary labs anywhere in the world.
We are now saying to the government, look, we need high-level security labs so that our virologists can further study the virus, probably even other viruses that we don’t know about yet.
Q. What kind of legacy would you like to leave behind at BIUST?
A. I want everybody to say, ‘Because that man was there, the young people that come out of the institution have been trained differently.’
And I am not taking any chances, I am training everyone, whether citizen or non-citizen on problem-solving learning.
We don’t stand in front of the students and lecture, we put the problem in front of them to dissect it from different angles and come up with solutions.
The other thing, I want all my students to be entrepreneurs and I do that by making sure that they are also taught that subject along with project management, business management, and others.
Q. Lastly, thank God It’s a Friday, what are your plans for the weekend?
A. I will take my family out for dinner on Friday thereafter go to the farm to check on livestock, particularly horses.
I understand two of them have given birth.