Research

Talent turning problems into solutions

Some societal problems seem insurmountable, such as South Africa’s education crisis, the dangers of mining underground and the marginalisation from mainstream entertainment of poor people. Three Unisa students with innovative ideas about solving these problems have won Talent Innovation Programme (TIP) grants to start developing their ideas into workable solutions.

They are Godang Lefifisi, who has just finished his final year of Electronic Engineering, Miriam Farai Siwela, a PhD student in Educational Leadership and Management, and Sandile Dladla, who completed his BCom Accounting degree in October last year.

The three have each received TIP funding from the Directorate of Innovation and Technology Transfer, and were also part of a Unisa tour to Brazil to attend the 2016 Business Innovation Network Conference in São Paulo.

Locating trapped miners

Godisang Lefifi

Godisang Lefifi’s own experience down mines, coupled with news reports of miners being trapped underground, made him think deeply. “I worked underground quite a lot for two years while I was with a company supplying safety systems, and it’s not a nice place to find yourself, especially if an accident occurs. I used to think, ‘Who is going to help me out if anything happens?”

Lefifi, who runs his own small electronics business, put his engineering skills to work. First, he did some research to find out if the solution he had in mind was already on the market. It wasn’t.

Next, he started conceptualising his idea for a device—similar to a car-tracking system—that would not only detect the location of miners trapped underground, but also ascertain if they are still alive.

Here’s how it would work:

Miners going underground would carry a device clipped to their belts and weighing no more than three kilograms. Rescue teams on standby would be issued with similar devices.

If noxious gases such as methane or carbon dioxide are present at unsafe levels in the area where the miners will be working, the device detects this and alerts them to the problem.

If no dangerous gases are present, Lefifi’s system remains inactive until an accident happens.

“The system would be triggered by a fall of ground,” he says. “If miners are trapped, the rescuers’ device sends a signal underground to locate the miners via the devices they are carrying.”

In addition to pinpointing the location, the system would have a pulse detection function so that the rescuers can tell whether or not a trapped person is still alive and, if so, whether it is safe to move them.

When Lefifi presented his idea to the TIP panel of judges at Unisa’s Student Showcase in August 2016, he showed them his drawings, explained the theory and basic electronics of the system, and won their confidence in the soundness of his idea.

“I am now designing the electrical circuits and will use my TIP grant to develop a working prototype,” says Lefifi, who also won a prize for best oral research presentation at the Student Showcase event. This landed him a trip to India to visit Mumbai University, over and above his TIP trip to Brazil.

“I have one year to develop a working prototype and this is going to be my main focus in 2017. I am definitely going to make my miner location system happen.”

Affordable music and movies for the masses

Sandile Dladla

_High-speed internet has made movie and music streaming a reality for some South Africans but others, particularly low-income consumers, are being left out of the party. Sandile Dladla’s idea for an entertainment kiosk could be music to the ears of these consumers—and for music and film content creators.

“The model seeks to address both the issues of the music and film content creators and their customers,” he says. “On one hand it will open up market opportunity for both existing and upcoming artists and film makers by reaching mass demographics in a cost-effective manner, enabling content creators to capitalise on their talent. On the other hand it will give these industries’ consumers what they want—convenience and affordability—by opening up access to content in formats, places and prices they demand it at.”

He plans to do this by designing and operating music-and-movie kiosks that are similar to bank ATMs and would be placed at high-density areas such as taxi ranks.

Inside the kiosk, the customer would log onto an online store and view the movie and music selection available. The customer would then download his or her choice onto a device (such as a USB stick), or write it to a CD or DVD. After paying for the purchase—at a price to suit his or her pockets—the customer would take it home and listen to or watch it to their heart’s content.

Dladla has already been in contact with patent firms and conceptualisation consultants who could help him bring his media kiosks to life, using his Unisa TIP grant money.

“My next step is to produce a digital concept that I can present to prospective funders such as the Technology Innovation Agency (TIA) and the National Youth Development Agency (NYDA). I also want to approach a business incubator.”

Besides making quality entertainment accessible to low-income consumers, Dladla says his media kiosks could help combat content piracy—the scourge of the music and movies industry. “Low-income consumers can’t afford to pay R100 for an original music album or movie DVD so they buy low-quality, pirated stuff that costs as little as R10. I want to bring them back to the mainstream by providing access to quality products that they can buy legally and still afford.”

Education crisis—how can we fix it?

Miriam Siwela

Low pass rates in mathematics and science, reports of learner-on-learner violence and bullying, and other alarming trends in South African education are depressing, but who’s to blame?

“It takes a village to educate a child. All in the village are to blame,” says Miriam Siwela. “But who is the village, and what should each of the village members be doing to play their part in education?” Who, for instance, should be responsible for the moral aspect of learning so that children grow up with sound values? And who is in charge of psychosocial development, and so on?

Missing ingredients, half-baked learners

Clearly defining who should be doing what and how in education is the purpose of Siwela’s TIP innovation, a model of stakeholder collaboration that she refers to as “Educating Learners in Totality”.

“It’s a model that approaches education holistically. Unlike the traditional education model that we have been stuck with, it is not limited to academics. Educating Learners in Totality (ELT) takes into account the cognitive, physical, psychosocial, volitional and moral aspects of education,” Siwela says. “Like any good recipe, you have to use the right ingredients. If any of these ingredients are missing, we will end up with half-baked learners.”

Money is not one of the missing ingredients, she adds, pointing to the billions of rands that donors such as foreign governments, UN agencies and other donors have pumped into education in Africa. “The problem is that 60% of learners, mostly in rural and high-density suburban areas, are not accessing the benefits that donors are bringing.”

Because of a lack of access to infrastructure, electricity, the internet and transport, among other things, these learners are excluded from a comprehensive formal and informal curriculum that leads to diverse and varied career opportunities and entrepreneurship, she says. Hence, her ELT model of stakeholder collaboration emphasises the provision of the holistic education to marginalised and impoverished learners via the centre of the education village.

Putting theory into practice

The model is thoroughly and methodically explained in her PhD thesis, to which she is now putting the finishing touches.

Once her doctorate is behind her, Siwela will be using her TIP grant money to start putting her ELT model into practice. The first step will be to develop a complete database of all education stakeholders, from government to NGOs and donors, and start reaching out to them through workshops and seminars.

“It is going to take time and a lot of resources and hard work to formalise my model and get everybody on board and working together, but this is my passion and I am committed to giving it my all.”

The Talent Innovation Programme (TIP) is run by Unisa’s Directorate: Innovation and Technology Transfer to encourage innovation among students. For more details on TIP, please send an email to Nonkululeko Shongwe at tshongh@unisa.ac.za.

*By Clairwyn van der Merwe

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