Being a developing country with around 50% of people living just above the poverty line, Lesotho has great ambition to improve its education system and to also innovative and exploit the use of its local resources and talents.
[Note: another version of this story was originally written for the Briton University newsletter in the UK].
The National University of Lesotho (NUL) is based at Roma, some 35 km South-East of Maseru, the capital, and is the country's only true domestic university. It has around 10,000 students, a spacious campus, and as observed on our tour, conducted by my hosts at the NUL Innovation Hub, we saw well-equipped labs and modern facilities.
The Faculty of Science and Technology already has Bachelors and MSc courses, but with only a few courses in Engineering currently. Plans are underway to establish a new School of Engineering in line with international academic standards and hopefully attract domestic students to study there rather than attend universities in neighbouring countries. This will help retain their skills in Lesotho.
The Government of Lesotho is supporting the initiative.
I hope to return to the NUL to consult with them in this capacity next year through my knowledge of accreditation requirements and work for the Institute of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE).
We also discussed how to improve the efficiency of the country's production of niche food stuffs, develop mass production processes, open up export routes and innovate in new areas.
For instance, the Innovation Hub has sorghum popcorn (already available in India) which is a tasty muesli or granola ingredient (you may be familiar with it already). Through the efforts of Dr Pulane Nkhabutlane, and her colleagues, they are hoping to expand its supply beyond local markets, maybe as far as here in the UK, where it could earn them quite a fortune.
Important to this and more long-term opportunities to increase exports is the development of the airport near Maseru, the country's only major one, to open up new destinations from it.
At one point during the visit, my host's frequent mention of the word incubator dreamt up images in my head of a thinking space, innovation accelerator and the like. No, they meant egg incubators. On the tour, we saw one of these, as well as a soap press, ornamental pots made from a kind of natural composite, resin coated floor tiles and flavoured yogurts and many more.
The egg incubator was controlled using an Arduino, which seemed quite sophisticated and was made from materials readily available in Lesotho; I was informed. It was part of a wider project to make the whole life cycle (literally) of a chicken production from production of fertilized eggs to chicks to broilers.
One business in the hub was already growing, processing and freezing the chickens and making them accessible and cheap to individuals.
So, there really was a mixed bag of things they were doing, which left me pondering what my possible role could be in assisting them. I really had to think what I knew about chickens, yogurt, or soap, beyond the usual, of course.
More in line with my Engineering experience, is the design of Efficient Electro-Mechanical Actuation and Machines. My hope is that the NUL Innovation Hub receives funding from the Royal Academy of Engineering soon so I can be involved in just that.
There were also discussions about design for localisation, which is a topic I have interest in too, and one which is central to a current project I am co-supervising associated with pico-hydro generation in Nepal with Dr. Sam Williamson from the Electrical Energy Management Group and Joe Butchers, the PhD student. I hope to develop this idea as a new PhD project in the coming months with Sam.
We left Lesotho for Namibia for a final family holiday for a week and then I alone went on to Cape Town for an engineering conference where I presented a couple of papers and chaired a session (just to highlight I actually did some work), which completed an eventful month in Southern Africa.
(Julian Booker is Professor of Mechanical Design Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at Bristol University and is a member of the Academic Standards Committee for the IMechE.)