Entrepreneurship performance positions the University of Venda to become an entrepreneurial institution

Published On: 21 October 2021|

The LinkedIn page of Mr Promise Nyalungu (left) states: An inspired, energetic, optimistic, hardworking, 20-something-year-old. Born and bred in a dusty village of Limpopo. Passionate about arts and diplomacy. Striving to inspire and encourage young people to do what they love.

But this doesn’t tell the young man’s whole story.

The dynamic University of Venda (UNIVEN) Honours student in International Relations was awarded the prestigious Studentpreneur of the Year 2020 Award, thanks to his thriving business Struu Artzz Entertainment. Meanwhile UNIVEN was pronounced the winning university in these Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) Entrepreneurship Intervarsity accolades.

The competition received entries from 26 public universities nationally with 28 finalists making the cut and Nyalungu taking the top spot and a cash prize of R100 000.

So how did a young man from the village Ga Mokgokong beat out some formidable competitors and what role did the University of Venda play in his and other students’ entrepreneurial journeys?

UNIVEN’s Vice-Chancellor and Principal, Dr Ndanduleni Bernard Nthambeleni and Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Operations, Dr Robert Martin, joined Nyalungu to discuss Repositioning Universities As Incubators For Economic Activation as part of Universities South Africa’s 2nd Higher Education Conference, conducted recently in collaboration with the Council on Higher Education (CHE). The two executive leaders were particularly addressing the topic: Winning the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity: The role of the Vice-Chancellor and the Deputy Vice-Chancellor.

Dr Bernard Nthambeleni (right) said his university was overjoyed to have won the award: “We were delighted to receive recognition for all the hard work that we had put in as an institution. This reaffirmed our resolve and boosted our morale and motivation to pursue the direction that we have set for the UNIVEN. This also proved to us that, despite our geographical location which is largely rural, we are able to compete and showcase our student talent and hold our own.”

He reiterated that the university was determined to instil an entrepreneurial culture and this was driven by management who guided the process.

“The role played by executive leadership in the establishment of the entrepreneurial ecosystem within the university is profound. Leadership is key in whatever we want to achieve. We realised that we had to move away from this notion that defines universities as factories that produce a labour force by training students to be job seekers. Instead we need to train and teach them how to create their own jobs. We are now doing all we can to achieve this,” he explained.

“To give impetus to our vision, we developed what we call the University Integrated Entrepreneurship Innovation Plan to drive the institution to transform itself towards becoming an entrepreneurial university. That was key for us because it allowed us to see how we would get there and which steps to follow. We are also pleased that we were able to sign a memorandum of agreement with the Small Enterprise Development Agency (Seda). This assists us with leveraging necessary government and business support.”

Dr Robert Martin was tasked with driving entrepreneurship at UNIVEN, a somewhat unconventional task for a vice-chancellor.

“Management realised that we needed to reposition the university for greater impact and so we created a new strategy. Entrepreneurial development was one of our four strategic thrusts. Due to my experience in entrepreneurship at a personal level, it was natural for me to volunteer to champion this. I don’t think any of us were thinking about our individual portfolios because, as a management collective, we realised that we wanted to take the university in a different direction. It wasn’t noble of me; it was something that had to be done.

“We also focused on creating a more multi-disciplinary approach in the university and the entrepreneurial emphasis gave us the opportunity to bring together different faculties and divisions. I also believe it was easier for me as DVC to have discussions with colleagues across different disciplines because I didn’t have the baggage of coming from a specific speciality.”

Dr Robert Martin (above, photographed while receiving the Winning University Award in the 2020 EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity) discussed the EDHE Communities of Practice, a national and institutional peer support network.

“As any good entrepreneur will attest, we constantly look for strategies to leapfrog because we don’t have time to catch up or duplicate. And, as an institution that is rurally-based, we wanted to show the world that UNIVEN, as we are repositioning, is able to make an impact from where we are. And so it made sense when I looked at the EDHE Communities of Practice to work with them and give support to other colleagues working in the same space. We also looked at what staff and students required, challenges they faced and the support they needed. We are also examining our sustainable development goals which help us to strengthen our community engagement.”

Nyalungu established his company Struu Artzz Entertainment in 2017, during his undergraduate studies in International Relations at UNIVEN. He started the performing arts group to provide a platform for young people to sharpen their talent and give them something to do and strive for.

“The seed was planted a long time ago when, at primary school, I was cast for a drama play and literally knew that this would be my fate. I developed a passion for the performing arts but there were limited platforms to pursue this in rural areas. At university I joined a drama group. Together we grew and managed to persuade the university that we would like to ‘professionalise’ what we were doing. We were able to perform at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown and, after I returned, I made the decision to start my own business to ensure that children outside the university would also get the platform to showcase their talent.”

However, success was not as immediate at the EDHE Entrepreneurship Intervarsity. In 2019 he reached the finals of the inaugural competition but returned empty-handed.

“People then said I was wasting my time with entrepreneurship. However, Dr Martin invited me and others to a workshop he hosted to teach us more about entrepreneurship and business practice including how to do a pitch and the like. I could see then where we had gone wrong in the first contest. We came back stronger in 2020 with a serious game face and the rest is history. I have to thank UNIVEN who helped me fulfil both my dream and my potential.”

Struu Artzz Entertainment (pictured above) has grown from being just a performing arts group into a media and entertainment company, thanks to the cash injection received from winning the competition which also opened doors for Nyalungu and his colleagues.

Nyalungu was invited to enter the Global Student Entrepreneur Awards (GSEA), a premier international competition for students who own and operate a business while attending college or university, and for which he emerged as the runner-up.

BASA (Business and Arts South Africa) is providing mentorship and is helping with business restructuring to enable better profitability. Nyalungu has opened a new studio and is looking to work with five new interns. He is also in the process of shooting several documentaries and web series and has started his own podcast while helping fellow students with theirs.

“Many accolades came with winning the student entrepreneurship award. Even government is reaching out and offering us support as we are at the heart of youth development and we are trying to ensure that rural and township talent gets to be seen,” he said.

UNIVEN, often mentioned among university star performers in entrepreneurship, was given a platform at the recent conference to especially share what the institution is doing in providing incubation support to student enterprises.

USAf’s Entrepreneurship Development in Higher Education (EDHE) programme was founded in 2016 to:

a) develop student entrepreneurs with the aim of turning university graduates into future employers;
b) support the development of entrepreneurship across disciplines by ensuring understanding in all faculties, of what it means to incorporate entrepreneurship principles across the core functions of teaching and learning, research and community engagement and
c) co-develop entrepreneurial universities by creating an awareness in institutions’ core leadership, of what it is they can do with students, staff and their communities, to inculcate the entrepreneurial spirit among them.

Dr Norah Clarke, Director: EDHE at Universities South Africa, mentioned during this session of the 2nd Higher Education Conference, that incubators have been recognised as important tools for developing entrepreneurship, and in the generation of South Africa’s future economic leaders. All 26 member universities of USAf are being encouraged to promote entrepreneurship as part of responding to South Africa’s economic context and curbing the high rate of unemployment among youth.

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.