Wits University Secures Grants for Research in Digital Transformation

Wits University scholars have secured funding as a network partner of the African Engineering and Technology Network (Afretec).

 

The Afretec Member Inclusive Digital Transformation Research Grant of $300,000 US aims to support collaborative efforts in knowledge creation to network partners over three years. The current members of Afretec include Carnegie Mellon University Africa, Wits, The American University in Cairo, Wits, and the Universities of Lagos, Nairobi, and Rwanda.

 

The final proposals were submitted in 2023 and the following Wits researchers and scholars have been awarded funding:

 

Wits School of Education

The team, consisting of Professor Juliet Perumal, Dr Emmanuel Ojo, Dr Reuben Dlamini and Professor Leketi Makalela, in collaboration with the University of Rwanda, has secured a grant for their project, titled “Improving Digital Education and Learning Innovation in the Rwandan and South African Teacher Education Systems: Towards Bridging a Digital Knowledge Divide in Africa.”

 

The project aims to promote digitally innovative teaching approaches and foster collaboration between the education institutions of South Africa and Rwanda, with a specific focus on under-resourced rural schools. This accomplishment highlights Wits’ commitment to advancing education and technology in South Africa and beyond. By joining forces with Afretec, the University is poised to contribute significantly to the inclusive digital transformation of Africa and empower the next generation of technology leaders.

 

Wits School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics

Professor Benjamin Rosman secured significant funding for a project entitled: Culturally Sensitive Social Robotics for Africa in partnership with Carnegie Mellon University Africa.

 

In recognition of the fact that social and cultural norms of verbal and non-verbal communication behaviour determine the acceptance of social robots and the effectiveness of their interaction, and while there are studies on cultural differences in the acceptance of robots in the West and East, similar studies of the cultural factors that impact acceptance in Africa have not been reported.

 

The objectives of this research project are:

• to identify the verbal and non-verbal social and cultural norms of human interaction that are prevalent in different countries in Africa,

• to encapsulate them in the behavioural traits of social robots so that these robots can engage with African people in a manner that is consistent with their expectations of acceptable social interaction,

• to demonstrate these culturally-sensitive social robot behaviours in two use cases.

In pursuing this research, the researchers recognise that there are many different cultures in Africa, with different factors that impact the acceptance of social robots. They will identify these factors through ethnographic research, identify the key Africa-centric interaction traits, use these to specify culturally-sensitive human-robot interaction factors, and design patterns for sociality.

Wits School of Economics and Finance

Professor Chimwemwe Chipeta, Head of the Finance Division and Director of the Wits Fintech Hub in collaboration with colleagues at Carnegie Mellon University Africa, secured funding for a project entitled, Finia: Financial Inclusion via Novel Intelligence and Alternative data.

 

The primary focus of this project is on examining a group of data-driven digital building blocks for financial inclusion and education in Africa. Accordingly, this project will  provide recommendations on how to design effective, customized, robust, and comprehensive digital financial literacy strategies and programs to enhance financial inclusion on the African continent examine the individual and country-specific factors that drive successful transition to digital financial services, especially during disruptions such as pandemics, and formulate policy interventions to cushion the negative effects of exogenous shocks on access to digital financial services, and explore alternative datasets while utilising Machine Learning tools to predict financial distress of African startups.

Collectively, the FINIA locus of activity will catalyse new dignified and fulfilling jobs in Africa, positively impacting multiple UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs):

 

SDG 1 (No Poverty)

SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth)

SDG 10 (Reduced Inequality)

Wits Department of Neurological Surgery (Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital)

Dr Ziporah Katz (Lecturer, Department of Neurological Surgery – Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital), Dr Rachel Nossel (Associate Lecturer, Department of Neurology – Chris Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital), and Dr Yair Katz, in collaboration with Carnegie Mellon University, Carnegie Mellon University Africa, the American University in Cairo, and the Universities of Rwanda and Ghana are involved in a project entitled: Low-Cost, Accessible Biotechnologies for African Hair and Dark Skin Colours.

 

Focused on the improvement of biotechnologies, this project will refine electroencephalography (EEG), a technology that measures brain activity, to work with all African hair types and enhance Pulse oximetry (PulseOx) to remove sources of bias in measuring blood oxygen saturation.

 

School of Electrical and Information Engineering (EIE) and Department of Internal Medicine (Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital)

Professor Turgay Celik (EIE) and Dr Dineo Mpanya (Internal Medicine) partnered with the American University in Cairo and Carnegie Mellon University to secure funding for a project entitled: Towards IoT-enabled Privacy-preserving Large-scale Healthcare Analytics in Africa: A Use Case on Monitoring a Cardiovascular Disease.

 

This project aims to make monitoring cardiovascular diseases more accessible by designing and demonstrating low-cost, privacy preserving and scalable digital technologies based on Internet of Things (IoT). Wireless and machine learning will be used to monitor and identify abnormal electrocardiogram patterns in patients.

 

Additional Participation and Funding

Wits is represented on the Afretec Teaching and Learning pillar by Professor Rodney Genga, Director of the Academic Development Unit , Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment.

 

The representative on the Knowledge Creation pillar is Pravesh Ranchod, School of Computer Science and Applied Mathematics.

 

On the Inclusion and Diversity pillar, Professor Melissa Steyn, Director of the Wits Centre for Diversity Studies, is the representative.

On the Entrepreneurship Pillar, Wits is represented by Professor Nithaya Chetty, Dean of the Faculty of Science, who is also the Chair of this committee and the Wits Afretec Co-ordinator.

 

Each of these pillar committees are allocated $500 000 US per annum for their activities. In addition, there is $500 000 US available for collaborative infrastructure projects in the network.

 

About the Afretec partnership

The partnership is between leading technical universities across Africa and the Mastercard Foundation, and aims to drive an Inclusive Digital Transformation of Africa through collaborative initiatives that leverage the collective strengths of the Afretec network.

 

The partnership is focused on three pillars: teaching and learning, knowledge creation, and entrepreneurship, with the goal of creating opportunities and fostering technology leaders who can spearhead inclusive digital transformation and the creation of dignified jobs.

 

Through targeted activities aligned with these pillars, Afretec envisions developing thousands of technology leaders who will, in turn, generate tens of thousands of dignified jobs in various sectors, including education, agriculture, health, and government. By prioritising the rapid development of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) knowledge, expertise, and solutions, the network seeks to facilitate digital transformation across African economies and societies.

 

This list is expected to expand to ten universities by 2023. Since its inauguration in November 2022, the partners have been actively collaborating through over 75 all-partner meetings, establishing dedicated teams to strengthen the partnership’s various aspects, such as teaching and learning, knowledge creation, entrepreneurship, inclusion, and impact.

 

For Enquiries:

Please contact the Wits Afretec Project Manager, Heila Jordaan at [email protected].

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