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World-class lab for rural research

- By Kanina Foss

A couple of kilometres down a sandy track in the middle of a piece of pristine bush, among the acacias and the occasional antelope, workmen are building the infrastructure that will house the basic operations of a world-class laboratory for the generation and dissemination of interdisciplinary knowledge about rural issues in the global South.

The Knowledge Hub for Rural Development is a new initiative launched in 2013 by Wits University with the support of the Department of Science and Technology and the Department of Higher Education and Training.

The infrastructure that is being constructed forms part of an upgrade to Wits Rural Facility (WRF), the University’s internationally renowned research base and rural campus, which is situated on a 350 hectare piece of protected savannah in the Bushbuckridge region of Limpopo, immediately north of some of the most densely populated and poorly resourced areas of the country.

The first phase of the upgrade, which started in March 2014 and is scheduled to finish in December 2014, includes a 120-seat auditorium, two large seminar rooms, wet and dry laboratories, cold rooms, and a restaurant and bar.

The Knowledge Hub is physically situated at the WRF and one of its main functions is to create the programming, interdisciplinary research opportunities and international prestige that will transform WRF from a facility that is used occasionally and by a limited number of researchers into a very lively rural research campus with lots of students.

“There are huge opportunities in this region,” says the Director of the Knowledge Hub, Professor David Bunn. “This is a place crossed by major contradictions that are exemplary of global forces. The form of urbanisation that is happening here is not like the old urbanisation, it is a new kind of rapid transformation in which rural and urban spheres come together in complex settlement transformations. These patterns are becoming visible internationally, in the most rapidly urbanizing areas of the world that are associated with what used to be called the developing world. Many universities are desperate to work on these trends and Wits already has a very extensive presence in the region – it is important for us to maximize that.”

The WRF was established 20 years ago on a game farm. Its core was a programme in public health, the MRC/Wits Rural Public Health and Health Transitions Research Unit (Agincourt), which has since grown to be one of the leading rural public health programmes in the world.

“They have interviewed about 95 000 people per year for 20 years,” says Bunn. “This data is at a household level, it is very detailed, and includes information on things like verbal autopsies and household resilience. Until now it has been used mainly in the discipline of public health but there are other disciplines in which it could be used in exciting ways. One of the Knowledge Hub’s jobs is to work with colleagues and take these existing resources and help for them to be used in a wider way.”

The Knowledge Hub also aims to aid in the advancement of development solutions for policy managers. “Wits research is cutting edge and can have a major impact on developing planning for a range of stakeholders, from local to regional government, to international NGOs. An important function of the Knowledge Hub is to take that research, whether it is in rural health, rural education, economics, law, engineering, or savannah biology – areas in which we have major advantages – and to epitomize it in digestible forms for government, to produce a culture of research-based decision making,” says Bunn.

The Knowledge Hub was conceptualised about five years ago and formally established about 18 months ago. For Bunn, who is the former Head of the Wits School of Arts, it was an ideal opportunity. “My entire life – my entire training – has been towards the belief that academics should be public intellectuals as well. I’ve always used the University as a platform out into other communities. This job enables me to have the kind of split that I’ve always wanted – working in an academic environment, doing research, but then also working very actively with communities,” he says.

The Knowledge Hub’s main focus is in four broad areas: education in rural areas; rural health transitions; socio-ecological-systems and savannah biology; and rural economies and governance. It hosts events, interventions, interdisciplinary research programmes and advanced writing residencies that have a defining impact on how we imagine the complex association between country and city.

It has partnerships with a network of local and national government, civil society and international institutions, including formal partnerships with the UNESCO Kruger to Canyons Biosphere Region [K2C], the Bushbuckridge Local Municipality and the Department of Environmental Affairs. Together with the Wits School of Education and the Department of Education, it has helped to facilitate the return of Wits student teachers to Bushbuckridge schools.

The Knowledge Hub’s research consultancy work includes participation in the massive USAID-funded Resilience in the Limpopo Basin programme, which focusses on the Olifants river sub-catchment from the K2C regions all the way into Mozambique., and together with the 300 member strong Kukula Traditional Healers Group, they have developed an ambitious pilot programme to establish protocols for the sustainable harvesting of medicinal plant materials in protected areas, supported by the UNDP’s Global Environmental Facility.

Four additional areas of focus are producing exciting initiatives and will receive special attention. The first is a vision to establish the WRF as a “Bellagio of the South”, where advanced writing and research residencies for leading scholars will be hosted, modelled on the Rockefeller Centre programmes in Bellagio, Italy. “The idea to establish the WRF as a site where people can come into a retreat environment and produce books, proposals, monographs – in teams or individually,” says Bunn.

The second area of focus is job creation, with a bold new People First Tourism programme already having been launched in neighbouring Bushbuckridge villages. The programme, which was created by Professor Duarte Morais from North Carolina State University, has sites throughout the global south and uses a mobile phone booking system to connect locals with tourists who want to stay in households. It received funding from the Wits Strategic Planning and Resource Allocation Committee (SPARC), the Wits School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences, the Wits Advancement and Partnerships Division, and the Wits Research Office.

The Knowledge Hub has also trained and placed permanent environmental monitors in two provinces, sponsored by SANParks and the Jobs Fund. It is well positioned to continue supporting job creation in the Bushbuckridge area, and discussions with the Wits School of Economic and Business Sciences have led to plans for a Small Business Clinic.

“This is the second most visited tourist area in South Africa (the WRF is immediately south of the Kruger National Park). People live in pretty abject poverty next to resorts where you pay R22 000 per person per night. The long historical contradictions associated with the Bantustans and the exclusive wildlife estates have been maintained and we are now watching the government’s attempts to integrate these poverty nodes into the wildlife economy. The Knowledge Hub has a major role to play in advising on that,” says Bunn.

The third area of focus is training, capacity development, and research support for managers, with a model based on knowledge exchange between researchers, development agencies, and local and regional government. For example, the Knowledge Hub has put forward a proposal to develop new certificate courses at Wits, in collaboration with the South African Wildlife College and Stellenbosch University, which could be studied by local and regional development managers. However, the first priority will remain the production of high quality, interdisciplinary research on rural-urban development in the global south. To further facilitate that process, the Knowledge Hub recently launched and is now hosting the Bushbuckridge Research Forum, helping to coordinate all national and international research exchanges in the region.

Finally, the fourth area of focus is a series of flagship international programmes that will demonstrate the ability of the Hub to coordinate interdisciplinary research at different scales. First among these, is the expansion of the cutting-edge IMAGINE programme (International Mentoring for Advanced Graduates for Interdisciplinary Excellence), led by Dr Melissa McHale of North Carolina State University, building research partnerships with the Chinese Academy of Sciences, Arizona State University, the University of California, Davis, and the Cary Institute. Three additional projects, from among a long list of new initiatives, involve expanding an existing Wits link around indigenous science into rural field sites, with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology; the development of rural smart-grids, with the Oxford Energy and Power Group and the Wits Clean Energy Systems Technology group; and the facilitation of virtual classrooms to teach a Distributed Urban Ecology course, again with North Carolina State University.

“So much is happening,” says Bunn. “We have been working on a shoestring budget, at a pace that has left me breathless, but with overwhelmingly enthusiastic support from colleagues around the world and from some forward-thinking people at WRF and on the main campus. Once our contracts are renewed in 2015,  we will be in a better position to consolidate these disparate gains. We believe that we can build a research campus that exemplifies Wits’s role as one of the world’s most significant intellectual centers for understanding complex, rural-urban linkages, and for advising on just, equitable, and sustainable solutions in the global South.”