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Dr Wouter Bam likes to grapple with the bigger picture

Coming from a family of medical doctors, Dr Wouter Bam broke the mould and opted for engineering, specifically Industrial Engineering. “I enjoy working at systems level and grappling with the bigger picture,” he explains. For his PhD he also broke the mould. This qualification is a joint degree, namely a PhD in Industrial Engineering at Stellenbosch University, and a PhD in Economics from KU Leuven.

Although an engineer at heart, Dr Bam has always been interested in economics as well. This interest was awakened at school when it was one of his subjects. After obtaining a BEng (Industrial Engineering) cum laude in 2012 at Stellenbosch, his interest in economics spilled over to a master’s degree at the University of Cambridge from 2013 to 2014. “The research for my master’s dealt with the viability of renewable chemical feedstock value chains. After completing my master’s degree, I naïvely thought that investigating the question of whether mineral-rich developing countries should beneficiate their minerals locally would be an easy and natural progression from my masters studies,” he adds.

“It turned out that my topic, which investigated the issue of whether it is better for countries to export or process their own raw materials, was more complex than I expected. Because the topic also has significant overlaps with geography, economics and development studies, I also spoke to researchers in other fields, universities and faculties. I was surprised to find that relatively few researchers addressed the economics of beneficiation at an international trade level. I looked further afield and decided on a possible joint-degree with an international university. Stellenbosch University has agreements on joint-degrees with several universities and after a lot of searching for a specialist, I was referred to Prof Karolien De Bruyne in the Department of Economics at KU Leuven. I spent six months in Belgium as part of my PhD studies and worked closely with Prof De Bruyne during the latter part of my studies. Doing a joint-degree was a very fulfilling experience as I was exposed to interdisciplinary knowledge at both universities. The only ‘difficult’ thing about a joint-degree is that you have to meet the requirements of both universities. This meant, for example, that I had a bigger panel at my oral examination, with representatives from both universities in order to meet the requirements of both institutions.”

Dr Bam is also a dedicated lecturer. He has co-coordinated the module Project Management offered to 600 students and presents Enterprise Design to final-year industrial engineering students. “I enjoy lecturing a lot, but I am very careful not to allow my lecturing to ‘cannibalise’ my research, as this is my main focus.”

With four degrees to his name before the age of 30, what are Dr Bam’s future plans? “We have received funding for a two-year VLIR-UOS project funded by the Flemish Interuniversity Council. The project seeks to build on the work resulting from my PhD research and to get policymakers together to consider how industrial policymaking in developing countries can be improved. It would be ideal if this could eventually lead to cooperation with international policymakers and industry.”

Title: Industrial policy-making in mineral-rich developing countries.

Summary: The dissertation investigated policy-making in mineral-rich developing countries with a focus on policies that promote the value add to mineral products before export (also known as beneficiation policy). It explores how mineral value chains may be conceptualised to enable a holistic contextualisation of such policy. It presents two novel analytical frameworks that support the appraisal of the strategic value of different downstream processing activities. It also presents a framework that enables the appraisal of the factors driving the location of a particular activity. The dissertation thereby provides practical tools to policy-makers in order to support improved developmental outcomes.

Photograph: Dr Wouter Bam.

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