Prof Sara Grobbelaar innovates for inclusive development

Prof Sara Grobbelaar innovates for inclusive development

Prof Sara Grobbelaar from the Department of Industrial Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University (SU) delivered her inaugural lecture on Thursday 18 April 2024. The title of her lecture was “Creating Our Shared Future: Innovation for Inclusive Development”.

Grobbelaar, who is also a research associate at SU’s Centre for Research on Evaluation, Science and Technology (CREST), spoke to the Corporate Communication and Marketing Division about how her work on inclusive development aims to increase South Africans’ access to food, healthcare, and education, among others.

Tell us more about your research and why you became interested in this specific field.

My research focuses on understanding the role and process of innovation in mitigating the severe consequences of wealth and income disparities. Despite a reduction in global poverty, wealth distribution remains extremely skewed: since 2015, the wealthiest 1% has possessed more wealth than the rest of the world combined, with 3,4 billion people living on less than $5,50 per day. This concentration of wealth and power in the hands of only a few significantly impacts resource allocation and represents a real threat to democratic regimes. The gap between the affluent and poor is expanding, a tendency accentuated by the Coronavirus epidemic, highlighting disparities in access to jobs, key services such as healthcare and education, and technology.

The poverty penalty is a well-known concept that describes how impoverished individuals may pay more to live, consume, and participate in a market economy. It can take several forms: the poor may have no access or access to lower-quality commodities that cost more than for the rich. High costs or poor-quality commodities have more immediate exclusionary repercussions, such as non-access or non-usage. Non-access can also occur from improper or inaccessible products. For example, medical devices regularly fall in disuse if maintenance is not possible or economically feasible. Healthcare, in particular, is also a category of service in which non-use is frequently not an option, resulting in a spending burden that may have catastrophic consequences. People may have to choose between the medical treatment of a family member and sending a child to school. Case in point, Oxfam says that healthcare expenditures globally cause 100 million people to become impoverished each year.

My research focuses on Innovation for Inclusive Development, which investigates the development of practical ideas to increase access, particularly to food, health, and education. By focusing on these areas, we seek to contribute to the groundwork for understanding how to promote more inclusive development that benefits everyone, particularly the most vulnerable. I am interested in this study area because I believe in using engineering and science to address significant issues. I want to help train a new generation of professionals working on addressing these difficulties.

How would you describe the relevance of your work, especially for a country like South Africa?

The relevance of my work hits home when you look at the challenging situations many South Africans face today. As of February 2024, according to Statistics South Africa, the country has an unemployment rate of 32,1%. This has the effect that many people — around 28 million — rely on government grants that don’t stretch far enough, leaving many vulnerable to food insecurity before the month ends, especially with food inflation soaring at about 18%. For instance, one of our projects in this area is to work with FoodForward South Africa. This foodbank serves almost one million meals daily in South Africa through its network of beneficiary organisations. Our programmes here aim to develop a scientific basis for measuring and reporting the social, economic, and environmental impacts and quantifying, benchmarking, and reporting the reduction of carbon footprint and other pollutants. This helps to make the case for their work, hopefully creating new income streams through, e.g. carbon credits and also to make their operations more efficient and effective.

Regarding our healthcare focus, 71% of South Africans lack medical insurance. The public healthcare system is overstretched, with only one public health doctor available for every 2 500 people and one doctor in the private sector for every 500. Poor South Africans generally don’t have access to good-quality healthcare. An example project here is to collaborate with Unjani Clinics, a private network of clinics, to understand better where to locate their following clinics and how they could scale their operations successfully. Also, we collaborated with Flemish partners to test a product and develop a business model for a passive cold chain technology that has the potential (thanks to built-in tracking and tracking technologies) to enable outcome-based models for the delivery of vaccines.

South Africa’s education system is among the most unequal in the world, with a huge discrepancy in achievement between the top schools and the rest. This system is failing South Africa’s children, where out of every 100 learners, only about 50–60 reach matriculation, and fewer still, around 40–50, pass. Only 14 out of every 100 learners proceed to higher education, leaving many without the skills and qualifications to escape poverty. Two examples of projects in our programme include infrastructure improvements in schools, such as installing more efficient lighting and a study to characterise the air quality of classrooms. We hope to help reduce schools’ bills and to improve children’s learning environments.

In summary, keeping these massive challenges South Africans face daily, my work aims to better understand how innovation can improve access to essential services like food, healthcare, and education. We’re talking about real, practical solutions to tackle these deep-rooted issues. By understanding how to implement and then achieve scaling of innovative ideas successfully, we aim to foster a more inclusive development that benefits everyone, especially those who need it the most. The problems are enormous, but that’s precisely why we are doing this work!

You have spent many years in the challenging environment of higher education. What keeps you motivated when things get tough?

My experience of my work environment is that it is super supportive and friendly. Work pressure will always be there and is part of life. It is down to planning, realistic to-do lists, good exercise habits, a great support system, and taking holidays when they are due.

What aspects of your work do you enjoy the most?

I love my job because I get to work with some of the best people in the field, doing things that genuinely have the potential to make a difference in the world. As my career has progressed, I’ve also had more and more chances to team up with experts from all over the globe (e.g. Brazil, USA, Sweden, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, India). This drives our work forward and opens up many doors for our entire research group. It’s pretty exciting!

You have made your mark in Engineering. What would your message be to other women in the engineering profession?

Take up space, don’t hold back, and choose a husband who’ll support you in everything you do – it’s the most important decision you’ll ever make.

Tell us something exciting about yourself that people would not expect.

I’ve recently embarked on a creative project to write and illustrate children’s books using Generative Artificial Intelligence (GAI) with my son (turning seven) and daughter (turning five) as the main characters. These characters use engineering and science for the good of society. My primary goal is to foster a love of reading and work a life lesson or two into the story. For instance, my son takes on the role of a boy engineer who has constructed an aircraft (to touch the clouds), fixed a baker’s oven (to help feed the town), and even built a space rocket (to save people on the international space station)! Through these narratives, I aim to nurture aspirations and spark creativity in my children. I’m eager to see how I can continue using GAI to help them learn and try to use it for their development.

How do you spend your free time?

I love spending time with my family and friends and sharing good times and plenty of laughs. Our social calendar is usually quite packed, which suits me perfectly – it’s how I recharge and have fun!

Photograph: (from left to right) Prof Corné Schutte (Vise-Dean: Research), Prof Nico Koopman (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Social Impact, Transformation & Personnel), Prof Sara Grobbelaar, Prof Celeste Viljoen (Acting Dean: Faculty of Engineering) and Prof Joubert van Eeden (Chair: Department of Industrial Engineering).

Credit: Ignus Dreyer (The Stellenbosch Centre for Photographic Services).