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Bio Burials And Life After Death

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The lack of burial spaces is leading entrepreneurs to come up with out-of-the-box alternatives such as bio-burials, virtual graves and space disposal.

Mankind has been burying its dead since time immemorial. But what happens when we run out of burial space on a planet that is also running out of space for the living?

A new generation of options are being pioneered by enterprising businesses that could change the way we send off loved ones. For example, San Francisco-based Elysium Space describes itself as a “memorial spaceflight” company planning to send the ashes of dead people into orbit, hitching on to one of South African entrepreneur Elon Musk’s rockets.

Closer home, there are alternative on-the-ground solutions being looked at. A South African startup, Biotree.earth, produces biodegradable urns made out of natural plant fibers and materials that aid in fertilizing soil and neutralizing the pH levels of ashes, creating a healthy environment to grow trees.

It was founded by 60-year-old Dereck Holmes and 28-year-old Christo Cilliers. Generations apart, they are on the same page when it comes to life and death matters.

Holmes, who already owns a logistics company, never thought he would find himself in the business of death and funerals.

“The whole concept of Biotree.earth is that it celebrates the life of a person and not the death and you can see it manifest in the tree of life and [it’s] not a piece of stone in the ground,” says Holmes.

He has four children and four grandchildren and is Biotree’s CEO. Cilliers left his advertising business to start Biotree.earth and is now its Managing Director.

Chris Cilliers. Photo by Gypseenia Lion.

 

“I feel that the funeral industry is very dated, our practices are very dated and they are not considerate of the environment at all. And I just believe that there’s a time and space, that is now, to start addressing that industry and create a more sustainable alternative,” says Cilliers.

The inception of the business was when he had a light-bulb moment about an alternative to conventional burials and cremation.

“Cremation in itself is not necessarily sustainable because when we cremate a body, there is still a carbon offset that we need to deal with because we are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere,” he says.

“One adult tree produces about 170kg of oxygen a year. And then I went ‘but is that enough to offset what we are doing with cremation’?”

The idea was to double that effect by growing a tree for every body cremated.

He developed and tested the product for two years and then approached Holmes with the idea.

Coincidentally, Holmes, who owns a farm next to the Vaal River in South Africa, was also thinking of an alternative way to bury his animals.

“Chris came to see me simultaneously and I told him, ‘look I’m interested in creating a biodegradable urn for animals’. He had ones that were for humans. So we said, ‘how can we combine this’.”

Holmes invested in Cillier’s business idea and the two ventured into completely new turf selling biodegradable urns suitable for humans and animals and in 2015, they started operations.

They tested out their first animal bio urn on one of Holmes’ farm animals, a pet duck named Gosling in 2016.

They cremated the duck, put the ashes into the base of the urn, dug a hole and placed the urn in the ground.

They planted a lavender seed to celebrate the life of the duck, and it grew into a lavender shrub.

The trial was a success and the same year, Holmes buried a chicken named Henrietta, and in 2017, he buried a duck named Norman using the bio urns.

Fiona Kantor from Wynburg, a suburb in Cape Town, lost her mother in 2015 and cremated her.

After researching bio burials, she came across Biotree.earth and purchased an urn. A year later, her dad fell ill and also passed away. He was cremated.

She then placed both her parents’ ashes in the same urn.

Fiona Kantor. Photo Provided.

“It’s almost bringing them back to life in a way… It was more [about being] closer to them spiritually and have a place we could visit, and contribute to the environment,” Kantor tells FORBES AFRICA.

She planted an erythrina lysistemon, known as the common coral tree, that’s bright red in color, in the urn.

“At the moment, mom and dad are in a very beautiful green pot in my patio,” she says happily.

In a sense, the words ‘family tree’ take on a new meaning here.

Cilliers was astounded by Kantor’s story and says: “That’s one of the things where someone really thought out-of-the-box and used the product to make it something unique to their story.”

The pet urns go for R2,290 ($152) a piece and the human urns for R2,490 ($166). Biotree.earth has also grown to a staff of 10.

Trees of life

On touching, the urn feels plastic but it is made of natural plant fibers that bio-degrade in the soil after about two months, depending on soil and weather conditions.

The ashes go into biodegradable bags and are placed in the base of the urn. This prevents the ashes’ alkalinity from damaging the plant’s roots as it grows. The top of the urn gets re-attached and 800ml of water is added to expand a soil disk inside. A seed can then be planted.

In addition to the coral tree, other locally-conducive tree seed options include bolusanthus speciosus known as elephant’s wood, acacia tortilis known as umbrella thorn, cytisus scoparius known as the common broom, castanea sativa known as sweet chestnut, and quercus robur known as the English oak.

Once the seed has germinated, the urn is planted in the ground.

Cilliers attests he has never received any negative feedback about a plant failing to germinate. The trees can be planted in backyards so long as they are not on private land or in a botanical garden.

Can you actually become a tree after death?

Professor Cas Wepener, a theologian and religious studies scholar at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, has done research on rituals in the Christian religion and work pertaining to death.

“People’s beliefs and views concerning death have changed quite a lot and what we call future hope, ‘eschatology’, in theological terms has also changed and it has changed from ideas about heaven to ideas about better ecology,” he tells FORBES AFRICA.

He says that the planting of a tree symbolizes different things in different cultures and shows something about their faith. But there are different views.

From a scientific perspective, Professor Mary Scholes from the School of Animal, Plant and Environmental Sciences at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, says that it is impossible for ashes or for a dead body, if buried close to a tree, to generate energy which could be used by the tree.

Ash is made up of magnesium, calcium and potassium. “Energy is defined in physical terms and ash does not meet this definition. If someone wants to believe that energy is generated in a spiritual way, they are perfectly entitled to their opinion,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

A multi-billion rand industry

Due to the many different cultures within the South African context, Cilliers’ and Holmes’ biggest challenge is to change the perceptions around burials.

“The funeral industry is a very tight-knit group… when someone new steps into that and poses direct competition, it is not always accepted. So it has been a very difficult journey to get people to accept the idea. It has been a very difficult journey to get the product out to consumers,” admits Cilliers.

“I feel like there’s a very big monopoly in the funeral industry that’s not right. You know, when we are benefitting from people’s death, that’s not right.”

Cilliers says Biotree has seen a growth of 21% from February last year to this February. They have also expanded into seven countries including the United Kingdom, Portugal, the United States, Mexico and Canada.

Twentynine-year-old Lethi Mngadi is one prospective client buying in to the concept of bio-burials.

“Before I used to think cremations [were a] ‘no’. But now I’m like ‘let me just donate all my organs, get cremated’ and I know that my family has control over what they do with me,” she says.

She is the marketing coordinator for Doves, a funeral provider in southern Africa, and has been working in the funeral business for three years.

One sunny spring afternoon in September, FORBES AFRICA visits the Doves funeral home in Randburg, a residential town in Johannesburg.

There are spring flowers and roses in the gardens surrounding the main office.

But these aren’t just your normal garden flowers, they are home to ashes buried in clay urns.

“Underneath each of these rose bushes, there is someone,” says Willie Jansen van Nieuwenhuizen, the branch manager of Doves’ Randburg branch.

He works with Mngadi and has been part of the funeral business for over 30 years.

“The funeral business is a multi-billion rand industry,” he says.

According to Hippo, a financial services provider, there are more than 100,000 burial societies in South Africa and about 18.9 million South African adults are covered by a funeral plan.

They say the biggest expense when organizing a funeral is the coffin or casket.

An average casket could cost around R8,000 ($533) while top-of-the-range coffins could sell for between R37,500 ($2,500) and R50,000 ($3,332) or more. The grave would range from R1,500 ($100) to R6,000 ($400) and a headstone can cost from R1,500 to R7,000 ($467).

Conservatively, all of the above could approximately cost R40,500 ($2,700), whilst a cremation could total up to approximately R7,000 ($467). A private cremation can cost around R5,000 ($300) while a chapel cremation starts at around R9,000 ($600).

Thankfully, preferences are changing.

“Most families would prefer not to leave a carbon footprint,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen. Mngadi agrees: “I think it’s also the millennials, especially in the black culture, we always want to bury. But now our generation is starting to be more educated about what’s going on. Because you are going to be burying your parents, you are now more educated and informed about all the different options.”

 

A buried urn at Doves funeral home. Photo by Karen Mwendera.

 

Grave issues

The prevailing problem in South Africa and many parts of the world is that burial space is limited.

A 2013 survey by BBC Local Radio indicated nearly half of England’s cemeteries could run out of space within the next 20 years.

“By 2025, we won’t have burial space left,” agrees Cilliers.

As per news reports in South Africa earlier this year, families have been encouraged to share gravesites by Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo that’s in charge of the City of Johannesburg’s cemeteries and designated public spaces.

READ MORE: Even If We Conquer Death – Should We?

This means a family member might have to be buried on top of another.

The argument is that being buried in the same grave has huge cost-savings‚ is environment-friendly and affords families a central point to pay tribute and conduct religious ceremonies if needed.

However, Van Nieuwenhuizen says that burying bodies in one gravesite can cause further problems.

“If it is a very wet season, the settlement does take longer, because the coffin at the bottom is going to collapse.”

Of the 32 cemeteries across Johannesburg‚ only four have not yet reached full capacity; Westpark‚ Olifantsvlei‚ Diepsloot and Waterval cemeteries are still able to house over one million future graves, says a report on timeslive.co.za in April. Johannesburg itself has a population of over five million.

“So it is becoming more expensive to bury a person in cemeteries,” says Mngadi.

“It’s becoming very limited as well because of space. So you will find that in rural areas, people still bury in their yards. But us in urban areas would rather not. And purely because you don’t want to leave your loved one in Johannesburg and then relocate.”

These considerations force some to opt for cremation, preserve the urn or scatter the ashes.

“To put it in a simpler form, we are going to get to a point where you are forced; you have no other option but to cremate because where are you going to put your loved one?” says Mngadi.

Another problem plaguing the burial business is theft and vandalism.

During our interview, Van Nieuwenhuizen shows us an image on his phone of a grave that was recently dug up and the body removed.

He says some of the reasons people dig up graves is to use the body for muti (traditional medicine), witchcraft or to make crystal meth.

The Friday before our visit to Doves, they had reported missing marble headstones. People who steal them, they say, varnish the engraved names and resell the headstones to other users.

“[People] are now being abducted for their parts while they are alive, so how [much] worse is it when you are putting your loved one in a cemetery that has very limited security,” adds Mngadi.

This is one of the reasons why both Van Nieuwenhuizen and Mngadi advocate cremations.

“I find more comfort in knowing that my mom is in a beautiful urn in our house than not knowing what’s happening at the cemetery,” she says.

But even so, cremations can be taxing on the environment.

As per an article in the Huffington Post, “the average cremation uses 28 gallons of fuel to burn a single body, emitting about 540 pounds of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. That’s about 250,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year”.

Experts are therefore still looking for new innovations to come up with answers.

What does the future of funerals look like?

“I think we will eradicate traditional burials. Whether that be in the next 10 or 30 years, I am not sure,” Cilliers offers.

“Burials are going to stop sooner or later, and then we are going to move over to resomation,” says Van Nieuwenhuizen.

Resomation or biocremation is an alkaline hydrolysis process that typically produces less carbon dioxide than cremation.

Another alternative is to create a diamond out of a loved one’s ashes by extracting the carbon remains.

Space burials have also been introduced where they blast the cremated remains into outer space.

You can send the ashes of your loved ones into space on one of techpreneur Elon Musk’s SpaceX rockets for $2,500.

Burials gone digital

At the time of the interview with Biotree.earth founders Cilliers and Holmes, they were launching an additional product to their business, a digital funeral platform.

Memory Lane is an online app that details a person’s life including key milestones, where they have traveled to and their life’s achievements.

With every urn sold, a code is given to the client to create an online memorial and geo-tag the urn.

“In concept, it’s like a virtual grave,” says Cilliers.

Holmes says the app won’t only be for the dead but for the living as well.

“It takes you down memory lane. So you can write a biography about yourself, and then it can take you to all the places you have traveled to, the pets you have had and it puts that on a timeline with the photos and a gallery,” he says.

“Over and above that, you’ve got a life file which is a safe, which keeps your will, any title deeds you have to your properties, insurance properties, all your codes you have to your ATM cards, everything. That lifeline is bank encrypted. So it has one-time pin numbers that no one can get into until after your death.”

Only nominated guardians can gain access to it and your friends and family can continue to contribute to your site with pictures or stories and family trees.

Even people who can’t make the funeral can post online.

Holmes was inspired to create this site after not being able to save his late parents’ photos in one place.

This, he feels would be a way to digitally track a family’s lineage for years to come. Holmes says the app will be free for the first few years.

As for the future of burials, he says: “I think the concept of burial forests will become bigger and bigger as we start moving out of the developed areas and move into the rural areas to create burial forests with long-term sustainability and as gardens of remembrance.”

Cilliers and Holmes hope that with each death, a new tree, a new life can take its place, creating a greener earth in the process.

Arts

Oliver Mtukudzi The Soldier With A Big Voice – Yvonne Chaka Chaka

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In January, Africa lost Oliver Mtukudzi. His friend and fellow musician Yvonne Chaka Chaka fondly remembers the global icon. 

In October 2012, Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi, South Africa’s Yvonne Chaka Chaka and Kenya’s Suzanna Owíyo produced Because I Am Girl with musicians from around the world.

It was released to promote the global launch of Plan International’s ‘Because I am A Girl’ campaign, marking the first UN International Day of the Girl Child, on October 11.

READ MORE | Tribute To Oliver Mtukudzi – Zimbabwe’s ‘Man With The Talking Guitar’

Dressed in African prints, they sang together, spreading the word about the empowerment of the girl child.

Mtukudzi’s bass and Chaka Chaka’s soulful voice in harmony, they became more than co-artists; they become brother and sister. It was the first performance of many for the two.

Seven years on, Chaka Chaka is teary-eyed about Mtukudzi’s death 23 days into 2019, when not just she, but Africa lost a music legend.

In a strange coincidence, Mtukudzi died the same day the continent lost the father of South African jazz, Hugh Masekela, last year.

On the phone for this interview, Chaka Chaka describes Mtukudzi as a soldier at work.

“When he was on stage, he was a totally different man. When he had his guitar, it was like a soldier. Like a soldier who has a gun at work,” she tells us.

“I think there were two different people. Offstage, he was just an ordinary man, and on stage, people ate out of the palm of his hand.

“I’ve never known Oliver to never be fit. He has been a skinny man and he would just twist that body with a guitar and that gravel voice of his. A big voice in a small body,” she says.

“He has never called me Yvonne, he has always called me Fifi… Fifi means sister.

“The man was always humble, he never raised his voice, I have never seen him angry and all he has ever wanted is just to see Africa thriving. He wanted to see Africa beautiful. He wanted to see Africa with less disease, less hunger, less corruption, a happy Africa – that was his wish.”

One anecdote Chaka Chaka shares is when Mtukudzi was made a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador in Zimbabwe in 2011.

“You know he sat there with me and asked, ‘so, what does this entail, my sister? You have been a goodwill ambassador for a long time. You will tell me what needs to be done. How should I act? How should I react? How should I do things?’

“And I’m like, ‘no, but you know, you are more of a star than me and you have been in this industry long before I’. He was just so down-to-earth and had no chip on his shoulder.” 

The last performance the two did together was in October last year in Harare during the Jacaranda Festival, attended by more than 2,000 people and other artists around the continent.

“Oliver was not in his changing room or at home. He stayed there and watched other artists perform, which was so great,” says Chaka Chaka.

“This year, he promised that we would do it [the Jacaranda Festival] in Bulawayo,” she said. They had planned to make it a big show and use their status as goodwill ambassadors to encourage and inspire more youth.

 But sadly, that promise will never be fulfilled.

“The legacy he will leave behind is a legacy of love, the legacy of pro-African and I think for me he was a pan-Africanist. That’s what he was,” she says.

READ MORE | Zimbabwe’s Oliver Mtukudzi Dies At 66

To this day, Neria is still one of Chaka Chaka’s favorite songs by him.

 Mtukudzi, who died aged 66 of diabetes, was laid to rest on January 27 in his home village of  Madziwa.

Thousands sang and danced to the melodies of his songs.

President Emmerson Mnangagwa declared him a national hero, posthumously, a status that has previously been reserved for ruling party elite and independence veterans.

He may be gone but his music will live forever in the hearts of the fans that loved this legend who soldiered on until the end.

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Economy

What A Failed Johannesburg Project Tells Us About Mega Cities In Africa

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Six years ago a major development was announced in South Africa. Billed as a game changer, it was meant to alter the urban footprint of Johannesburg, Africa’s richest city, forever.

The Modderfontein New City project was launched amid much fanfare, expectation and media hype.

Zendai, a Chinese developer, bought a 1600-hectare site north-east of Johannesburg for the development, which it quickly dubbed as the “New York of Africa”. Early plans showed it was to include 55,000 housing units, 1,468,000 m2 of office space and all the necessary amenities for urban life in the form of a single large-scale urban district. The cost estimate was set at R84 billion.

The developers believed that Modderfontein could function as a global business hub and would become Johannesburg’s main commercial center, replacing Sandton. The project would also change Johannesburg’s international profile by strengthening relations with Asian corporate interests.

But, despite the release of futuristic computer-generated images which led to significant publicity for the project, it was never built. Instead, the land was eventually sold off. Another developer has since begun construction on a much more scaled down project, in the form of a gated-community style housing development.

Modderfontein has faded away from the public consciousness. The story of why it failed has never been adequately told in the media.

Our research, which took place over the course of several years, sought to understand the factors which led to the project’s demise. We also wanted to find out how Modderfontein’s failure relates to the broader African urban context.

We found that the project was hindered by conflicting visions between the developer and the City of Johannesburg. Moreover, unexpectedly low demand for both housing and office space meant the original plan for the project was incompatible with the city’s real estate market.

The project’s trajectory also shows how African “edge-city” developments, which are generally elite-driven and marketed as “eco-friendly” or “smart”, can be influenced by a strong local government with the means and willingness to shape development.

Conflicting interests

Zendai’s aspirations to produce a high-end, mixed-used development did not fit with the City of Johannesburg’s approach. Rather than a luxurious global hub, the city wanted a more inclusive development – one which reflected the principles outlined in its 2014 Spatial Development Framework.

At the heart of the framework is the desire to reshape a trend that saw capital leave the old central business district for affluent Sandton at the dawn of democracy in 1994. This was accompanied by an upsurge in securitised suburbs further north towards Pretoria, the country’s capital city.

These spatial trends were incompatible with the ideals of South Africa’s new democratic government and its strategy to mitigate the effects of apartheid-era planning. During apartheid, black people were prohibited from living in more affluent areas, which were reserved for the minority white population. Instead, they were forced into sprawling “townships” on the periphery of cities, far from work and economic opportunities.

To this end, the city demanded that Zendai include at least 5 000 affordable homes in its plans. It also wanted to ensure that the development was compatible with, and complemented, Johanneburg’s public transport system. The city was willing to contribute funding for the necessary infrastructure and inclusive housing.

Yet Zendai remained steadfast in its commitment to its vision, eventually deciding against fully integrating the city’s wishes into its planning application. This saw the city draw-out the planning process.

Meanwhile, problems were mounting for Zendai. The owner, Dai Zhikang, was eventually forced to sell his stake in the project to the China Orient Asset Management Company. Rather than continuing with the project, the asset managers sold the land to the company behind the new housing development on the site.

Smart cities in Africa

Over the last decade, a variety of developments like Modderfontein, including Eko-Atlantic in Nigeria, New Cairo in Egypt, and Konza Technology City in Kenya, have been touted by both public and private sectors as panaceas for Africa’s urban problems. The thinking is that as the developments are disconnected from the existing urban landscape, they won’t be burdened by crime or informality. However, these projects can take badly needed resources away from the marginalised areas of the city.

To make them more palatable to domestic and international audiences, the developments are usually marketed as “smart” or “eco-friendly”.

But these developments can fail at the point of implementation. This is because, as speculative projects, they generally don’t recognise the need to fit in with the wishes of the local authorities or adapt to the existing city. In the case of Modderfontein, the city government had the capability to push back against the developers and, in the end tried to shape the project to better fit Johannesburg’s urban realities. – The Conversation

-Ricardo Reboredo; PhD Candidate in Geography, Trinity College Dublin

-Frances Brill; Research fellow, UCL

The Conversation

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Focus

4 Ways To Develop Employment-Ready Graduates

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Chris Pilgrim, the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, on the potential game-changers in higher education on the continent.


It is to a verdant academic campus in Ghana   that Chris Pilgrim will be packing his bags from the dunes of Dubai. As the new CEO of Transnational Academic Group (TAG) West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana, Pilgrim will provide students across emerging markets access to post-secondary and executive education.

TAG currently owns and operates Lancaster University’s campus in Ghana, Curtin University’s Dubai campus, and South Africa-based ABN Training in partnership with the Australian Institute of Management in Western Australia.

Pilgrim, who has helped develop TAG’s expansion in Africa and has over 25 years of experience in the higher education sector, spoke to FORBES AFRICA about skills-building, STEM and job creation:

READ MORE | Education Quality and the Youth Skills Gap Are Marring Progress in Africa

1. Are more universities looking to set up here?

A. With over half a million African students studying abroad annually, the continent has the highest outbound student ratio (number of outbound tertiary students/total number of tertiary students) in the world. Along with this annual migration of students comes capital flight, increased brain drain, and a hesitancy to build further world-class higher education capacity on the continent.

TAG partners with globally top-ranked universities to provide the highest quality of higher education in emerging market nations, thereby reversing, albeit modestly, the flow of students.

Our campus in Ghana, in partnership with Lancaster University (ranked sixth in the UK), provides world-class higher education capacity for West Africans, and it has seen students from other countries, including outside of Africa, take up enrolment.

TAG’s Lancaster University Ghana is the only comprehensive UK university campus in mainland Africa, and while TAG is undertaking steps to open similar branch campuses in other African countries, other investors and top-ranked universities have not moved to open campuses in the region.


Chris Pilgrim, the CEO of Transnational Academic Group West Africa and Lancaster University Ghana.

2. How can Africa build skills, capacity and create more jobs?

A. While there has been a modest growth of employment in the formal job sector in some countries, many of Africa’s youth are more likely today to take up work in the informal sectors and in family enterprises.

Africa, as a region, has the largest youth population in the world, and with over 11 million young people expected to enter the job market each year, its economies are stretched to productively absorb Africa’s greatest asset – this youth population.

While the continent’s education capacities and output are integral to leveraging this youth population into a potential demographic dividend, investments, both private and public, into relevant higher education capacities, particularly STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) capacity, are limited.

In the long-term, addressing the underlying causes of unemployment and skills-gap lies in increasing enrolment in secondary and tertiary education, with a focus on STEM, thus enabling graduates to participate in the new economies and globalization emerging with the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Innovation, technology, and entrepreneurship are fundamental to creating the jobs of the future.

3. What is the increasing role of STEM programs?

A. While the vital importance of STEM education to infrastructure development, healthcare, energy security, agriculture, and the environment are well cited over the past decade, the role of STEM and digital skills in preparing for 4IR are potential game-changers.

READ MORE | Kenyan Approach Holds Promise for Boosting Early Childhood Education

African nations need to develop “future-ready curricula that encourage critical thinking, creativity and emotional intelligence as well as accelerate acquisition of digital and STEM skills to match the way people will work and collaborate in 4IR” (Source: WEF 2017 The Future of Jobs and Skills in Africa).

Lancaster University Ghana has been delivering relevant computer science curriculum since its inception, and is set to launch programs in engineering this year, followed by additional programs in STEM disciplines.

4. How are you creating future leaders?

A. TAG Ghana works closely with Lancaster University to assure that our students receive an education that is relevant both locally, and in the global context. We work closely with industry and the community to understand their needs so our graduates are employment-ready.

Interviewed by Methil Renuka

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