Want to build bridges to Africa's future? Then train engineers

Africa will need to invest billions in infrastructure in the next decade, and build up its engineering capacity to mobilise and utilise resources.

Africa is recording remarkable economic growth against all odds. The International Monetary Fund has projected that the continent will grow by 6.1% in 2014, compared with a world average of 3.7%. The challenge is how to sustain this impressive growth and spread its benefits.

The answer to this question lies in Africa"s age-old challenge: poor infrastructure. The World Bank projects that Africa will need to invest $93-billion a year over the next decade to meet its infrastructure shortfalls.

The focus on financing tends to overshadow the fact that the capacity to mobilise and utilise such resources will be limited by the continent"s low level of engineering capacity. Building such capacity rapidly is important for three key reasons:

First, Africa needs a large pool of trained engineers to help with the design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure projects. Some of the work can be design and construction can be done with the help of foreign engineers. However, routine maintenance and additional construction will require significant and timely creation of local engineering capacity.

Second, infrastructure investments alone cannot guarantee sustained economic growth and spread of prosperity. This requires entrepreneurs who can identify business opportunities associated with new infrastructure projects.

Third, much of the technological knowledge needed to sustain Africa"s economies is available in the public domain. Africa"s access to such knowledge is not limited by intellectual property rights but by lack of engineering capacity and limited incentives for enterprise development.

It is for these reasons that the UK Royal Academy of Engineering has launched the £25 000 Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation to reward innovation and entrepreneurship in Africa. The is "the biggest prize devoted to engineering innovation, covering all disciplines from mechanical, civil and computing to biomedical, oil and gas, mining and electronic engineering," according to the Academy.

Daunting challenges
On the face of it, Africa"s engineering challenges are daunting. Leading economies such as South Africa and Nigeria suffer from critical shortages that are worsened by international skill migration. It is estimated that South Africa loses through migration nearly as many engineers as its trains annually. Worse, no Africa country maintains reliable records on the training and deployment of engineers.

There are a few strategic measures that African countries can use to ramp up their engineering capabilities:

First, African countries need to demonstrate the critical role that infrastructure plays in entrepreneurship and development. The most inspirational opportunity today is making broadband more accessible and affordable to young entrepreneurs seeking to create technology-based applications and ventures.

Second, specific measures need to be adopted to expand engineering training. To achieve this goal, African countries will need to supplement traditional university departments with novel approaches that include upgrading training institutes in line ministries, enhancing engineering training within private and public enterprises, and building stronger international partnerships in engineering education and training.

Third, all major infrastructure projects should include specific engineering education objectives as part of project performance. Expansion of telecoms infrastructure should include support for new electronics engineering schools. Similarly, expanding road networks should be accompanied by the creation of civil engineering institutes. Such investments will pay off in the long run through reductions in maintenance costs.

Fourth, African governments need to revise their project tendering systems so that they specifically provide for engineering training and the involvement of local engineering firms. In building its high-speed rail network, South Korea specifically focused on the need to acquire the underlying engineering know-how and managed the bidding process accordingly. The lowest bid may not be the best option for pursuing such a competence-building strategy.

Fifth, African armed forces represent one of the most important sources of engineering capacity. Carefully-designed programmes could help to repurpose sections of the military to support infrastructure construction. To do this, the military will need to strengthen its own internal engineering capacity. Engaging the military in civilian projects is not new. What is important is to clarify the lines of accountability and design strategies that foster better co-operation between civil and military activities.

Champions, leaders
Finally, these measures will require presidential champions. The basis for cultivating such champions is emerging in Africa. There is growing consensus among African countries on the importance of infrastructure in development. This is reflected in the draft Agenda 2063 of the African Union.

Equally important is the rise of technocratic leaders across Africa. In 2012 Egypt, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Somalia and Senegal elected engineers to their top political leadership positions. The presidents of Niger and Eritrea are trained engineers. Nigeria"s leader has doctoral training in the sciences and the chairperson of the AU is trained in medicine. This makes Africa the continent with the highest proportion of leaders trained in engineering, science and medicine.

But above all, engineering will continue to languish until African countries start to recognise and honour engineers who are dedicated to turning ideas into products and services through enterprise development. In this respect, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation has a much larger role than just rewarding a few selected teams. It serves as a role model of how Africa can start on a new path of creative construction.

Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Faculty Chair of the Innovation for Economic Development Programme at Harvard Kennedy School. He is on the selection juries of the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation and the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering.  He is author of The New Harvest: Agricultural Innovation in Africa. Twitter @calestous

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