Africa is experiencing remarkable economic growth against all odds. The International Monetary Fund has projected that the continent will grow by 6.1 per cent in 2014, compared to the world average of 3.7 per cent. The trends are accompanied by growing interest in sustainable and inclusive growth among African leaders.
The challenge is how to sustain this impressive growth and spread its benefits. The answer to this question lies largely in Africa’s age-old challenge: poor infrastructure.
The World Bank projects that Africa will need to invest US$93 billion a year over the next decade to meet its infrastructure shortfalls.
However, the focus on financing tends to overshadow the fact the capacity to mobilize and utilize 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 appropriately trained engineers to help with the design, construction and maintenance of infrastructure. Some of the work can be done with the help of foreign engineers. However, routine maintenance and additional construction will require significant and timely creation of local 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.
LOSSES THROUGH MIGRATION
Third, much of the technological knowledge needed to sustain Africa’s economies is available in the public domain. Access to such knowledge is not limited by intellectual property 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 (Sh3.7 million) Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation. This 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.
At face value, 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 it trains annually. Worse, no African country maintains reliable records on training and deployment of engineers.
There are a few strategic measures that the countries can use to ramp up their capacity. 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.
Access to broadband should be viewed in the same category as transportation networks. Indeed, African cities have begun providing free Wi-Fi to stimulate entrepreneurial activities. Such experiments are underway in Kenya, Nigeria, Rwanda and South Africa.
Second, specific measures need to be adopted to expand engineering training. African countries will need to supplement traditional university departments with novel approaches that include upgrading training institutes to offer certified engineering training, strengthening engineering training within private and public enterprises, and forging stronger international education partnerships.
Third, all major infrastructure projects should include specific engineering education objectives as part of performance. Expansion of telecoms infrastructure should include support for new electronics engineering schools. Examples of such efforts include the role of telecoms ministries in creation of new technology universities in Egypt, Ghana and Kenya.
Similarly, ongoing infrastructure corridors such as the one connecting Kenya to South Sudan and Ethiopia provide a foundation. Mining operations on the continent should also serve as foundations for building capacity. Such investments will pay off in the long run through reductions in maintenance costs.
REVISE PROJECT TENDERING
Fourth, African governments need to revise their procurement project tendering systems so that they specifically provide for engineering training and the involvement of local engineering firms.
Fifth, armed forces are 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 forces in civilian projects is not new. What is important is to clarify the lines of accountability and design strategies that foster better cooperation with civilian agencies.
Finally, these measures will require presidential champions. 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 (AU).
Equally important is the rise of technocratic leaders across Africa. In 2012 Egypt, Tunisia, Ethiopia, Somalia and Senegal elected engineers to top political offices. These and other cases make Africa the continent with the highest number of leaders trained engineering, science and medicine.
Above all, engineering will continue to languish until African countries start to recognise engineers who are dedicated to turning ideas into products and services. The Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation has a bigger role than just rewarding a few selected teams. It serves as a role model on how Africa can start on a new path of creative construction.