Economic Growth

What STEM can do for Africa

Lady Mariéme Jamme
Founder and Chief Executive Officer, iamtheCODE
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Each year, the United States invests billions in STEM education and workforce development, knowing that over 70% of their domestic and international jobs will require those core skills: science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Meanwhile, Africa does not have a robust strategic plan on STEM policies, or even a clear framework for implementing them. It is not even clear if some national leaders understand their importance or meanings.

Consider, for a second, the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources, such us bauxite in Guinea and Ghana. If the governments had a clear strategy on STEM policies, there would be more homegrown cartographers drawing maps, more trained engineers operating machines and building railroads. If we invested more in research and development, our own scientists would be able to prevent diseases such as Ebola. If we invested in our tech entrepreneurs and innovators, we would be able to resolve local problems with local solutions. Instead, China and the US are doing this for us with a hidden price.

This outsourcing of infrastructure is destroying the ability of African governments to invest in STEM skills for the future. We want to have smooth roads in Lagos, Lusaka, Nairobi and Maputo, but if we do not train our people in the right skills we will lose out as a continent.

Currently in Africa, most STEM jobs are performed by or outsourced to multinationals from China, India and the US. In 2014, 87 construction teams arrived in Kenya from China to ensure the construction of the Standard Gauge Railway in Kenya. Most Kenyans could not do the job.

Africa will need a new generation of accountants, auditors, creators, designers, engineers and teachers of maths and science; all these jobs require STEM skills. Who is thinking of this now in Africa? Who is taking this seriously?

African governments are signing infrastructure contracts with the West instead of demanding that the future workforce be trained in something so crucial for development. Thousands of American and Chinese people are working in high-skilled STEM jobs, and meanwhile we complain about the lack of jobs for young Africans.

The term STEM is not yet widely understood in Africa. Its implementation in education systems is catastrophically poor, despite the fact that many ICT ministers collect millions for programmes related to these subjects. You just need to spend time in the corridors of power to realize that the word STEM is simply a laxative jargon that allows ministers to fundraise and make themselves look like they are part of the conversation. In fact, we are nowhere near achieving what needs to be done for our youth – and they are the future of Africa.

Over the next decade, African employers can expect to have many thousands of job openings requiring basic STEM literacy, and more people will need advanced STEM knowledge. For years I have been advocating for good education policies in Africa and the real implementation of STEM subjects in our education system – and nothing has been done. Today, Rwanda and South Africa are the only countries to have successfully looked at this subject.

The US Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is pushing for more awareness on STEM subjects through TechWomen. The British Council is piloting a micro-programme across Africa through the Global Innovation Fund, to increase awareness of STEM – but the reality is that these movements are more focused on teaching English language than real STEM subjects.

The barrier many African governments face in promoting STEM subjects is the lack of people qualified in these subjects. And until they address this, the problem will remain. Every single country in Africa is crying out for skilled young people. The mismatch between their current skills and what the companies need is getting wider. Youth unemployment is extremely high, despite so much money disappearing through back doors every year. Millions of young people could find jobs if our STEM policies were given priority. Trained STEM graduates are great contributors to the African economy. Why can’t they understand this?

While Africa makes up 15% of the world population, its research-and-development capacity is untapped. The governments could do so much by looking into their education policies and making STEM subjects their number one priority. This could also hugely improve Africa’s position in the globally competitive knowledge economy.

2015 is a big year for Africa, especially due to the fact that the same organizations that have failed the African education system, in conspiracy with the African governments, will celebrate the United Nations Millennium Development Goals without regard to the past errors made.

The Millennium Development Goals were big foolish ideas that have let Africans down. I hope the new Sustainable Development Goals will focus heavily on STEM subjects, because Africa needs a world-class workforce in the next decade, or we are doomed.

Author: Marieme Jamme is Founder and Chief Executive Officer of SpotOne Global Solutions.

Image: An engineer guides a train driver at Sudan Railway maintenance complex in Khartoum February 14, 2013. REUTERS/Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah

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Related topics:
Economic GrowthGeographies in DepthEmerging TechnologiesFourth Industrial Revolution
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