The African continent is on the cusp of a major transformation. Many economies are growing, with growth driven by investments in infrastructure and energy, trade, and by a stable macro-economic environment. I think that this growth will lead to socio-economic transformation (with higher-income jobs and a better quality of life) if it is also accompanied by building skills and research capacity in applied sciences, engineering, and technology (ASET).

We need science and technology to fix Africa’s problems in agriculture, energy, health, infrastructure and emerging challenges, such as climate change.  When Africa faces epidemics like Ebola, technicians and scientists are needed to conduct the lab work and stop the spread of the virus.

Many were proud to know that university in Nigeria, Redeemer’s University, developed a rapid response diagnostics test that can detect Ebola virus in 15 minutes.  Kenya is establishing the African Geo-thermal Centre of Excellence to build the skilled human capital needed to utilize the vast geothermal energy resources of the region, which can provide low-cost, green energy to households and enterprises.
We need many more African institutions capable of applying and developing scientific and technical knowledge to Africa’s problems and developing its huge potential. The lack of expertise and skills is one reason that African businesses prefer to invest outside of the region and for external investors in Africa continue to import skilled workers.

Africa is at a stage where it is still facing enormous challenges like poor quality basic education and many out-of-school children. We can’t get to huge numbers of technicians, technologists, engineers, and scientists overnight.  What Africa needs is a critical mass of skilled labor – trained at the vocational/technical level to the postgraduate level-  to have an impact on the economy. The approach must therefore be strategic and targeted at high priority sectors. It should also leverage its national and regional resources.

Building the next generation of African scientists, engineers, and technicians in African institutions

Many Sub-Saharan African countries have about one or less engineer per 10,000 inhabitants. By way of comparison, industrialized countries have 20-50 for the same number.  Mozambique, which has one of the largest reserves of natural gas in the world, has one engineer for 100,000.  The problem isn’t only about the numbers but of quality and relevance.

Many engineers who emerge from African universities lack the skills and competencies required in modern enterprise, because university curricula is outdated and faculty competencies have not been upgraded.

Africa also has the highest proportion of university students studying abroad.  This reflects the lack of quality and capacity in African universities.  The number and quality of technician or technologist level courses are also woefully inadequate.

There’s a need for more, higher quality ASET graduates (from the technical/vocational level to postgraduate). African institutions, in turn, must be capable of training them, in order to be sustainable.  African governments and business leaders are increasingly recognizing that they need to take the lead in creating the right policy frameworks in financing.

Highly-skilled technicians and scientists cannot be created without a good pipeline of  secondary students. Few African children aspire to be engineers or scientists because they don’t learn the basics very well in school. This is especially true for girls. Improving mathematics and science education at the school level is critical to building ASET capability at the higher levels.

Learning from the countries of the South

It’s important to note that emerging economies like China, Brazil and India and recently industrialized countries like South Korea faced similar human resource challenges in their early years until they invested heavily in science and technology education and research. Africa can learn from these global examples.

Later this week, eight African governments are collaborating with the Republic of Korea to share knowledge of Korea’s development experience and its relevance for Africa as well as results of skills needs assessment studies for priority sectors in Africa. These studies were conducting using Korean and African expertise with the aim to build local capacity for human resource development.

Korea’s journey from a war-torn and devastated country to the economic champion of today has made it an interesting example for other countries on the brink of transformation and we at the World Bank Group are delighted to facilitate this exchange.

A regional effort

These are the ideas and principles underlying the Partnership for skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering and Technology or PASET, which is an initiative supported by the World Bank Group. The PASET aims to work at the regional and country level to accelerate the strengthening of technical/ scientific capability in Africa.  On June 13 in Johannesburg , in a meeting where African business leaders, ministers, the African Development Bank, and the World Bank Group were present, President Macky Sall of Senegal led the launch of the Regional Scholarship and Innovative Fund. At the launch, African governments and business leaders pledged a total of US$ 5 million as initial seed money towards the Fund. Read more about the Fund here.

We hope many other African governments, business leaders and other partners and friends of the region will take up the challenge of supporting science and technology education in the continent. ASET can indeed be a great asset to Africa.

This article was originally published on The World Bank’s Education for Global Development Blog. Publication does not imply endorsement of views by the World Economic Forum.

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Author: Dr. Sajitha Bashir is Education Sector Manager for Eastern and Southern Africa region of the World Bank.

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