Massive collaboration needed to fill African engineering skills gap
The latest leg of the 13th Brunel Lecture series discusses the urgent need to train and retain engineers, particularly to deal with the climate emergency.
The importance of partnerships between local and international engineering firms in raising skills across Africa was stressed by panellists speaking at the African session of the Brunel International Lecture Series, which took place on 8 June 2021.
There are fewer than 100,000 engineering students in sub-Saharan African countries, and 70% of them are in South Africa, according to Seth Schultz, executive director of The Resilience Shift. The continent is undergoing rapid urbanisation and population growth, increasing the need for infrastructure, he noted.
But to meet similar levels of engineer per head of population as OECD countries, the number of students will need to exceed 10 million by 2050, he said.
Schultz was speaking as part of his virtual lecture tour, entitled 21st Century Leadership is Partnership: How a Coalition of the World’s Engineers Can Change the World, which is taking in eight stops around the world. Each lecture is tailored to the region and is followed by discussion between Schultz and a range of local industry leaders.
Finlo Paish, ICE country representative for Ghana, said it was time for local engineers to take over from expatriates.
“The days of dinosaurs like me, who have been lucky enough to live overseas and work as an expatriate all my life, are gone. We need to be replaced by well-trained, well-educated Africans,” he said.
Paish added that it was not enough for the educational pipeline to produce high-quality engineers – they need to be enabled to use their skills to build low-carbon infrastructure with an African context.
“We’ve got to take great care that African countries aren’t alienated by an engineering paternal instinct – we’ve got to carry everybody along together, and make sure that the groundswell comes from Africans, by Africans, for Africans,” he said.
Dr Dorothy Okello, dean of the School of Engineering at Makerere University in Uganda, said many of the big infrastructure projects across Africa were managed by foreign companies. Though this was not a problem in itself, there should be an exchange in terms of the experience of local engineers on the ground and their technical know-how, she said.
Owusu Antwi Boasiako, a representative of ICE student chapter Ghana, said local consultants and contractors could still make a contribution, even when they were not able to work on international projects due to lack of capacity or the requirements of investors. For example, they could provide the materials and equipment:
“There’s no need for foreign contractors to import equipment all the way from Europe or Asia where there are local contractors or suppliers who have this equipment,” he said.
He also suggested these projects presented a good opportunity for local students to train on a world-class set-up.
Dr Sean Phillips, head of the structural reform unit at the National Treasury of South Africa, said private sector confidence in the government’s ability to deliver infrastructure was low, which in turn damaged the private sector’s willingness to invest in training and hiring more engineers.
Cost and timing overruns were widespread in public sector projects, he said, giving the example of two new power stations being built by a state-owned company which were $20 billion over budget, and seven years behind schedule. The problems were causing substantial electricity shortages, threatening the country’s fiscal stability, and had damaged investor confidence, he added.
Weak client delivery management in the public sector, poor infrastructure procurement and the lack of appropriate regulatory framework for large-scale private sector involvement in public infrastructure were fundamental problems which, if addressed, will lead to many other problems also being addressed, he said.
List of speakers:
Welcome remarks: Owen Chirwa, ICE country representative for Zambia and Africa chair.
Chair: Prof Dr Sabih Gatea Khisaf, ICE UAE committee chair and vice-president International.
- Fred Mukonoweshuro, ICE country representative for Zimbabwe.
- Finlo Paish, ICE country representative for Ghana.
- Dr Sean Phillips, head of unit focusing on structural reforms, The National Treasury, South Africa.
- Dr Dorothy Okello, dean of School of Engineering at Makerere University, Uganda.
- Owusu Antwi Boasiako, representative of ICE student chapter Ghana.
With thanks to the ICE and Author, Catherine Early.