A Perspective on Africa: Meeting Local Needs

IEEE volunteer talks about the importance of changing the way organizations provide aid to Africa

12 February 2015

Photo: IEEE

IEEE Senior Member Towela Nyirenda-Jere [second from left] is visiting the MIT Media Lab along with other members of the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa.

Towela Nyirenda-Jere has been a member of the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa since it launched two years ago. She and other committee members are helping the organization determine how it can best assist sub-Saharan Africa. Nyirenda-Jere has experience there, having grown up in Malawi, one of the 54 countries that make up the continent.

An electrical engineer and an IEEE senior member, she works as the program manager of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development Planning and Coordinating Agency better known as the NEPAD Agency, based in South Africa. NEPAD is a technical body of the African Union, charged with facilitating and coordinating development projects that will address poverty and development challenges and place Africa on a sustainable growth path.

In this interview with The Institute, she covers why it’s important to understand the local perspective as well as the need to improve the region’s engineering education and the role that IEEE can play.

Since the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa is relatively new, tell us about its mission.

Our goal is to find ways to increase IEEE’s impact in Africa by looking at issues from an African perspective. Part of the challenge is that Africa is made up of 54 countries that are diverse, and its IEEE membership base is not as strong as it could be. We are trying to advance the engineering profession there and get more people involved and engaged with the field and IEEE itself.

What are some factors to keep in mind when considering the local context?

There are adaptations that have to be made for technology to be user-friendly. One example is technology literacy. Rural farmers shouldn’t have to know how to read to be able to access information; it can be made to be visual or auditory. It’s about adapting technology to meet people’s needs.

The other thing to understand is that Africans are communal. So when technology is brought in, it should not be at an individual level, but designed to engage the entire community.

This is not a technology example, but it speaks to the point I am making. There have been aid projects to bring clean water to villages, replacing the need for women to walk miles to collect water from a river or lake. But one aid organization found that the women were not using water from the boreholes it made [a hole drilled into the ground to make it easier to collect water]. When asked, the women said they like the long walk because that’s their time to socialize. If they had been asked beforehand, the organization would have known that was a need and could have found a way to include a social aspect in its efforts. These are small things, but people are affected by them.

What are some examples of local innovation that have been successful?

Mobile technology. Applications are being used in ways that people have not thought of before or that are serving specific needs. For example, mobile money was an African solution because people do not have access to banks. It made sense to find ways to use mobile phones to make transactions. Now phones are used in the health care sector for disease surveillance, crisis management, and so on.

We’re also seeing innovation in solar and renewable energy. Although they weren’t developed in Africa, these forms of clean energy are being used in innovative and affordable ways, especially in agriculture. Some 75 percent of Africans live in rural areas and these advances are helping them farm and make a living by selling their crops. We have to find ways of making do by getting a lot out of a little.

What are the next steps toward making progress in Africa?

Even within IEEE, the thinking needs to change a bit when it comes to making things work there because what works elsewhere may not in Africa. We are really trying to get IEEE leadership to understand there has to be a different way of working in Africa and there needs to be some flexibility in terms of the way it does business there.

For example, sections and subsections would not work in a lot of African countries because they don’t have enough engineers to fill a section. But a regional grouping is something to consider. A lot of citizens also don’t have credit cards so making payments for subscriptions and membership dues can become a problem. We also have to help those in the engineering industry in Africa to understand the value of IEEE resources, such as the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. We need to explain how accessing these materials can help them address some of the challenges they are facing.

IEEE leadership is very open in finding ways to make things work, and that’s encouraging to all of us.

How might improving engineering education also improve Africa?

Africa is lagging behind in terms of development. We have serious concerns in infrastructure, health care, and so on. Today, everything depends on having Internet access, which makes it even more critical to have a workforce that knows technology and can leverage it to meet people’s needs. We need African engineers and engineers who are trained in Africa in order for them to understand the local context and develop solutions that work there. It’s easy to bring in expertise from the outside, but that works only to a degree because they don’t have the full context of what locals need. Oftentimes we see pilot projects in the region that work for a little bit, and then they are not sustainable because they were not done in a way that enables locals to maintain them.

What are some ways IEEE can help?

For one, it can help strengthen Africa’s engineering education programs by assisting with accreditation in order to improve curriculum and help programs meet international standards. The other way is through partnerships. By bridging the gap between industry and academic institutions, employers can help inform universities on what to train their students on in order to meet the needs of industry. IEEE can also bring governments, industry, and academia together to discuss some of these challenges and think of creative solutions. The Ad Hoc committee is working to devise some models and frameworks on how to create such partnerships.

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