A Perspective on Africa: The Impact of an Engineering Education

IEEE volunteer talks about how education is at the root of transforming the region’s future

24 February 2015

Photo: IEEE

Senior Member Joseph Mutale [far right] visits the IEEE office in Piscataway, N.J. along with other members of the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa.

As a volunteer for the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa, Joseph Mutale is focused on improving the quality of engineering education in Africa. Born in Zambia, the IEEE senior member is a senior lecturer at the University of Manchester, in England. He also spent more than 15 years at ZESCO, the Zambian national utility, where he was its transmission manager and the director of engineering development. In this interview with The Institute, he discusses the important role an engineering education can play as well as how IEEE can help transform Africa’s future

What are the steps that IEEE can take to improve engineering education in Africa? 

IEEE can help provide a template of a high-quality engineering education program with the ability for it to be tweaked in order to take into account local conditions. The organization can also help Africa when it comes to quality assurance of its university programs. The other area is in publications. There are not many high-quality academic journals and research papers from local universities, companies, and research centers.

Also, if you drive around Zambia, you will find a lot of engineering projects taking place—people making motorized gates and these kinds of things—but they are not technically trained as engineers or tradesmen. Perhaps there is some certification we could develop to regulate what they do and give them recognition for their expertise.

What should people know about Africa? And what are some of the lessons we can learn from there?

You would be surprised at the number of people who fix cellphones, radios, even laptops without a lot of formal engineering training. There are a lot of clever people who are trying to cope with technology the best way they can.

Africans are doing more with less, and the Western world can learn from them. In the West, there is a tendency to throw a lot of resources at everything and perhaps a culture of overconsumption has been created where things that are not really needed are produced. And to produce these things, a lot of energy and natural resources are used, but to very little end. Perhaps the lesson from Africa is to try to live sustainably and use as few resources as possible in order to achieve the same objective.

What is the future for Africa?

Research shows that in the next 30 years, young adults will make up the bulk of the population in Africa, which is not the case in other places. Young people are the engine of the economy—they are the ones who consume and create things. That presents a huge opportunity for Africa, but also a huge challenge. We need to educate the youth so that they can harness the resources of their environment as they get older in order to live a meaningful and sustainable life. If nothing changes, they will remain in the same circumstances they are in today.

What are some low-hanging fruit, or more simple solutions, to help solve some of the problems we’re seeing in Africa?

It comes back to the issue of education. Education is the single most pressing need for these communities because, without it, not much is going to change. The world we live in today is very complex and is only going to keep moving forward. The most critical role that IEEE can play is to support education in Africa. This includes the whole spectrum from primary education to Ph.D. programs.

How can IEEE and engineering in general address some of the concerns you’re seeing in Africa?

I believe the Ad Hoc committee could play a role in bringing better education and engineering opportunities in order to nurture sustainable societies.

Engineering is absolutely the key in developing countries. The reason most African countries are still wallowing in poverty is partly due to ineffectual engineering. We need to focus on building strong engineering skills in these countries. That’s where IEEE comes into play. It can help secure our collective future by supporting the development of good engineering skills. 

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