A Perspective on Africa: Thinking Outside the Traditional Box

The IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa chair talks about the role IEEE can play in the region

24 February 2015

Vincent Kaabunga is the chair of the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa, which formed to help the organization determine how it can best support the development of the engineering ecosystem and grow IEEE’s presence in sub-Saharan Africa. When the IEEE senior member is not at his office at Smart Metrics in Nairobi, Kenya, which helps companies use performance metrics to improve their efficiency and productivity, he is thinking about how IEEE can help solve Africa’s societal problems over the next decade.

In this interview with The Institute, the Ugandan native talks about the innovations already taking place in Africa, and how IEEE can support the region to reach the next level. 

What is the mission of the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa?

The committee’s ultimate goal is to contribute to the growth and development of the continent by working to create a strong engineering workforce through educational opportunities and partnerships with industry and governments. Each country in Africa has its own vision for the future, whether that is to build smarter cities, improve sanitation systems, or to update transportation infrastructure. But to pursue these plans, they need more skilled engineers and resources.

Oftentimes, we hear about innovation that is brought in from Western countries to help underserved communities. Can you shed light on innovation that is happening from within Africa?  

The first thing is to recognize that innovation comes from absolutely everywhere and anywhere. And when there are not many tools or resources available, people are forced to innovate in order to meet challenges. A lot of innovation is trial and error in Africa. While some have had a small impact, others have made a big difference. This includes an app that allows people to use their mobile phones to pay for public transportation. People no longer have to rely on carrying enough money with them. Google is now conducting a study on this project and is involved in helping to refine the model.  

What can other regions learn from what’s happening in Africa today?

Sometimes innovation requires us to bend the rules. When mobile money was first presented to the world, many countries shunned it and thought the idea would not work. Africans, in the meantime, figured out ways to make it work for them. While mobile banking certainly had its issues, Africans were willing to address those concerns and its risks so that communities could embrace it. Mobile Internet company Safaricom in Kenya and cellphone banking company Wizzit in South Africa were pioneers in this space. Today there are more people across sub-Saharan Africa using mobile banking than those who go to brick-and-mortar branches. In Africa, we have nearly bypassed banks altogether. Workers in the city can now securely transfer money across large distances to family members back home using their phones. It’s a simple solution that has changed many lives.

What do you see for Africa’s future in the next 10 years?

Right now, Africa has a lot of challenges meeting its Millennium Development Goals [eight goals established by the United Nations to help countries get themselves out of poverty and improve the quality of life for their citizens]. We’re facing challenges delivering clean water and sanitation. We have a lot of children who do not live to the age of 5. We have all kinds of transportation problems, including aging infrastructure, dependence on imported vehicles, and overcrowded transportation systems.

While issues like child mortality do not directly seem like something an engineer would fix, I see examples of technology being used in countries like Uganda where medical professionals track the health of the mother through her pregnancy and into the first three to five years of the child’s life. They are now starting to use technology to do this more effectively and efficiently. They will also use applications to monitor when the child is due for an immunization, send the mother a reminder for a checkup, and digitally keep track of medications the mother or child uses. In most communities, if a mother moves to another village, there is no way to transfer her medical information. Systems, like the one designed in Uganda, would help solve that by electronically making such information available to any medical facility the mother may visit.

I believe 10 years down the road, societal issues such child mortality will be history. If we have not only the funding but also the engineers, then we’ll be able to create these types of systems to help people across Africa.

What are some challenges facing those who are working to help Africa progress?

They are largely in the development of human capacity, in other words educating more engineers. One obstacle is that our educational system is still based on the British, French, and German structures, and all of the colonial communities left Africa long ago. Yet many of our schools are still stuck in systems that are at least 50 years old. We have the opportunity to start building new types of programs and leapfrog to modern education systems like massive open online courses, or MOOCs, which is what we have to do in order to move forward.

What should IEEE’s role be in helping Africa over the next decade?

IEEE has an amazing wealth of knowledge, including the knowledge held by each of our some 430,000 members from across the globe and from various fields. It can help local governments make optimal decisions on what path they should take in order to, for example, start building a smart city. IEEE will be able to find the right sources of information to help countries reach their goals from beginning to end.

IEEE also has the ability to help them think outside the traditional box. It can convene folks with varying perspectives and ideas and help build critical partnerships that are necessary to move Africa forward. This is the kind of role I see the organization playing.

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