I am writing this column on the eve of the 10th IEEE Africon conference which, when you read this, will have taken place in Livingstone, Zambia, in September. Africon, the premier technical conference on electrical engineering, systems engineering, and computing in Africa, was devoted this year to sustainable energy and communications development.
Africa has been on my mind (and on the minds of many of my IEEE colleagues) for quite some time because expansion into the continent is an important challenge for our organization. We still do not have many members in Africa—fewer than 6000, of which about 2000 are students. We are looking at Africa because it is an up-and-coming, economically expanding region, showing GDP growth well beyond the stagnant rates that it experienced in the last three decades of the 20th century and even exceeding those of more established economies.
For 2011, the GDP of Africa is estimated to be growing at 5.2 percent. It is significant that this rate is not based principally on the price of commodities but on growth in transportation, telecommunications, and manufacturing. In other words, engineering is playing a central role in the expansion.
Africa’s consumer markets, supported by a growing middle class, are today as large as those of Russia and India. One key indicator of market growth is expansion of the telecommunications sector. According to a May 2011 report in Harvard Business Review, telecommunications companies in Africa have added more than 300 million subscribers to their networks since 2000. However, much remains to be accomplished; almost every traveler from the developed world to sub-Saharan Africa still remarks about limited and hard-to-operate Internet connections.
Photo: Kelly & Massa Photography
We are fully aware of the difficulties: poor infrastructure in many regions; the longtime debilitating effects of famine, disease, poverty, and war; deficiencies in many educational systems; political instability; and in some areas, political corruption. Yet we are also aware of increased stability in regions that were prone to wars and struggles for decades; of more responsible and consistent economic policies; and—perhaps the most important sign of soundness—increased entry into African markets by U.S., European, Indian, and Chinese companies.
The time is now for IEEE to enter the African arena and make its mark—when growth gradients are strong and when IEEE and its members can do the most good by helping through education, training, capacity building, and expansion of infrastructure.
As the continent moves forward, the fields of interest of IEEE, including power and energy, telecommunications, networking, and computing, are bound to play major roles. Moreover, IEEE’s ability to organize the technical community and provide training can serve a critical need. In many areas of Africa, we have the potential not only to become the link to other international hubs of engineering but also to help build local and national engineering communities.
Populations with which we can immediately connect are students and academics in Africa’s many schools of engineering. We have a lot to offer—for example, access to our online library packages, student and instructor exchanges, sister student branches, and distance learning.
A first step in this direction was taken by our volunteers in Africa through IEEE’s implementation of EPICS—Engineering Projects in Community Service. Started by Purdue University, this program launches teams of undergraduate university and high school students to design, build, and deploy real systems to solve engineering problems for local community-service and educational organizations.
Under the leadership of Saurabh Sinha of the IEEE South Africa Section and Kapil Dandekar of the IEEE Philadelphia Section, EPICS has now expanded into Namibia, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. Projects include building wind turbines generating electricity, mobile science labs, lightning-monitoring systems, and photovoltaic systems for charging mobile devices. EPICS is an excellent starting point for the new phase of IEEE’s activities in Africa.
If you feel you can help or have an idea that can be of use, and especially if you are from Africa, please join us. We have several groups already at work on projects on the continent. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and join the action. Ke nako!
IEEE President and CEO