IEEE Unveils Strategy to Increase the Number of Engineers in Africa

Plan focuses on offering education programs and assisting with public policy

28 March 2017

Many people in Africa still don’t have access to electricity or advanced medical technology. To meet such needs, a well-trained engineering workforce is key. But there’s a shortage. In Kenya, for example, there are nearly 8,000 registered engineers, but the country estimates it needs 20,000 more within the next decade.

To find out how IEEE can help increase Africa’s engineering workforce, the organization’s top leaders for the past four years have been meeting with representatives from the continent’s governments, universities, and industries, as well as local IEEE members. Among the issues they raised were a lack of continuing education programs and the need for IEEE and other engineering associations to help develop appropriate public policy.

Based on those and other concerns, the IEEE Ad Hoc Committee on Activities in Africa, which serves as IEEE’s representative on the continent, developed a plan. The “Strategy for IEEE Assistance in Building Engineering Capacity in Underserved African Countries” plan, which was endorsed in November by the IEEE Board of Directors, is now being implemented. The strategy focuses on three goals: supporting engineering education and workforce development, serving as a resource to governments and other partners in developing standards and public policy, and building a sustainable community of IEEE members and volunteers. Africa has eight IEEE sections, six subsections, and more than 6,000 members from across the continent’s 54 countries.

The Institute interviewed Senior Member Vincent Kaabunga, the ad hoc committee’s chair, to learn more about the strategy.

How significant is it that IEEE now has a strategy for Africa?

It is a huge milestone. It’s very difficult for this kind of work to be sustained by a series of ad hoc committees, because it takes long-term engagement to bring together all the stakeholders, have the right relationships in place, and get buy-in from all those we need to support our work. Because ad hoc committees have a life of one year and each may adopt a different approach, the process is very disruptive to the previous work that was done. It is also more challenging to develop synergies across the organization. But when a strategy is owned by the organization, it’s completely different. President Bartleson and 2016 President Barry Shoop were key in pushing this strategy.

What’s unique about the strategy?

IEEE had been trying to expand in Africa using the same model it used in other locations, but the continent has its own unique set of needs, challenges, and nuances. Unlike in the United States, African engineers need to be registered and licensed to practice engineering. In some African countries, these two tasks are done by the same regulatory board, while in others, by two separate entities. Also, in the interest of the public, it’s these regulators, not employers, who determine whether engineers are suitably qualified to practice. Also, engineers in Africa must take continuing education courses to maintain their license to practice.

Another difference is that, with the exception of the United States, IEEE hasn’t traditionally played a large role in public policymaking. It’s expected in Africa that a knowledgeable body like IEEE should actively help to shape public policy.

How has IEEE been received by the African governments and the associations it plans to work with?

IEEE has been very well received by the government and intergovernmental bodies that we have engaged with.

These relationships will require nurturing and strengthening. When you are dealing with 54 countries, it’s difficult. That’s why IEEE’s strategy is currently focused on five countries where it can have the biggest impact: Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, and Zambia. They have clear development plans calling for greater emphasis on science and engineering. We’ll continually leverage the gains we make in these countries and expand our footprint.

Rwanda recently invited IEEE to participate in the Transform Africa Summit, organized by the Smart Africa Alliance, an initiative that brings together the continent’s nations to provide leadership in advancing development through information and communications technology. The summit is to be held from 10 to 12 May, in Kigali, Rwanda, and IEEE President Bartleson will be one of the speakers.

IEEE and the Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers recently entered into a national society agreement. It calls for the two to participate in joint activities such as conducting an IEEE Young Professionals and student event, hosting professional development webinars, exchanging information on standards activities, and allowing members of each institution to join the other at a discounted rate.

The strategy seems like a big undertaking. Where will you begin?

Education is central to building engineering capacity, and providing technical information is key. We’ve had a wonderful response to the IEEE virtual events program in Africa. These free one-day in-person events provide virtual access to recorded content from select IEEE conferences and societies. The program is organized as a local IEEE section or subsection event, so it works to further engage the local technical community, and promote the benefits of membership.

The events held last year featured topics from the IEEE Communications Society on green communications and the IEEE Computer Society on cybersecurity. Nearly 400 people—members and nonmembers—from seven countries attended these sessions.

Building communities is another priority. We are working to establish the African Council, which will bring the Africa Section and subsections closer to collaborate and share resources and knowledge. Region 8 established the IEEE Africa Area last year to serve as the coordinating unit for activities across the continent.

What will it take to make your strategy successful?

We need to support our members and stakeholders to develop this capacity, but this work must be sustainable. We need to have people on the ground to help us run these programs. That’s where the local IEEE community comes in. Developing them into sustainable technical communities is really important. Because if we don’t do that, then IEEE will have to keep funding these programs to sustain them.

We also must ensure we have an enabling environment that is conducive to the growth of engineering and technology capacity. An enabling environment comes from standards, regulatory policy and education systems. For example, some countries like Kenya have recently adopted having physics become an optional subject in high school. In the past, it’s always been mandatory along with math, chemistry, and biology. Because it is an option, the net effect of this decision means the pool of people you might possibly attract to the profession could shrunk. That’s a policy decision. That’s why government and regulators greatly value advisory views and input from technical experts like IEEE, and why it’s important that IEEE engage with governments.

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