Bringing Microelectronics Know-How to Africa

Emerging technologies are important to the socioeconomic development of nations

6 October 2009

Emerging technologies are important to the socioeconomic development of nations. They provide new means of exchanging information, lower the cost of transacting business, and improve the efficiency of human beings and their organizations. As the world moves toward knowledge-based economic structures and data-driven societies, the impact of new technologies will remain central to international commerce, industry, and culture.

The remarkable success of many new technologies can be traced to the phenomenal growth of microelectronics. Since it was invented, the field of microelectronics has added dimensions to knowledge creation and dissemination. Its advances in speed, capacity, and efficiency have fueled the global economy.

Yet the development of microelectronics remains concentrated in developed nations. One reason is the poor quality of microelectronics education in developing countries, which lack the infrastructure that attracts foreign investment.

In Africa, few universities, companies, and agencies are involved in microelectronics research. The technology has not spread through the continent to the level of general application. Far from it. Microelectronics is largely discussed in Africa within the context of using products; consequently, the training of workers and education of students focus on product support and maintenance. The value that comes from product design and innovation is almost completely lacking.

Skilled Africans in the diaspora—African-born engineers who are well educated and possess world-class skills but who live elsewhere—have an opportunity to transform the continent. Their skills can be far more effective in building our countries than the aid our corrupt leaders collect from foreign nations and then squander. For industries on the continent to be competitive, technologies must be developed or adapted and then applied toward wealth creation.

Such wealth can result from applying microelectronics technology to process, refine, engineer, or develop African niche products and services. Africans could, for example, make African-themed video games and sell them internationally if our students and small businesses could master the creative aspects of the gaming business.

Or our researchers could use the astonishing capacity of microchips to develop inexpensive local products that could do such things as preserve food and increase crop yield. For example, microelectronic sensors could take some of the guesswork out of farming by letting farmers know the soil humidity and temperature before planting.

In a highly interconnected world, the number of technical knowledge workers in Africa will not grow without microelectronics programs that emphasize creating and disseminating knowledge. Without microelectronics, there is little homegrown information technology. Microelectronics makes communications products possible, from cellphones to computers.

The African Union must develop a road map to ensure that microelectronics, along with nanotechnology, is developed so it can sustain other industrial sectors. The growth of a microelectronics industry could minimize the impact of cyclical trade shocks felt by African nations that depend heavily on the profits from minerals and fossil fuels sold to other countries. Microelectronics could help diversify economies and lead to a new class of well-paid workers.

As a Ph.D. student in the electrical and computer engineering department at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore in 2005, I founded the nongovernmental African Institution of Technology (AFRIT). I hoped to help African schools, small businesses, and governments understand the impact of microelectronics technology, as well as help them develop plans to apply it. I believe that applications must be developed from the bottom up by students and universities.

After graduating last March, I spent three months in nine cities across Nigeria running free workshops on microelectronics. It was a rewarding experience. The workshops provided an opportunity to gauge interest in the technology on the part of students, lecturers, technical business owners and policy makers. I concluded that everyone is highly interested and desperately in need of support in both the technical and policy aspects of the microelectronics business.

Since I have been managing AFRIT, I have learned some vital lessons about what can be done to make Africa economically self-dependent. Developing the African continent is the responsibility of Africans; others will not do it for us. Also, African-born IEEE members, especially those living in advanced nations who possess world-class engineering skills, need not be physically present in Africa to help produce a new generation of technical leaders there. Even modest commitments to mentor students and assist schools by offering guidance on curricula, grant writing, choosing equipment, and setting up links to foreign universities are important contributions that they could make from afar.

African engineers should accept teaching appointments in African schools, where they could use new technologies to inspire students and workers at small businesses. The result could be a paradigm shift that would move Africa from its present status to a level where its technology would be respected by the rest of the world.

IEEE Member Ndubuisi Ekekwe is founder and president of AFRIT, a nongovernmental technology organization focused on working with schools, governments, and small businesses in Africa on education, policy, and training. He received a Ph.D. from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Johns Hopkins University, in Baltimore. He is employed by Analog Devices in Wilmington, Mass., as a mixed signal design engineer and is working on the next generation of inertial sensors for automobiles, robots, satellites, and consumer electronics systems for the company.

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