To Improve African Education, Focus on Technology
October 2, 2013 Editor 0
Africa is a hopeful continent with an exuberance driven by minerals, hydrocarbon, and commodities. These present drivers of its economy, however, are under threat from technology. Nigeria’s earning from crude oil is dropping because of America’s shale gas renaissance. The long-view trajectory of electric vehicles suggests a future where electrons will power more cars than carbon compounds. Without the ability to create knowledge through quality education, the sustainability of Africa’s new-found optimism remains questionable. Of the 400 top global universities, only three are in Africa.
Nine years ago, I enrolled in the Johns Hopkins University doctoral program. My first semester was transformative; I experienced top-rate academic quality. I used the knowledge to start a company, pioneering the embedded electronics sector in my native Nigeria, with partnerships from U.S. publicly traded companies. All through, Africa was on my mind as I benchmarked my new environment to what I left behind. I founded the nonprofit African Institution of Technology to help universities in the region develop capabilities in emerging areas like microelectronics, biotech, and nanotechnology. Over the years, I have visited more than 82 African universities and held professorships in three.
In quality and quantity, tertiary education in Africa needs to be fixed. Despite secondary-school enrollment increasing by 48% from 2000 to 2008, access to university education remains severely limited. Even at three times the U.S. population, Africa has fewer than 5 million students (PDF) (versus the U.S.’s 21 million) in its four-year tertiary education system. More than 10 million African students take the college entrance exams, but fewer than 1.5 million are admitted annually. An estimated 50 million working adults who want to improve their skills through further education have access challenges.
Africa is attracting top companies to drive the era of tech consumerism, but without good universities, no strong capability will emerge for running creative high-tech processes. Great universities will spur firms to design and manufacture products locally. Today’s model is using African diasporas where companies hire native Africans living abroad and then send them to the continent to expand their operations. While IBM can do that, I will prefer readily available local talents for cost and locally supported organic succession.
Education drives technology. Any nation that cannot create new ideas, devoid of intellectual property, will never lead; today, technology is wealth. With Facebook’s $115 billion market cap on its IPO day, Mark Zuckerberg created wealth nearly equivalent to half of Nigeria’s GDP in 2012. The value created by Facebook and a few other tech IPOs exceeds the GDP of most African regions. The continent will better accelerate development and human welfare by listing companies in NASDAQ than by finding more oil wells to lease.
Through my experience, I’ve seen how a university could improve its community. But in Africa, most universities are decoupled from the societies and markets, as they do not invest in research which drives innovative solutions. An engineering school can exist for decades in a community without drinking water, yet offer no effort to fix it. Most want to be global without a local creed. They want to build automobiles when handicapped citizens that need mobility beg for bread in their gates daily.
We need to encourage technological advancement and education in Africa to ensure the continent’s future. One way to do this is by supporting Africa’s universities internationally. The First Atlantic University, for example, a new university I am helping to establish, leans on the help of Silicon Valley, even being nicknamed “Silicon Valley’s African university.” The university will be located in Nigeria with an in-campus technology park to be managed by one of Tokyo’s best firms in the field. It will incorporate some evolving training paradigms like MOOCs and online programs. The campus will be linked via video to global innovation hubs like Boston, Tokyo, and Silicon Valley. Its graduates will position Africa competitively through entrepreneurial innovation, technical excellence, and world-class management capabilities, all in the hopes to give local talent more opportunities and Africa a fighting chance.
Africa has the potential to make a place for itself, but it doesn’t have to do it alone. With international support, African universities can seed a new economic layer, a layer that offers a redesigned continent that is driven by the brain power of its citizens. Though diasporas have become change agents in the continent, local talents are indispensable. Africa has many latent talents; quality education can unlock them.
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