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Ed’s note: Engineering, the workhorse of innovation

Since engineering is essential to sustainable development, why do we have insufficient engineers in Africa?

According to the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK, a severe shortage of engineering skills in Africa is threatening progress towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While the World Federation of Engineering Organizations estimates 2.5 million new engineers will be needed to meet the SDGs.

This is not a trivial problem and is one that has been earmarked for some time.

For instance, the Academy’s paper notes that Kenya had 2,100 certified engineers registered through the Engineers Board of Kenya in 2017. This amount was far from the minimum of 6,000 engineers needed to service the country’s growing population of 45 million.

However, as of March 2021, according to the Board, the country recorded 17,731 registered graduate engineers but only 2,129 professional engineers. The disparity in numbers appears to be due to a lack of job opportunities and graduate engineers working in areas outside of their core training.

Another challenge is transitioning from a graduate engineer to a professional engineer, which requires submitting various reports on work done and undertaking specific tests. The process varies from one country to the next and can prove difficult for a young graduate.

While there are programmes to assist graduates in managing the transition process, there is an external challenge. Many international companies managing Africa’s mega and large infrastructure projects bring their engineers on site – bypassing local talent.

Could it be that Africa does not have a lack of engineers but lacks opportunity and ease of transition for graduates?

If that is the case, how do we attract the next generation of engineers?

Although not in direct response to engineering, taking the lead is several initiatives creating opportunities for graduates to put their learning to the test. 

The local solar PV developers and supply chains that support both the utility-scale and embedded SSEG markets are a great field for young engineers. The solar PV market is also agile enough to sustain jobs in periods where new build capacity shifts between utility and small-scale. 

It’s this agility that has likely led to an initiative by the University of Pretoria’s Future Africa that signed an MOU with Nepoworx to implement a solar PV green skills, enterprise development and sustainability research programme.

The programme’s objective is to upskill a total of 900 youth, women and entrepreneurs over the next three years, ensuring their participation in the green economy and, more importantly, forming part of the just energy transition currently unfolding in South Africa.

Developing these green skills is essential in alleviating the triple challenges of the continent: unemployment, inequality and energy supply.

The programme will encompass a workplace component, which is critical in ensuring that the participants gain the requisite hands-on experience needed to increase their chances of securing employment in the renewable energy sector.

Also, among the many opportunities for engineers to show their worth is the Initiate Young Talent Challenge. This competition is open for postgraduate students enrolled at universities in Africa. Students will be selected to represent their university to complete a series of challenges. It is an opportunity for engineers to disrupt the industry with innovative and new ways of thinking.

A former Initiate finalist and PhD candidate from the Department of Chemical Engineering at UCT, Carol Ngwenya, said: “The Initiate Young Talent Challenge not only challenges you to come up with practical energy solutions to the energy crisis that the continent is faced with. It also gives you the opportunity to be mentored by power and energy experts.”

Frederick Amariati, a Masters student in Energy Economics and Policy, Strathmore University, Kenya and former Initiate finalist, adds: “I would recommend this to any student. There are lots of ideas out there and what I have learnt is that the owners of these ideas only require an opportunity to explore them. Initiate is the opportunity they need.”

Ahead of the 2018 Africa Report on Child Wellbeing, Graça Machel warned: “Even though our youth have the potential to transform Africa, if neglected, they could exacerbate poverty and inequality while threatening peace, security and prosperity”.

With programmes such as Initiate and Future Africa creating opportunities, I feel confident that today’s youth can aspire to be tomorrow’s leading industry professionals.

Until next week.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
As the Editor of ESI Africa, my passion is on sustainability and placing African countries on the international stage. I take a keen interest in the trends shaping the power & water utility market along with the projects and local innovations making headline news. Watch my short weekly video on our YouTube channel ESIAfricaTV and speak with me on what has your attention.