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Commentary: Africa’s unsung female engineering heroes

Engineering is a key driver for sustainable development, yet its full workforce potential is not being utilised. Less than 10% of engineers in SSA are women [1] yet it could be the solution to Africa’s ability to create a resilient economy and sustainable society, as well as enable it to address challenges related to climate change, felt most keenly in Africa.

Engineers are essential to sustainable development. Globally, they play a critical role in driving progress towards the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which not only has the potential to protect the natural world but also to spur much needed economic growth, reduce poverty and build resilience in Africa and other regions too.

However, a severe shortage of engineering skills in Africa is threatening progress towards achieving these goals, with an estimated 2.5 million new engineers needed to meet the UN sustainable development goals, according to the World Federation of Engineering Organizations.

The engineering skills gap also poses serious risks to Africa’s economic growth. According to a study carried out by the Royal Academy of Engineering in Kenya, the country’s economic growth is deemed to be at risk due to a shortage of qualified engineers.

40% of professional engineers believe engineering education in their country does not provide graduates with the skills required in professional practice.

As of 2017, Kenya had just 2,100 certified engineers registered through the Engineering Board of Kenya, well short of the minimum of 6,000 engineers needed to service its growing population of 45 million. A survey polling engineers from across sub-Saharan Africa found that 40% of professional engineers believe engineering education in their country does not provide graduates with the skills required in professional practice.

In addition, the continent’s engineering workforce is not being utilised to its full potential, with women accounting for fewer than 10% of engineering professionals in sub-Saharan Africa. Addressing engineering’s diversity problem is crucial to plugging the skills gap and could result in more inclusive economies and sustainable societies that could help address some of the continent’s challenges, particularly those related to climate change.

Alongside population growth and rapid urbanisation (Africa’s population is expected to double by 2050, its urban population is expected to almost triple), the ever-increasing threat of climate change is a major issue for Africa to contend with.

Africa needs to think innovatively, developing homegrown solutions to local challenges.

Rising global temperatures and sea levels have a disproportionate impact on the most vulnerable, threatening human health, food and water security and socio-economic development. UN projections estimate that the influence of climate change could result in a 2 to 4% annual reduction in GDP in sub-Saharan Africa by 2040. Africa needs to think innovatively, developing homegrown solutions to local challenges.

Often described as the ‘leapfrog continent’, Africa is no stranger to embracing innovation and technological change to deal with major challenges. From off-grid pay-as-you-go solar panels addressing the continent’s energy crisis to mobile-operated irrigation systems tackling water scarcity, there is no shortage of homegrown African innovation. And with 77% of Africa’s population under 35 years old, an emerging generation of innovators is sure to continue this trend.

Equipping women and girls in sub-Saharan Africa with engineering skills will support increasing social and economic development, as well as helping to address the climate challenges felt most keenly in Africa.

Tackling the engineering gender gap needs a collaborative approach. Launched in 2016, the GCRF Africa Catalyst programme, run by the Royal Academy of Engineering and supported by the UK Government’s Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF), uses a collaborative approach between African and UK engineering organisations to strengthen capacity in engineering in sub-Saharan Africa, with a focus on promoting gender balance within the industry.

By year-end 2016, less than 5% of registered engineers were female.

For example, the Uganda Institution of Professional Engineers (UIPE) benchmarked with the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology in developing a Diversity and Inclusion Policy that incorporated lessons learned from UIPE activities including the first Women Engineers Registration Enhancement Programme (WEREP) Workshop held in 2017.

By year-end 2016, less than 5% of registered engineers were female. The WEREP was planned for 60 participants but ended up hosting 96 participants – from which 45 female engineers embarked on the process of UIPE Corporate Membership as the first step towards registration as an engineer by the Engineers Registration Board.

Support for females in engineering continues today and on the occasion of the 2021 World Engineering Day, 12 female engineers were among the 96 engineers that took the oath as Registered Engineers.

The GCRF Africa Catalyst programme recently supported a WomEng project designed to boost female participation in engineering in Eswatini. Between 2018 and 2020 some 365 secondary school girls were informed and educated about engineering opportunities. The programme helped to recruit seven female engineers to Eswatini’s national engineering organisation, which had none before the project started. Following this success, the programme has been extended to Malawi, Tanzania and Zambia.

In Rwanda, a country that has seen rapid growth and economic expansion in recent years, progress is heavily dependent on reliable infrastructure – and a cohort of qualified engineers to design, build and maintain it.

The Africa Catalyst programme has funded a two-year internship programme to enhance Rwanda’s engineering capacity by improving the practical skills of graduate engineers through industry placements and exposure to modern working environments. The programme also involved a commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion amongst applicants. In 2018, 15% of applicants were female, rising to 25% the following year. 

Female African engineers are already leading the way when it comes to engineering innovation to mitigate climate risk.

In Uganda, Makerere University collaborated with the University of Leeds, through the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Higher Education Partnerships in sub-Saharan Africa (HEP SSA) programme. Among the project’s objectives were to tackle a lack of female representation and a disconnect between industry and academia that has added to the skills and knowledge gap. The collaboration focused on increasing the number of female students at the university, previously at 22%, and has succeeded in reaching 36% female enrolment in 2020.

Female African engineers are already leading the way when it comes to engineering innovation to mitigate climate risk. Examples include Armelle Sidje, an engineer from Cameroon, shortlistee of the Royal Academy of Engineering Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, who has developed a sustainable manufacturing process that converts banana and plantain stems into biodegradable paper packaging products; and Consalva Msigwa, a Tanzanian engineer supported through the Academy’s HEP SSA programme, has channelled her expertise in renewable energy into creating a prototype breathing device for hospitals to help address the national shortage of emergency ventilators during the COVID-19 crisis.

Africa’s ability to harness the potential of female engineers is critical for its socio-economic development and competitiveness. Educating and supporting women in engineering in sub-Saharan Africa will help to develop a diverse and future-fit workforce that can help Africa to succeed on the global stage.

Failure to do so could have devastating effects both on economic growth and on Africa’s ability to address the climate challenges that are felt so keenly in the continent.

Authored by Eng Dr Dorothy Okello, Dean, School of Engineering at Makerere University, awardee of the Royal Academy of Engineering’s GCRF Africa Catalyst programme and Steering Group member of the Higher Education Partnership for sub-Saharan Africa.

Reference: [1] Capacity Building for Women in Engineering Bodies in sub-Saharan Africa, WomEng

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