Identifying Engineering Opportunities
Op-Ed, Business Daily, (Africa)
May 11, 2007
Author: Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director, Science, Technology, and Globalization Project; Principal Investigator, Agricultural Innovation in Africa
A key strategy in building up engineering capabilities in Africa is to link engineering training initiatives to infrastructure projects in growing fields.
But sadly, most of Africa’s infrastructure projects are not designed to promote local technological capabilities. Others erode such competence by relying on external supply of maintenance and spare parts.
It is not too late to turn things around. For example, the expansion of telecommunications infrastructure provides unique opportunities for setting up training programmes in electronic engineering. Similarly, expansion of power supply facilities could be used as a platform for creating linkages with training facilities in electrical engineering and related fields.
For example, expanding geothermal energy production in Eastern Africa (covering Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia) could be linked to engineering and environmental programmes at various universities.
Using existing technologies, the region has the potential to generate over 2,500 MW of electricity from geothermal energy (out of the current global output of 8,100 MW). The installed capacity of Kenya and Ethiopia is about 65 MW. Expanding production in the region could be directly linked to the development of related engineering and other sciences.
Transportation projects also provide similar opportunities. For example, the Maputo Corridor is a joint initiative of South Africa and Mozambique, aimed at addressing the poor state of transport infrastructure between the Indian Ocean port of Maputo in Mozambique and the industrial interior of South Africa. The initiative represents a new opportunity to create linkages with other sectors.
The corridor plan’s focus has included upgrading and constructing road links from Witbank to Maputo; improving rail facilities from Maputo to Johannesburg, together with lines connecting Maputo to Zimbabwe and Swaziland; updating Maputo’s port and harbour operations; and setting up a new, integrated border post to facilitate movement between Mozambique and South Africa.
It also included improving telecommunications facilities, as well as related nontransportation investment such as the Maputo iron and steel plant, which will use natural gas from Mozambique’s Pande fields. The diversity of the technology-based activities within the parameters of the Maputo Corridor project illustrates the range of opportunities for linking engineering education to infrastructure projects.
African countries also need to enhance their own ability to develop, operate, and maintain infrastructure services. Foreign construction and engineering firms will continue to be the main sources of technological, organisational, and institutional knowledge for infrastructure development.
But governments in African countries should devise policies both to encourage technology transfer and build local capabilities in infrastructure projects. The construction industry in Algeria is a good example such leadership.
Since the 1970s, the construction industry has been considered in the Algerian Central Plan as one of the “industrializing industries”, which are expected to generate a large part of employment and contribute to GDP. The government initially encouraged the purchase of complex and advanced, though costly, systems of technology from foreign firms. They did not result on local technology development.
Having learned from the past failures, the Algerian government later encouraged the “decomposed” or “design and installation supervised” contracts, under which infrastructure projects were more fragmented and involved more local firms than under the integrated contracts. Local firms could take charge of the phases prior to installation, such as exploration and planning, which were originally done by foreign technology suppliers under integrated contracts.
With the technical assistance and supervision of foreign suppliers, local managers carried out the projects. This new approach not only reduced the uncertainty in implementation, but also facilitated the process of learning-by-doing of local firms and thus enhanced their technological capability.
The approach also contributed to the development of investment and managerial capability of local managers, as they had more opportunities to participate in the technology implementation.
Research and development (R&D) activities for the development, operation, and maintenance of infrastructure should also be created and linkages should be established with both domestic and overseas research networks.
Given their strategic importance, research facilities need to be defined as part of Africa’s critical infrastructure and managed as such. Existing research facilities can be networked as part of regional research cooperation. Not only will this reduce duplication in the availability of such facilities, but it will also enhance mobility and cooperation among researchers.
Infrastructure services may be provided through a combination of public and private enterprises, while taking into account the needs of the poor. Governments may reduce their role as producers of infrastructure but retain their roles as regulators, financiers, suppliers, and even competitors to private providers. Whatever roles they play, governments need to recognize that different types of infrastructure require different policies and approaches.
None of these benefits will accrue to African countries until they start to place technological innovation at the centre of their development strategies. Infrastructure and the associated engineering capabilities represent a strategic entry point.
Professor Juma teaches at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government where he directs the Science, Technology and Globalization Project. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of London and foreign associate of the US National Academy of Sciences.
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