US$11 million to train Africa’s future ICT leaders

Carnegie Mellon University has received US$10.8 million from the MasterCard Foundation to help train the next generation of technology leaders and entrepreneurs at its campus in Rwanda.

The new commitment, to be channelled through the university’s college of engineering in the country’s capital Kigali, is expected to benefit more than 125 academically talented but economically disadvantaged students from Sub-Saharan Africa.

The funding is part of the MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program and aims to provide the institution with the much-needed financial muscle to extend academic opportunities to Africa’s top brains.

In receiving the grant, Carnegie Mellon University or CMU joins a global network of 23 MasterCard scholarship partners, made up of influential education institutions, seeking to train the next generation of African leaders.

Economic growth

Carnegie Mellon’s Africa campus in Rwanda serves as a regional ICT hub for East Africa. At the same time, it assists the Rwandan government in creating an innovation incubator to nurture students’ entrepreneurial skills.

The funding, announced on 20 June in Kigali during a graduation ceremony for 24 CMU-affiliated students, is expected to help the institution produce more graduates to drive Africa’s economic transformation agenda.

The institution, which graduated its first students in 2014, has seen at least 70 students from Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda and the United States go through its programme.

“Investment in education is pivotal to Africa’s future and will ensure that African nations have the opportunity to identify, develop and deploy their wealth of talent,” said MasterCard Foundation President and CEO Reeta Roy in a news report released by the university.

Africa has been keen to strengthen higher education, especially in science, technology and research, to build skills for the continent’s future growth.

This has seen the continent capitalise on partnerships with strong African and global universities as well as international private institutions to contribute to development in priority areas.

Boosting local innovation

Lagging economic growth and development has been attributed in part to inadequate local innovation in entrepreneurship and technology as a result of a shortage of top-notch researchers and scientists, as well as poor links between academia and industry. Experts believe that partnerships such as this one will help bridge the gap.

Since 2011, CMU in Rwanda has been working to improve the quality of the engineering workforce in Africa. “The talented graduates of Carnegie Mellon in Rwanda play a strategic role in Africa’s trajectory, leveraging ICT to digitally leapfrog socio-economic development across the continent,” said the university.

It is envisaged that with the MasterCard Foundation support, Carnegie Mellon will be able to multiply its impact on higher education and the ICT sector in Africa as part of the Rwandan government’s vision to create a regional centre of excellence in ICT and serve as a technological hub for the region.

“The programme will dramatically expand future career options for each of the scholars; it will be an essential educational and research resource underpinning growth and development of the technology sector in Africa; and alumni and faculty will benefit from Carnegie Mellon’s resources for supporting entrepreneurship and innovation,” the university said.

The scholars will be drawn from Rwanda and the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa, with an emphasis on increasing the enrolment of women.

Digital transformation

“We want to ... educate a new cohort of exceptional engineers who will become catalysts for Africa’s digital transformation. We share the commitment to elevating intellectual and economic vitality around the globe, especially in developing regions,” said CMU President Subra Suresh.

The MasterCard Foundation Scholars Program will provide holistic student support, including scholarships, leadership development, volunteerism and industry-driven career services, developing highly skilled, transformative leaders to catalyse Africa’s digital transformation.

The programme will start in the final quarter of 2016 and conclude in 2023, underscoring the importance of establishing long-term education programmes in Africa.

Research underway at Carnegie Mellon in Rwanda also takes a long-term approach. “The faculty understands that to address Africa’s technology needs, students require time to analyse and solve problems in the context in which they occur,” said Suresh.

Research will focus on wireless networking, mobile applications, energy systems, cyber security, agriculture, financial services and telecommunications.

In 2007 the International Telecommunication Union – the United Nations' specialised agency for information and communication technologies – recommended creating centres of excellence throughout Africa to cultivate the science and technology skills required to develop an IT workforce and expertise.

The university prides itself on being the first US institution to offer a masters programme taught by full-time faculty resident in Africa, helping to reduce the estimated 200,000 young Africans who leave the continent in search of education opportunities in the developed world.