Initiatives strengthen engineering education in Africa

2iE – Institut International d’Ingénierie de l’Eau et de l’Environnement – in Burkina Faso is an internationally recognised engineering school. It is one of many imaginative initiatives aimed at boosting the number and quality of engineers produced by universities in Africa.

In a series of articles ahead of the third Débats du Monde Afrique held in Senegal’s capital Dakar, the French newspaper Le Monde Afrique published numerous reports on African higher education. They include a profile of 2iE, and an article outlining some innovative solutions aimed at overcoming Africa’s lack of engineers.

2iE – A pan-African engineering institute

2iE, the renowned engineering university in Burkina Faso in West Africa, currently caters for about 1,900 undergraduates comprising 17 nationalities.

In a profile in Le Monde Afrique, Morgane Le Cam explains the origins of the institute in 2006 as the amalgamation of two schools specialised in hydraulic and rural engineering.

These in turn were products of an initiative in the late 1960s between 14 West and Central African states, including the East African island of Madagascar, to create engineering schools that would respond to regional needs.

“Our first ambition is to be an alternative to the brain drain. We know the more Africans leave for Europe when young, the less likely they are to return,” Kouassi Kouamé, interim director general, told Le Monde Afrique.

“Studying a course in Burkina Faso that is comparable to what is offered in Europe motivates them to stay on the continent.”

Student fees cost €2,000 (US$2,200) for the first year, although Kouamé says 40% of students receive grants, thanks to a public-private partnership with about 50 companies including Bolloré Africa Logistics, Bank of Africa, EDF, Total and Veolia.

“This helps us adapt our courses to the needs of companies and boosts student employment,” said Kouamé. The institute claims that 90% of its students find employment within six months of graduation.

2iE is located on two campuses. One, in central Ouagadougou, contains a scientific complex for researchers and postgraduates, experimental tanks, and conference facilities and classrooms.

The other, 20 kilometres away at Kamboinsé, includes a biomass energy and biofuel laboratory. Students research renewable energies in collaboration with West African industries, and 2iE also participates in European Union and African Union projects.

To take part in a totally African development 2iE encourages its students to set up businesses in Africa through an entrepreneurship course it established in 2012. Nearly a third of its 7,000 graduates have set up their own organisations, according to the institute.

The article also reported on trouble that broke out three years ago at 2iE, due to alleged maladministration, which led to the resignation of the school’s founder Paul Giniès.

Student applications this year numbered 1,964 for only 250 places, but they were lower than for 2014-15 when there were more than 2,500.

Africa’s shortage of engineers

Faced with a lack of engineers, Africa is turning to solutions including new partnerships, setting up networks of researchers, and installing branch campuses of foreign universities.

The continent needs professionals in all sectors of engineering – construction, civil, mechanical, electrical, maintenance, logistics, mining, agronomy, energy, telecoms and digitisation, reported Myriam Dubertrand in Le Monde Afrique.

Students’ capabilities are not the problem. Etienne Giros of the Conseil Français des Investisseurs en Afrique told Le Monde Afrique that engineering courses are inadequate:

“Our members complain about having to complete, even start again, the training of new recruits. There is a real problem with the quality of teaching and courses are not sufficiently oriented towards industry.”

Dimitrios Noukakis, director of MOOCs Afrique at the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, said: “In Sub-Saharan Africa research conditions vary between very low and mediocre. Laboratories are often obsolete. It’s not unusual for students to work on electronic circuits that no longer exist! The programmes need updating.”

There are several solutions aimed at resolving the quality problem, such as certification of institutions and postgraduate courses under initiatives such as RH-Excellence Afrique, which tests against 145 criteria.

Another way is ‘co-construction’, according to Jeanne Duvallet, vice-president of international relations at Grenoble Institute of Technology. “We must not arrive with solutions already fixed. We must create links between the continents,” she told Le Monde Afrique.

For example, RESCIF – the Francophone network of excellence of engineering sciences – comprises 14 French-language universities throughout the world.

Four are in Sub-Saharan Africa – L’École Nationale Supérieure Polytechnique de Yaoundé in Cameroon, L’École Supérieure Polytechnique Cheikh-Anta-Diop Dakar in Senegal, 2iE in Ouagadougou and the Institut Polytechnique Félix-Houphouët-Boigny in Côte d’Ivoire.

The aim is to train young engineers in advanced technologies in such sectors as water, energy and nutrition, key issues for the continent.

RESCIF sets up common laboratories and helps researcher and student exchanges. “Establishment of this network is done in a spirit of skills transfer,” Dimitrios Noukakis told Le Monde Afrique. An example is collaborative MOOCs, with a production studio in Africa, and teachers are trained to create their own courses.

Another initiative is the integration of Africa in the European Union’s Erasmus programme, which offers international mobility for students and teachers as well as transfer of skills.

French institutions that are setting up in Africa include the Institut Catholique d’Arts et Métiers in Pointe-Noire in the Republic of Congo, and in Douala in Cameroon.

More recently has been Centrale Nantes in Mauritius, where 35 students of eight nationalities started in October at the International Campus for Sustainable and Innovative Africa. As well as technical courses, it offers studies in management, architecture, law, pharmacy and medicine, and plans to cater for 5,000 students by 2025.