Skills to drive national development while creating jobs

Three years ago, 23-year-old Genevieve Uwamariya and two fellow students at the Integrated Polytechnic Regional College in Tumba in Rwanda carried out research on traditional banana ripening and realised something was wrong.

The traditional process causes losses, and while this occurs over a long period, the students wanted to come up with a solution, Uwamariya said.

As part of their research, the students worked on a prototype and, with support from the college, they invented a modern banana ripening facility codenamed ‘Smart Urwina’, meaning a smart banana ripening machine.

“Our Smart Urwina was tried on several occasions and proved to be efficient. While the whole process for banana ripening takes more than a week, ours takes only three days. It was also proved that bananas ripened in Smart Urwina are at the same level [as those ripened traditionally], but with no losses of unripe bananas as in the normal process,” Uwamariya said.

The machine is one of several initiatives by young innovators from Integrated Polytechnic Regional Colleges (IPRC), institutions equivalent to traditional universities.

Rwanda has eight IPRC spread across the country offering technical and hands-on skills to students. The colleges are regrouped under the umbrella Rwanda Polytechnic (RP).

Awards and training

Uwamariya and her peers have won several awards, thanks to their innovative idea that seeks to address issues in a country where most farmers grow bananas and where banana-based drinks such as banana beer dominate.

The awards include one awarded by the National Industrial Research and Development Agency in a young innovators’ competition, Innovate for Industry.

“We also acquired more training to upgrade our products. Our Smart Urwina was improved further. The industrial agency helped us to showcase our product. Most businesses were interested, and we hope that the technology will be embraced and used by banana-based beverages producers,” Uwamariya said.

She hopes that, once businesses start using Smart Urwina, it will benefit the trio and encourage them to do more research for further innovations.

According to Dr James Gashumba, vice-chancellor of RP, the country wants the polytechnics colleges to focus more on hands-on skills development to produce more capable engineers who can drive national development while creating jobs.

Economy needs highly skilled, trained workers

He said that Rwanda has learned from developed countries like Germany and Switzerland that have developed strong and respected skills development systems in their TVET systems.

“Here in Rwanda, like in many other countries in Africa, technical training in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s was looked down on as more young people tried to go to universities to get what we call ‘white-collar jobs’ which take them away from working with their hands,” he said.

“This is really a foolish trend for any nation that wants to build its economy. To build an economy, you need highly trained and skilled workers who love work, who are proud of work, are very well remunerated and not despised. So that’s what we’re trying to do,” he added.

IPRC started in 2008 with the inauguration of IPRC Kigali in the capital city and IPRC Tumba in the Northern Province. A lot of progress has since been made, Gashumba said.

“We have good workshops for manufacturing; we have developed strengths in different trades, depending on the college,” he added.

For instance, IPRC Tumba’s strength lies in ICT, solar energy and biogas-related activities.

“We have testimonies from the people they work with. Our partners like the Water Sanitation Corporation and the Rwanda Energy Group appreciate the role of IPRC in producing graduates with much needed hands-on skills,” he said.

“If you go to industrial zones anywhere in the country, you meet our graduates working there as technicians.”

He said that IPRC are playing a role in helping companies and industries to produce more and quality locally made products as the country embarks on a made-in-Rwanda campaign to stimulate the market and substitute imports.

“Of course, the journey is still long, but we’ve made some inroads. There is a lot of innovation at all the colleges though we still need to keep supporting those innovations and empower our students,” said Gashumba.

Bridging the gap

A ministry of education tracer survey report released in 2019 revealed that graduates from both TVET institutions and universities lacked additional skills and professional experience. Entrepreneurial and business skills were also limited, University World News reported at the time.

The report revealed that the employment rate for graduates of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programmes was at 50% while the general employment rate for university graduates (mainstream) was 63.4%. The underemployment figure for TVET graduates was 39.5%, compared to 18.5% for higher learning institutions.

The survey found that the employer satisfaction rate was at 78.2% and 74.6% for graduates from higher learning institutions and TVETs, respectively.

In a bid to empower students and graduates, Gashumba said that the colleges were engaging government institutions and public industries to link academia with industry.

He said a new policy is in the pipeline whereby polytechnics would be working with the private sector to allow students from polytechnics to spend a shorter time in class and the rest in the workplace.

“We had a meeting with private organisations recently and discussed adopting a new system called duo training or workplace learning where students should spend 60% or even 70% of the time in the workplace,” he said.

Government ready to keep supporting

According to Rwanda’s Prime Minister, Edouard Ngirente, the government considers polytechnics colleges vital to national development and has been putting more effort into supporting their development.

Addressing members of parliament on the status of technical and vocational education and training (TVET) in July 2021, Ngirente said that the government was planning to extend polytechnics’ level of education so that those interested can study up to masters level. Currently, all polytechnics offer advanced diplomas in given fields.

The premier noted that, at university level, students will now get a Bachelor of Technology (BTech) and continue to get a Master of Technology (MTech) degree.

“Our plan is to ensure that more students are interested in polytechnics education, pursue related courses, find work and improve their lives while playing a part in national growth,” he said.

According to Dr Christian Sekomo Birame, the director-general of the National Industrial Research and Development Agency, or NIRDA, the agency has been working with polytechnics and universities to encourage more students to become more innovative.

“For instance, in the competition we organise, we call upon young innovators to come up with ideas or prototypes that can result in projects that answer problems our industries are faced with,” he said.

“We then select the best projects and award cash prizes, but also incubate them until they are viable projects that can be extended and sold to industries. That is the practice we want to continue, to ensure there is a link between industries, polytechnics, and universities,” he said.