Elizabeth with the Nigerian Institute of Mechanical Engineers

Strengthening the engineering profession in Sub-Saharan Africa: How now do we further catalyse change?

For two years, Engineers Against Poverty (EAP) has been working with engineering institutions in sub-Saharan Africa to build their capacity and strengthen the sector through the Royal Academy of Engineering’s ‘Africa Catalyst’ programme. As Africa Catalyst moves into its second phase this year, EAP joined fellow partners and the professional bodies supported by the programme at a workshop in South Africa to share lessons and focus on how to further catalyse change in the region. In this blog, EAP Programmes Administrator, Elizabeth Dykstra McCarthy reflects on the workshop and how its lessons can be used.

Africa Catalyst combines best practice in the sub-Saharan Africa region, empowering those who are in the best position to create change within their contexts and recognising the powerful role of infrastructure in job creation and development. Good, high-quality and complex engineering projects are very costly and need skilled engineers to execute and maintain them – programmes like the Africa Catalyst address this need.

EAP’s mission is to promote infrastructure policy and practice with sustainable social, economic and environmental impacts that help eliminate poverty and we are delighted to work with partners so committed to executing this belief. One of the partners we have supported through Africa Catalyst is the Institute of Engineers Rwanda (IER) and a workshop we facilitated with the institute in February its Executive Secretary, Bonny Rutembesa demonstrated their appreciation of the programme:

“Without professional engineers in the country, we cannot attain sustainable development. We are at the forefront of Rwanda’s development. Good, high quality and complex engineering projects are very costly, and they therefore need professional engineers to execute and maintain them. This initiative comes at a much-needed time for Rwanda and its future progress”.

The South Africa workshop – an opportunity for sharing and learning

At the South Africa workshop we joined participants who presented the key achievements of their programmes over the last year, to see where the best aspects from each others programmes could be incorporated and to share advice on overcoming challenges.

Diversity – not only the right thing to do but the right thing for business

Diversity, a core area for Africa Catalyst, was a strong feature of the workshop and a unified understanding on the importance of diversity prevailed from participants – that not only is diversity the right thing to do, but it is the right thing to do for business. WomEng for example pointed out that companies where women made up at least 15% of senior management were 50% more profitable than those where fewer than 10% of senior managers were female. In response to this, the organisation has developed brilliant pipelines which target girls and women in different stages, including at primary and secondary school, university and graduate level and when they reach senior management status. Their interventions include promoting networking opportunities for engineering professionals and an annual innovation challenge and a programme to develop their professional skills. This holistic approach encourages and supports women at all stages of their educational and professional development.

The Uganda Institute of Engineers also outlined how they have responded to a need to help female engineers in their professional development. After receiving numerous requests for more assistance on soft-skills such as interview practice, building CV and IT they rolled out courses on these topics. Such was the success of the courses, that the Institute became flooded with requests for more training from both men and women.

For our work on Africa Catalyst we have been proud to assist both the IER and the Nigerian Institute of Mechanical Engineering (NIMechE) with their diversity and inclusion policies. And in Nigeria, this will be the first such policy of its kind amongst professional engineering bodies.

Inspiring the next generation

For another focus of Africa Catalyst – to inspire more engineers into the profession – the IER presented on how their work had assisted engineering students and the NIMechE outlined their innovation challenges and a boot camp they run.

In the instance of the IER they outlined some key successes from their internship programme that we have supported. The programme helps to streamline the development of engineers from universities into employment, building their capacity to deliver effective projects and matching recent graduates with employers. The feedback received from those supported demonstrated the clear impact of the programme. Surveys with the interns demonstrated that 100% felt their practical skills had increased and 68% of interns felt their theoretical knowledge had increased. All surveyed gave either a good or excellent mark when rating their overall impression of the scheme.

Key takeaways to better our programmes

Although the workshop allowed associations to talk through their key achievements, it also offered a frank discussion on where there were gaps and challenges faced. Doing so meant that suggestions and advice across countries could be shared so an initial plan of how to rectify these challenges could emerge.

When presenting their work, the IER and the NIMechE shared common challenges concerning programme management and difficulties in engaging engineering companies. Both spoke on  the need to show the private sector the impact of their internship programmes, including how it could benefit them and the key issue of the quality and standard of engineering education that had driven the initiation of the programmes. We will be helping the institutions to meet some of these challenges over the next year, for example, we will be working more intensely on monitoring and evaluation so that we can demonstrate the value of the programmes to the private sector, helping to ensure the future sustainability of their work.

By remaining discursive, open to presenting achievements as well as challenges and by bringing together disparate institutions from across sub-Saharan African the workshop provided either something for each attending organisation – whether ideas, solutions or future relationships for technical assistance.