Africa’s shortage of engineering skills ‘will stunt its growth’

Scientists at a laboratory in Cape Town, South Africa. The president of Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, said encouraging female students into science and engineering disciplines was vital. Photograph: Nic Bothma/EPA


Africa faces a crippling deficit of engineering skills, which will stunt its future economic growth and lead to hardship for the continent’s growing population, a conference on engineering heard on Tuesday.

The president of Mauritius, Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a biodiversity scientist, told the meeting in London: “Only through science, technology, engineering and mathematics can we as a global community increase the prosperity of our people. But Africa, despite its impressive recent economic growth, remains burdened by a deeply rooted scientific deficit.”

She said that encouraging young female students into science and engineering disciplines was key to increasing the number of skilled people available to build much-needed infrastructure and prepare the way for a new society.

“We need to make science more attractive to women,” she said, laying out three strategies to make this happen: raising the profile of female role models; challenging the “false distinction” that only “soft” subjects were suitable for girls; and making schools facilities in Africa better suited to girls by putting the necessary infrastructure in place.

This would include adequate toilet facilities, she noted. Many girls and young women are put off or taken out of school because of inadequate toilets, which force them to share with young men or give insufficient privacy and hygiene.

The president was addressing the Royal Academy of Engineering’s conference Engineering a Better World. Engineers and international development professionals discussed how to meet the sustainable development goals adopted by the UN general assembly in September last year.

A report commissioned by the academy from the Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) found there was a “strong positive correlation” between a country’s skills base in engineering and its economic development.

Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands topped the list of nations ranked by their engineering strength, measured by a high number of people employed in engineering jobs, high average wages for engineers, and good quality engineering infrastructure.

The study confirms other research showing that a lack of engineering expertise was a brake on developing economies.

The report also revealed that some small emerging economies were ahead of larger players, including the UK, when it came to the proportion of women studying engineering. Two-thirds of such graduates in Myanmar were women, along with 42% in Tunisia and 41% in Honduras.

By contrast, little more than a fifth of engineering graduates were female in the UK, Australia and the Netherlands. The European average was 28%.

According to the report, India and Vietnam are set to be the next engineering “hotspots”, owing to their forecast economic growth, burgeoning population and need for new infrastructure.

David Whitaker, managing economist at CEBR, said the study found that a one percentage point increase in a country’s score on its engineering index correlated to a 0.85% increase in GDP per capita.