Engineering Standards: A Framework to Empower Africa

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Dec. 29, 2020 6 min read

We rarely notice them, but engineering standards literally shape the world around us. From the size of the pipe fittings in your kitchen sink, to the shape of the nozzle you use to put gas in your car, to the specifications of the lightbulb you turn off before you go to sleep, standards are unsung heroes in all of our lives.

Standards are an area of priority for Engineer Africa because they can bring major benefits to a wide range of African businesses and to the continent as a whole. In this article, I hope to help the reader better understand the importance of engineering standards generally, and for Africa in particular.

Helping African Innovators Succeed

It’s no secret that building a business is challenging, and this is especially true in Africa. Every bit of support for African entrepreneurs makes a difference, and implementation of standards can actually have a direct impact on the bottom line of companies. For example, one brick factory in Namibia realized a 5% increase in gross profits just by implementing standards to their brick firing operation.

These gains come from a number of sources. For one, more standardization of production processes means that there are a lower percentage of defective products. Also, higher quality products can command a higher price on the market. Finally, standardized production metrics are refined through trial and error to minimize production costs.

“Made in Africa”

It makes economic sense for the products that Africa needs to be produced inside Africa.

Currently, many products that could be produced inside Africa are imported from outside Africa at high costs. This exacerbates the already difficult financial situation of many ordinary people and businesses.

Think about it — right now, resources are extracted in Africa and then shipped to China, North America or Europe. Then, those same metals are turned into finished products which are then shipped back to Africa. If these products can be produced inside Africa, it can eliminate thousands of miles of costly transport and substantially reduce carbon emissions. Furthermore, industrial production inside Africa can create millions of much-needed jobs.

Standards ensure that components produced by diverse manufacturers are compatible and interoperable. In other words, they make it possible for different companies to work together toward their mutual benefit.

Currently, many standards in Africa are based on colonial relationships. For example, Nigeria uses British style electrical sockets, while all of its neighbors use European style sockets. This makes it more difficult for Nigerian manufacturers to produce goods which can be exported to neighboring countries.

This is just one well-known example, but industrialization of Africa will require harmonization in many different areas. With the help of clear standards, Africans and African countries across the continent can work as a team to make life better for everyone by providing lower priced goods and job opportunities.

Making the Most of the AfCFTA

The creation of the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) may be the biggest opportunity for Africa we have witnessed in living memory. To make the most of that opportunity standards must be implemented effectively. Continental standards will make it possible for producers in Africa to supply the whole continent with the materials necessary for building an industrial economy.

The development of standards played an important role in establishing the European Union free trade zone, and research has shown that standardization brought major economic benefits for European industry. Africa has one of the lowest rates of intra-regional trade in the world, and lack of standardization is seen by experts as one of the major barriers to trade, so this is an area that needs a lot of attention as Africa moves toward an African common market.

In the long term, Africa has the potential to export many manufactured goods around the world. This will also require compliance with global and regional standards that are applicable in destination markets.

African Solutions to African Problems

There are a number of environmental factors that African countries share. Climatic conditions, soil composition, and even the availability of certain minerals and materials mean that industrial processes may be different in Africa than in other regions. Furthermore, as new technology is innovated, the products demanded by the African market may be different than those demanded in other regions.

For example, many biomedical devices that are produced in North America and imported to Africa break down due to higher humidity and temperatures. Standards can provide an effective avenue for sharing experience and establishing best practices for African contexts in a range of industries.

It’s very important to build out the channels for the dissemination and implementation of standards. This can support not only the profitability of African companies, but also the safety of African workers. Especially when it comes to heavy industry, standards that are appropriate to local conditions and locally available materials can prevent many accidents. This is discussed further on page 62 of a book we recently released. The book is available for download here.

Engineering African Unity with Standards

Originally founded in 1977 in Accra, Ghana, and currently based in Nairobi, Kenya, The African Organization for Standardization has been doing great work establishing standards for Africa. Many of these standards relate to products and their derivatives which are more common in Africa than in other parts of the world, like cassava root.

Good standards are usually the culmination of the work of dozens, or even hundreds of organizations, including private companies, academic institutions, and governments. At Engineer Africa, we are committed to working in collaboration with these actors to support the development of standards which will facilitate Africa’s transformation into an industrial and economic superpower.

One of the most powerful ways we can contribute to this process is by providing a platform where African professionals and engineers from the diaspora can collaborate with and support individuals and organizations working on the ground in Africa. In this way, new standards can be developed in light of both conditions in Africa and cutting-edge technology being developed by Africans working abroad. At the same time, new standards can be engineered to be compatible with standards in other parts of the world to lower trade barriers and enhance prosperity.

This is an under-appreciated but crucial part of working towards the goal of a prosperous and unified Africa. To read more about Engineer Africa’s work and vision, take a look at our book, “The African Diaspora as a Force for Social and Economic Transformation.”

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