It’s common to hear people talk about African unity, but what would that actually look like? There’s a big distance between theory and reality when it comes to getting the African continent working together. At Engineer Africa, we believe that a higher degree of cooperation and collaboration is key to realizing Africa’s potential. We also believe that the field of engineering, and engineers of the African diaspora can play a pivotal role in achieving this potential.
Siloed Development Efforts
During the colonial period, administrative structures in Africa were built mainly with the aim of exporting natural resources rather than building local infrastructure and industry. Part of this legacy is a fractured development landscape where many issues are taken on by different actors on the national level.
This is a major factor impeding a variety of development efforts — especially when it comes to technology. Without effective cooperation, different actors must each go through the process of adopting new technologies and adapting them to African contexts, which can present a steep learning curve. They must also devote their resources to a wider variety of tasks rather than specializing in what they are best at and then sharing resources with other organizations.
There are several important actors who could benefit from improved cooperation.
Governments. National governments are the single biggest source of funding for African development. Regional and local governments also play an important role in infrastructure development and providing social services.
NGOs. NGOs play an important role in organizing resources around specific issues like health, women’s rights, sanitation, employment, and in many other areas.
Traditional Institutions. Traditional institutions like tribes or village associations play an important role in providing some services, particularly in rural areas. They can provide valuable assistance when it comes to certain types of development initiatives.
In many cases, governments, NGOs, and traditional institutions are working independently on the same issues, even within the same country. Across borders, cooperation between these organizations is even less common. A higher degree of coordination among these actors could greatly potentiate the overall efficacy of development efforts.
There are many important areas where enhanced cooperation is needed, but since information sharing is fundamental to all successful cooperation, improving data sharing practices is one of Engineer Africa’s priority areas.
The Transformative Power of Data
In recent years, there has been a lot of talk about the potential of machine learning and data analysis to revolutionize almost everything — and Africa is no exception. Effective use of data can lead to significant efficiency gains in areas as diverse as agriculture, manufacturing, healthcare, urban planning, and policy making.
These efficiency gains could free up resources for governments, businesses, and NGOs which would result in more services for citizens and lower prices for consumers. Small gains in many areas can add up to a huge cumulative impact.
Better data sharing practices can assist researchers in developing best practices for Africa. Instead of individual countries, companies, and organizations each going through a lengthy process of trial and error, lessons drawn from a broad base of experience can be generalized and disseminated throughout Africa.
Information gathering and sharing practices must be improved if this potential is to be realized.
Toward a Common Resource for Information Sharing
First, data needs to be collected in a standardized format in order for it to be more effectively utilized. Africa-wide standards for data collection could greatly lower the barriers to data analysis. Many organizations may collect data informally, but if these insights can be formalized, it could bring broad based benefits.
In some cases, better data gathering may require developing application-specific technology, while in other cases organizations may need assistance in learning how to operate existing technology. Trained professionals and engineers can greatly help with this process. When it comes to projects in Africa, African engineers are especially well suited to initiatives in these areas.
Secondly, channels must be established so that data can be uploaded, stored, and accessed by participating researchers and organizations. Engineer Africa’s platform, which is described in our book, is intended to fill in these gaps. We are committed to working with those who are active in this space, including consortiums like the Global Partnership for Sustainable Development Data (GPSDD) to develop and implement standards that not only link African countries together, but also connect Africa to the wider global community.
Seeking Common Interests
Competition can be healthy, up to a point. When it comes to working towards the common good for Africa, however, sometimes it is necessary to put competition aside and work as a team.
There can be a tendency to view development as a zero-sum game with different actors competing for limited funding or resources. However, there are also many “win-win” propositions in which relations between organizations do not need to take on an adversarial quality. Though it has great potential, Africa is currently facing a period of great challenges, so it’s now more important than ever for everyone engaged in development efforts in Africa to be aware of common interests and rally around mutually beneficial initiatives.
Engineer Africa’s Partnerships
Our partners to date include the African Chamber of Digital Commerce (ACOFDC) which will help increase access to emerging technologies in Africa; the African Diaspora Development Institute (ADDI), which seeks to mobilize African professionals in the diaspora for development efforts in Africa; the African Payment Network (APN), which is building financial infrastructure for a united African market; Uniting Distant Stars, which supports education and vocational training in Liberia; and the Ghanaian Professional Network (GHPN), an organization providing educational and career development opportunities for Ghanaians, among others.
Through our partnerships with these organizations, we are leveraging the knowledge and expertise of engineers within the African diaspora to energize and accelerate Africa’s transformation.