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Boosting research in Africa

Last week, IBM opened its 12th research laboratory in Nairobi, Kenya, “to help universities produce highly-qualified and technically-skilled graduates”. It is IBM’s first in Africa.

The company will also establish a resident programme for Kenyan and African schools. “Top-tier scientists and researchers from pre- and post-doctoral backgrounds, as well as from academia, government or industry” will be admitted to the lab to work on projects related to governance, transport and water.

IBM is not alone. MIT, Google and Total have for the past two years been empowering lecturers from Nigerian universities. Eleven lecturers have participated in the Empower the Teacher programme.

Akintunde Ibitayo (Tayo) Akinwande of the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Department, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says, “The program brings junior professors (at the grade of Lecturer I) from universities in Nigeria and Uganda to MIT labs and classrooms to engage in teaching, learning and research with MIT students and faculty.”

Why engineering? Millwrights, the equivalent of civil and mechanical engineers today, crafted and constructed the engines that drove the industrial revolution. The ETT programme wants to catalyse entrepreneurial engineers. Through sets of unstructured problems, projects, laboratory assignments and exams, graduates will focus on learning and solving problems.

Nigeria’s campuses can become incubators where a pool of graduates starts up software companies, developing apps for Nigeria’s 101 million mobile phone subscribers. A mobile game called Danfo Reloaded, designed by Pledge51, an indigenous mobile media company, can be downloaded onto the Nokia Asha, cheap smartphone designed for markets like Nigeria.

The snag, though, will be how to protect their intellectual property. Patents, call them exclusive rights, are an incentive for churning ideas; the prospect of commercial success guarantees risk taking. It is a pity that FORTRAN, a programming language, is still taught to computer engineering students.

Open-ended problem solving and enterprise, according to the Nigeria alumni of the programme, have been the major takeaways. Because Nigeria’s education system is not properly calibrated to train graduates for the job market, the programme has allowed the lecturers to design innovative curricula. Olufade Onifade, a lecturer at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ife, has learned to teach his students to stop memorising and regurgitating, what he calls “la cram la pour”.

Another lecturer has automated the grading of 1,500 students. Rather than wait for the elusive “enabling environment”, this young lecturer has come up with an ingenious way to grade problem sets.

Such thinking is what ETT progamme wants to democratise; the target is to increase the number of lecturers to 200 a year.

A simple model that can be replicated, with more corporate sponsors, and targeted at universities and technical colleges – the Industrial Training Fund like the Samsung Engineering Academy will train thousands of Nigerians to address the shortage of technical skills. “We can’t afford to sit down and not solve the problem; it’s not an option,” asserts Jayeola Opadiji, an alumnus of ETT.

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