Lack Of Investment In Technical Skills Is Holding Afrika's Growth Back, But STEM Education Can Help Bridge The Gap

While investment in education in Africa has risen on the whole [PDF], technical and vocational education and training (TVET) have seen a decline. With US$1.5 trillion going to public education annually, with only about 2 to 6 percent of this went to TVET skills development in 2012. One major consequence of this is that the continent has lagged behind in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, which are reliant on skills gained from TVET education.

In comparison, each year, the United States budgeted US$2.9 billion in 2015 towards STEM education and workforce development, with estimates putting the proportion of the workforce that require core STEM skills at 70%.

STEM courses are long-term, and their returns are not as immediately apparent as other courses, such as finance and business. However, without courses promoting technology and innovation in these fields, we cannot build a sustainable platform to jumpstart the continent's development and diversify our economies.

Africa is urbanising rapidly, and with this comes increased demand for infrastructure, transport, energy, water, and sanitation, as well as health, education, cultural facilities and other public services. To meet this demand, we need trained and qualified architects, engineers, doctors, planners, as well as experts in the maintenance of infrastructure. We also need mathematicians to crunch the numbers, analyze data and design accurate models for planning purposes.

While African countries may have basic policies that aim to mainstream STEM education, they often lack the necessary frameworks to implement them effectively. While leaders often give lip service to the need for more technical education, these have failed to translate into concrete policies.

Consider for a second, the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources that have powered the continent's growth over the past decade. If governments had clear strategies on STEM policies, more cartographers could be mapping out minerals locations locally rather than outsourcing it to foreign firms from China and elsewhere.

If we had enough well-trained engineers, they could operate machines and build railroads and motorways. If our governments invested more in our own scientists, we would be able to prevent disease outbreaks. If governments invested in our tech entrepreneurs and innovators we would be able to resolve local problems with local solutions rather than waiting for foreign aid.

Africa's infrastructure is being built and maintained by guest workers, with calls for technology transfer going largely unheeded. Rather than building capacity in the STEM fields, we find graduates in these courses working elsewhere because of the lack of opportunities.

In order to grow, African governments need to invest in STEM for the future rather than relying on the next person who fancies our resources to come and pay for everything. We want to have smooth roads in Kigali, Joburg, Nairobi, Kampala, Lagos and Maputo, but we need to get to the point where we can build those roads ourselves. All this needs a solid STEM skills base in order to happen.

Now is the time to advocate for good education policies in Africa, starting with the proper integration of STEM subjects into the education systems. Currently, it's only Rwanda and South Africa that have put structures for STEM education and promotion in place.

The biggest barrier to the promotion of STEM education is in the lack of qualified teachers. The irony here is that countries like Kenya have lots of teachers out of work, but they don't have enough teachers in school. To overcome this, targeted funding needs to be made towards the hiring of adequate numbers of teachers to meet the deficit.

Additionally, the teacher training curriculum needs to be updated – outdated concepts need to be brought up to date, and recent breakthroughs need to be factored in as well. The education system needs to be dynamic enough to adapt to changes, such as when Pluto was downgraded to dwarf planet status, or the discovery of subatomic particles.

STEM subjects need to be taught by enthusiastic teachers using hands on while encouraging lots of conversations and engagement. Making science and math subjects fun and interesting will spur students to learn, develop an interest in them and help grow that interest into a rewarding STEM career.

Africa has 15% of the world's population, but produces just over 1% of the world's research. There are just 79 scientists per million Africans, compared to 4,500 per million in the United States. Given that the continent's resources, manpower and development capacity still untapped and underutilized, African governments need to put more emphasis in building structures that support skills education, and in making policies that will foster a competitive knowledge economy.

STEM careers are contributing to the growth of communities and transformation of nations. These professionals are increasingly taking charge in solving today's complex problems and for the future, looking for solutions to global warming, cancer, hunger, disappearing habitats, and a host of other emerging challenges. Trained STEM graduates can contribute greatly to the economy while making life easier for everyone.