Thought leadership: Africa’s very future depends on STEM education

STEM is the acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. In the last two years in Africa it has been used gloomily by a few organisations as part of their ICT programmes, either as their way of investment in education, or as a way of promoting technology and innovation.

Africa’s workforces need reinventing through STEM education, or else the continent's economies are doomed, writes Senegalese-born businesswomen Mariéme Jamme.

Africa’s workforces need reinventing through STEM education, or else the continent’s economies are doomed, writes Senegalese-born businesswomen Mariéme Jamme.

However, STEM must not be just a jargon used to make any company look trendy in fancy reports, or concealing their failure in helping the future workforce without clear and tangible plans.

Each year, the United States invests billions in STEM education and workforce development. They know that over 70% of their domestic and international jobs will require core STEM skills.

But the African continent hasn’t got a robust strategic plan on STEM policies, or even a clear road map or framework of implementing them effectively. It is not even clear if some national leaders understand their importance or meaning.

Consider, for a second, the exploitation of Africa’s natural resources such as the bauxite in Guinea and Ghana. If the governments had a clear strategy on STEM policies, more cartographers could be drawing maps locally rather than outsourcing it in Europe.

If we had many well-trained engineers, they could operate machines and build railroads and motorways. If we invested in R&D with our own scientists, we will able to prevent disease outbreaks like Ebola. If we invested in our tech entrepreneurs and innovators we would be able to resolve local problems with local solutions.

But instead China and the US are doing this for Africa with a hidden price. If we invested in our economists, we would be able to prevent the speculative data that embarrassed Africa and Nigeria in particular.

This infrastructure building failure is actually destroying the ability for African governments to invest in STEM for the future. We surely want to have smooth roads in Lagos, Lusaka or Maputo, but if we do not insist that our people be given solid STEM skills, surely we will be losing out as a continent.

Currently in Africa, most STEM work is performed by, or outsourced to, multinationals from China, India and the US.

Africa will need a new generation of accountants, auditors, creators, makers, designers, mathematics and science teachers, engineers and so on. All these jobs require a minimum of skills in STEM. Who is thinking of this now in Africa? Who is taking this seriously?

African governments are signing infrastructure contracts with the west but hardly demanding their future workforce be trained in something I find so crucial for its development.

Thousands of Americans and Chinese are working annually in Africa in high-skilled STEM jobs that are reducing African ingenuity. Then people complain about a lack of jobs for youth.

The term STEM is not yet widely understood in Africa. Its implementation within the education systems is catastrophically poor despite the fact many ICT ministers collect millions for programmes related to these subjects.

You just need to spend time in the corridors of the Ministries of Education and ICT in Africa to realise that the word STEM is simply a laxative jargon that allows them to fundraise and make themselves look like they are part of the conversation.

In fact we are nowhere near what needs to be done for our youth – and they are the future of Africa. Companies are already struggling to find skilled employees with STEM knowledge. Over the next decade, African employers could expect to have many thousands of job openings requiring basic STEM literacy, and many more people will need advanced STEM knowledge.

For years I have been advocating for good education policies in Africa and the real implementation of STEM subjects into our education system, and nothing has been done. Today, Rwanda and South Africa are the only countries that have even been looking at this subject.

Africa is crying out for skilled young people in every single country. The mismatch between their current skills and what companies need is getting wider. Youth unemployment is extremely high despite so much money disappearing through back doors every year.

Millions of young people could find jobs if our STEM policies were given priority. Trained STEM graduates are great contributors to the African economy. Why can’t governments understand this? While Africa makes up 15% of the world population, its research and development capacity is untapped.

Governments could do so much by looking into their education policies and making STEM subjects their number one priority. This will also hugely improve Africa’s position in the globally competitive knowledge economy.

Coming 2015 is a big year for Africa due to the fact that the same organisations that have failed the African education system, in conspiracy with the African governments, will celebrate the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) without regard to past errors made.

The MDGs were big foolish ideas that have let Africans down, and I hope the sustainable development goals will heavily focus on the STEM subjects as Africa sorely needs a world-class workforce in the next decade.

Otherwise we are doomed.

Mariéme Jamme is a Senegalese-born businesswomen, technologist, international speaker, blogger and the co-founder of Africa Gathering. She is also the founder and CEO of the London-based technology consultancy business, SpotOne Global Solutions.