Africa's Future Depends on STEM Education

12/29/2014 11:59 am ET Updated Feb 28, 2015

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 organizations as part of their ICT programs, either as their way of investment on education, or as a way of promoting technology and innovation. However, STEM must not be just a jargon used to make organizations look trendy and cool 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 percent of their domestic and international jobs will require core STEM skills.

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 meanings. Consider for a second, the exploitation of Africa's natural resources such us 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 diseases like Ebola. If we invested in our tech entrepreneurs and innovators we will be able to resolve local problems with local solutions; instead China and the U.S. are doing this for Africa with a hidden price.

This infrastructure building convenience 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, Nairobi 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 jobs are performed by or outsourced to multinationals from China, India and the U.S. In 2014, 87 construction teams arrived in Kenya from China to ensure the construction of the Standard Gauge railway in Kenya. Most Kenyans could not do the job.

Africa will need a new generation of accountants, auditors, creators, makers, designers, mathematic and science teachers, engineers and so on -- all these jobs required 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 for their future workforce to be trained in something I find so crucial for its development. Thousand 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 -- so basically the African professional class has been severely challenged, if not completely prevented by some construction and mining companies.

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

You just need to spend time in the corridors of the Ministries of Education and ICT in Africa to realize that the word STEM is not simply 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 in Africa 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 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 continent-wide. Today, Rwanda and South Africa are the only countries that have successfully been looking at this subject.

The U.S. Department of State's Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs is pushing for more awareness on STEM Subject through TechWomen.

The British Council is piloting micro programs across Africa through the Global innovation Fund to increase awareness on STEM, but the reality is all these programs are more focused on teaching the English language than real STEM subjects.

The barrier many African governments have in promoting STEM subjects is the lack of qualified people in these subjects. And until they address this the problem will remain.

Africa is crying out for skilled young people in every single country. The mismatch between their current skills and what the companies need is getting wider. Youth unemployment is extremely high despite so much money disappearing through back doors every year. The International Labour Organization estimates that between 2000 and 2008 Africa created 73 million jobs, but only 16 million for young people aged between 15 and 24. As a result, many young Africans find themselves unemployed or, more frequently, underemployed in informal jobs with low productivity and pay. Of Africa's unemployed, 60 percent are young people and youth unemployment rates are double those of adult unemployment in most African countries. 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 they understand this? While Africa makes up 15 percent of the world population, its research and development capacity is untapped. The 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.

2015 is a big year for Africa due to the fact that the same organizations that have failed the African education system in conspiracy with the African governments will celebrate the Millennium development goals without regard to the past errors made. The Millennium development goals were big foolish ideas that have let Africans down and I hope the SDGs will heavily focus on the STEM subjects as Africa needs a world-class workforce in the next decade, otherwise we are doomed.