Where to start? I’d never even been to Africa. I began by seeking out other internal stakeholders in HP through conversations. Many of them asked, “Why Africa?” Then I called our general manager for HP Africa, Olivier Suinat. He expressed great enthusiasm for anything we could do to increase the number of engineers in the region. He told me that, as a customer base, Africa was on par with many European markets. Africa is, in fact, one of the fastest-growing emerging market regions in HP’s “Europe, Middle East, and Africa” geography. The general ignorance of this fact within HP astonished me; how could we not know? Were we so blinded by the negative press on Africa — negative news stories outnumbered positive stories by a 12-to-one ratio, according to one research report — that we couldn’t even see our own company’s success? According to popular media, the continent was hopelessly lost to civil wars, corruption, famine, and AIDS and other diseases. However, high-tech businesspeople working there came back with stories of phenomenal growth and expanding trade. Massive investment in capacity building (much of it from China, India, and the Middle East, rather than from former colonial powers) was accelerating that growth. Indeed, Africa’s 53 countries have experienced an unprecedented compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of more than 6 percent on gross domestic product (GDP) since 2004.
To be sure, some countries performed better than others. Many characterizations of Africa, treating the entire continent as one economy, grossly misrepresent the diverse realities there. As in the West, one could observe increasing gaps between haves and have-nots in wealth and development, even as the average level improved. But one factor seemed universal, and there we saw an opening for ourselves: Infrastructure progress was hampered mainly by the lack of skilled workers and the constant turnover caused by fierce competition for scarce talent. Olivier and others in the region stressed the urgent need to develop engineering education for capacity building.
Olivier then connected me with HP’s new general manager for West Africa, Lloyd Atabansi. My first appointment with Lloyd was typical of the friendship we developed: Scheduled for one hour, it expanded to six. Lloyd was born in Nigeria and raised in the U.S.; he holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. from Howard University and Bowie State University, respectively, and has lectured at Carnegie Mellon, Johns Hopkins, and the University of Maryland as well as working for IBM and Accenture. Lloyd ultimately came to see himself as part of an African diaspora, which led him to return to Nigeria with his family to help rebuild his country of birth and the continent. Sharing our dreams and commitments, Lloyd and I began talking about an initiative that we call “Engineering Africa.” We envision a multi-stakeholder quality assurance process to build engineering education throughout Africa, beginning in Nigeria, and leveraging all we’ve learned from our Latin American initiative.
After Lloyd and I developed Engineering Africa into PowerPoint slides (the ontological sine qua non for corporate reality), we continued to identify HP stakeholders in Africa. A key stakeholder emerged from my own University Relations team. Arnaud Pierson, an HP engineer working with UNESCO, had developed a capacity-building initiative in southeastern Europe called Brain Gain. Universities in the region had lost as much as 80 percent of their faculty and students through attrition during the civil wars in the Balkan states. By equipping key universities in the region with high-end networking equipment, and money for research and exchange travel, these universities upgraded their research, increased enrollment and retention, and joined the global university research community. I asked Arnaud if we could expand the project to Africa. Conversations with UNESCO and the HP philanthropic organization were already under way. The UNESCO team selected Algeria, Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Kenya, and Zimbabwe to receive grants. Education ministers in these countries will select key universities to participate in the African Brain Gain initiative. Various people involved in that initiative joined the leadership of Engineering Africa.