As part of my work on the Africa Centers of Excellence project, a regional initiative to expand science and technology disciplines in higher education, I recently visited the Institute of Petroleum Studies at the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria.
This university hosts one of the first of 19 African Centers of Excellence, specializing in Oil Field Chemicals. The Institute of Petroleum Studies was established in 2003 as a bold effort to remedy the skills gap between classroom theory and the practical needs of the oil and gas industry in Nigeria.
The first thing I noticed was the impressive knowledge of the students and faculty with regard to developing technical know-how for Nigeria's massive oil and gas sector.
Professor Joel Ogbonna, the quiet but dynamic center director, told me that Nigeria currently imports billions of dollars in raw materials. He said, "We have it all, right here under our ground, yet Nigeria imports oil field chemicals to service the sector."
The establishment of the Africa Center of Excellence in Oil Field Chemicals will provide a platform for quality training and applied research to enhance the utilization of local raw materials within the oil and gas sector in both Nigeria and other African countries.
I met the students during a lecture on petroleum engineering. At least half the students were young girls studying in the program. I found this to be very impressive, given the challenges of getting more young women in the region to study Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM).
As Professor Joel said, "We have to encourage our girls, so we are using scholarships to attract the most talented girls to study engineering. We have to be resourceful."
Yosi, who is doing her MSc in petroleum engineering and refinery, told me why she chose Port Harcourt and this program. "I already have a job when I graduate. I chose Port Harcourt because of the strong faculty and linkage with companies," she said
On a tour of the campus, I saw that students were studying in well-stocked study and lecture rooms, with full Internet access, a virtual library, and benefiting from committed professors close at hand.
Being Kenyan myself, I hope the World Bank Group will continue to support more of our African universities to get to this equilibrium.
From Port Harcourt, I went to St Louis, a historic and charming city on the coast of Senegal and home to University Gaston Berger (UGB). UGB hosts two Africa Centers of Excellence—in Applied Mathematics and ICT. There I met Professor Moussa Lo, an excellent mathematician who is well respected among his peers. Professor Lo told me, "Applied mathematics is under-studied and we must get more young people into STEM". Applied mathematics is a critical discipline for many sectors, from traffic control systems in emerging urban centers to health system modelling.
The UGB centers have attracted students from Niger, Mali, Mauritania, Togo and Benin. They had great ideas on how to use software technologies to address development challenges.
Ahmed, a PhD candidate, told me he came from Mauritania to study applied mathematics. He said, "My French is not very good, but I don't care because mathematics is a global language."
I asked what he wanted to do after his PhD. He smiled and said "Well, I have quite a few choices, maybe the financial world like banking and finance, but I want to serve my country using my quantitative and modelling skills."
It was great to see the Africa Centers of Excellence project in action. It is a partnership with broad support—from the World Bank Group, from eight West and Central African governments, and from the Association of African Universities.
The centers cover a wide range of disciplines that are of huge importance to Africa, including health sciences and agriculture sciences. Each center receives up to $8 million dollars to build its capacity to become a top institution to attract and educate African talent in areas critical for Africa's development.
Like all the centers supported by the project, the two universities that I visited won grants through a highly competitive, transparent and merit-based selection. The centers are located in Nigeria, Ghana, Senegal, Togo, Benin, Cameroon and Burkina Faso.
I hope to visit Ghana next where two of our exciting centers of excellence are hosted at the University of Ghana.