The state of Africa’s economic development: Is this not a continent’s cry for more women in engineering?

Sub Saharan Africa’s economies have remained largely stagnant for the past 40 years, and during this whole period, women have largely been marginalised within engineering, be it in education or in practice. Were engineering to become more inclusive, would this not help to lift Sub Saharan Africa out of its current economic stagnation? Almost 25 years ago, in 1994, Winnie Byanyima, who is now the Executive Director of Oxfam International, asked the very same question in her Daphne Jackson Memorial Lecture at the University of Cambridge.

The title of her lecture was “The role of women in developing countries,” and her primary focus was Sub Saharan Africa.  Then, as is the case now, Sub Saharan African countries were pegged at the lowest end of the economic development scale. Then, as is the case now, Sub Saharan African countries had immense natural resources that remain largely untapped. Then, as is the case now, the economies of these countries were characterised by a low technological and scientific base, and a correspondingly small industrial sector. Then, as is the case now, the main economic activity was agriculture, which has been forever characterised by under-investment and low productivity.

Yet, even back then, African governments were very aware of the economic benefits of investing in people as a vehicle for development. And they were doing something about it, just as they are still doing something about it. Following in the footsteps of Europe and North America, post-colonial Sub Saharan Africa was, and is, making significant investments in engineering education. Yet this investment has not brought the expected economic benefits that are so visible in Europe and North America. Instead, a recent report by the African Technology Policy Studies Network paints a bleak picture:

Despite the existence of engineering institutions in Sub-Saharan African countries that have been graduating hundreds of engineers annually for about four decades, there has been little progress in the acquisition and effective utilization of technology for industrial development(Afonja et al. 2005).

What went wrong? As Afonja et al. (2005)suggest,  there are multiple reasons for this failure, including some that are beyond the control of individual African governments. This is to be expected, as economic underdevelopment is a very complex phenomenon that requires a multi-pronged approach to address. But most certainly, one of the missing elements to the African economic development jigsaw puzzle has been the continued marginalisation of women at all levels of engineering. Today, just as was the case in 1994, both engineering education and engineering practice  are characterised by low percentages of women (Afonja et al. 2005; Manyuchi et al. 2015). A case in point is Zimbabwe, where:

The number of women pursuing engineering education is still as low as 11% for undergraduate degrees and as low as 14% for postgraduate degrees.  Moreover, the number of women offering engineering education at these major universities is still as low as 13%.”(Manyuchi et al. 2015)

With regard to Sub Saharan Africa, Winnie Byanyima argues that for millennia, women have been “the primary users and managers of the environment, the health-givers, and food-providers.”  Even now, women in Africa shoulder the burden of economic survival. They make up the bulk of the small scale farmers, and the bulk of informal traders, even to the extent of bringing in a bigger slice of the family income compared to men.  Through these roles, women in Sub Saharan Africa have “accumulated vast knowledge and technologies in the fields of health, biodiversity, agriculture and food processing”(Byanyima 1994). And yet, modern engineering education and practice has consigned women to the margins. Such marginalisation, argues Winnie, has led to the non-utilisation, and subsequent loss of all the knowledge and experiential capital that women have accumulated over the centuries. In turn, this has led to the implementation of inappropriate engineering solutions as men lack the indepth, nuanced environmental and socio-cultural expertise that women possess by virtue of their historical roles in the African community.

In any case, given that women make more than half the entire Sub Saharan African population, excluding them from engineering means that we deprive engineering of at least half the available potential for creativity and innovation. This has huge consequences for the women themselves, their children, their families and the economy at large. In acknowledgement of this fact, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) comments:

The case for gender equality is founded in both human rights and economic arguments. As such, closing gender gaps must be a central part of any strategy to create more sustainable and inclusive economies and societies (Adema et al. 2014)

 So, is it not time that Sub Saharan Africa open up the doors of engineering education and practice to women? And is it not time that the culture within Sub Saharan African engineering education and practice become more welcoming to women and other historically marginalised communities? And is it not time that Sub Saharan African fathers, mothers and teachers stop channelling girls to “feminine” jobs, such as nursing and clerical work, and instead, work together to remove the deep-seated cultural obstacles that make it so difficult for women to pursue successful careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM)? Surely, is it not time for a new dawn in the unfolding history of women in engineering?


Adema, W., Ali, N., Frey, V., Kim, H., Lunati, M., Piacentini, M., and Queisser, M. (2014). Enhancing Women’s Economic Empowerment Through Entrepreneurship and Business Leadership in OECD Countries. OECD.

Afonja, A., Sraku-Lartey, K., and Oni, S. (2005). “Engineering education for industrial development: case studies of Nigeria, Ghana and Zimbabwe.” Nairobi: ATPS Working Paper, 42.

Byanyima, W. (1994). “The role of women engineers in developing countries.” RSA Journal, 142(5454), 57-66.

Manyuchi, M. M., Nleya, M., Chihambakwe, Z. J., and Gudukeya, L. K. “Zimbabwean Women in Engineering Education-Is It About Technophobia?” Presented at Proceedings of The Engineers Without Borders Conference, Livingstone, Zambia.