The Evolution of Engineering in Africa

Rwanda, and Africa as a whole, is going through an engineering revolution. African engineers are collaborating and working across borders to create innovative solutions to complex problems. African nations have launched satellites, engaged in robotics development and have made forays into the development of digital systems. 

Renewable energy is being harnessed by vast new hydroelectric dams. These are modern megaprojects that require extremely large teams of engineers working in collaboration. The latest massive dam is being built on the Ethiopian part of the Nile. 

In Rwanda, mechanical and systems engineer work opportunities have been growing exponentially. Training is available domestically, but many Rwandans seek training abroad. Studying for engineering qualifications online has become far easier due to the spread of the internet. Click here for more info.

Indeed, the internet has catalyzed the development of engineering skills and leadership in Africa: with information available to engineers instantly and education available remotely.

This explosion of engineering work and innovation has not sprung out of thin air. Africa has a long history of engineering innovation, stretching back to the very first tools. Let us take you on a quick journey through the history of engineering on the continent.

Ancient Roots

The roots of engineering in Africa are deep indeed. There is ancient precedent for the engineering revolution currently taking place on the continent. 

Irrigation is a form of landscape and agricultural engineering that literally keeps societies ticking over. It is an example of a complex solution to a complex problem: the need to keep farms supplied with water in a highly seasonal environment.

Beginning in the time of Scorpio, the ancient Egyptians undertook some very ambitious irrigation programs aimed at harnessing the waters of the mighty Nile river. Ancient Egyptian governors were responsible for the upkeep of dykes and canals that helped agriculture to flourish all year round. The irrigation projects initiated by the ancient Egyptians were remarkably complex. They were largely successful, although there are recorded incidents where flooding overwhelmed the systems. Modern Nile irrigation projects owe a huge amount to the ingenuity of ancient engineers. 

Of course, the most well publicized engineering feats of ancient Africa are the great pyramids. Today, we would call the planning and building of the giant mausoleums ‘megaprojects’. The building of the pyramids involved complex mathematic calculation, architectural engineering and plenty of innovation in construction. Egyptian pharaohs hired chiefs of work to be responsible for the huge building operations. These chiefs essentially acted as architects and engineers, overseeing the solving of complex problems during the planning and building of pyramids. 

Recently, engineering historians have set out to investigate how the ancient Egyptians managed to build their pyramids so that they precisely faced true north. It is thought that they used a system of astrological note-taking and guide ropes to align their building projects. A true feat of ancient African engineering!

Great Zimbabwe City

The 12th and 13th and 14th centuries were times of great innovation and flourishing society in what is now Zimbabwe. The great capital cities of medieval Africa would truly have been sights to behold, and contained multiple examples of large-scale engineering projects.

Great Zimbabwe is the name that has been given to a particularly spectacular capital city. It was the center of a huge kingdom that found great success in trading. It was part of a large and wealthy global trading network. Pottery from Persia has been found in the ruins of the city, leading many to believe that the engineers of the city would have had access to outside expertise. 

The most spectacular engineering feat that remains in the ruins of Great Zimbabwe is the Great Enclosure. Thought to be the royal palace of the city or a symbolic grain storage facility. This 14th century structure was the largest building in medieval sub-Saharan Africa. 

The construction of the building took some engineering prowess. It was designed and built without mortar to hold the constituent stones together. Stones had to be carefully arranged to that they held each other together through gravitational means and through friction. The fact that the enclosure still stands today, over 800 years since its construction, is proof enough that the medieval Zimbabweans crafted an amazing engineering solution to counteract their lack of mortar. 

Colonial Influence

Scientific and engineering culture in African nations has often been influenced by colonial domination. Often this has been an unhelpful influence – a dominant and unwelcome injection of rationalist principles enforced upon cultures as if such principles were fully formed at their time of induction. 

Nevertheless, there are some interesting and important engineering legacies of colonial control in Africa. Perhaps the most obvious and important of all is the railway. Railways have had an absolutely vast effect on the population and geographic make up of Africa. Some scholars believe that the railways are the main catalyst behind the steady transformation of sub-Saharan Africa from a highly dispersed collection of societies to a very populous and connected city-based culture. Railways have certainly changed the economic geography of the continent.

Colonizers did not, however, build railways in order to pursue social and economic connectivity between disparate groups of African people. They usually built railway lines in order to increase their military domination or transport raw materials away from their source. 

The actual placement of a railway was considered an engineering problem: how to get from point A to point B in the quickest and most efficient way. The impact of the railway on communities along its route was rarely considered. However, the effects of railway building extended beyond the intentions of their builders. A great example of this ‘historical accident’ is the Kenya – Uganda railroad, built between 1896 and 1901. Its planners essentially built the line along the cheapest route, avoiding densely populated areas. However, the arrival of the railway catalyzed population growth around it, and new economies and social structures blossomed in its shadow. 

In this way, colonial engineering projects have influenced the makeup of modern Africa. Skills were also passed on to African engineers, who continued to run the railways following decolonization. More recently, railways are being built by Chinese firms funded in part by the Chinese government. This investment in African railways has been welcomed by many, but skeptics say that the Chinese are engaged in ‘railway diplomacy’. Railway diplomacy is a phrase used to describe the use of railway building as a form of soft power projection – a way of controlling people and materials while developing debts and political influence over African nations. 

Pan African Pride

Pan Africanism has got a lot of bad press thanks to unsavory characters. We don’t all like Libya’s former president. Pan Africanism has more to do with togetherness than egotistical dictators though. In engineering terms, Pan African collaboration initiatives have been very influential. 

In recent times, there has been a push to create a Pan-African engineering corps. This group would largely be comprised of current and former soldiers from across borders. It would be a peaceful collaboration between nations that would help with the design and construction of large scale engineering projects in much the same way that the US Army Corps of Engineers did.

The project is being spearheaded by Earnest Bai Koroma, the former president of Sierra Leone. Increasing Pan-African engineering collaboration has been identified as an essential component to creating lasting peace on the continent. Researchers trying to figure out how the African Union can help nations work together in the long term have suggested that the mutual benefits of engineering collaboration can help foster permanent and realistic friendships between nations. Conflict often arises over scarce natural resources. Collaborative efforts to make resource exploitation more efficient would benefit all of the nations involved.

In recent times, tension has arisen as the result of poor communication between nations undertaking vast engineering projects. Ethiopia’s building of a vast dam on the river Nile has angered the Egyptians, who say that the dam will stem the flow of water to the desert nation and make their complex agricultural irrigation system useless. Collaboration between nations on water engineering projects is essential in order to stop conflict, especially as populations grow and drought becomes a very real possibility.

The Final Frontier: Africa in Space

African nations are making surprising forays into space. Highly developed engineering industries have played a huge part in this expansion into the extra-global universe. Nigeria launched its first satellite in 2003 and is considered to have some of the finest engineers in Africa working on space-related projects. Ghana’s Space Science and Technology Centre is following suit – working on a series of complex projects aimed at giving Ghana affordable nationwide internet connection among other things. 

As well as these modern efforts, there have been more clandestine space programs. The African Space Research Program, for instance, is a Ugandan organization working on space exploration projects from a Kampala garden. 

It is entirely volunteer funded and run, and has lofty ambitions despite its very limited resources. The organization is largely comprised of engineering students who are testing their skills and ingenuity.