16 April 2018

Africa: Extensive Plan to Address Data Skills Dearth in Africa

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Johannesburg — AFTER 20 years of milestones in South Africa, an initiative aiming to bridge the skills gap between industry and academia is being expanded across the continent.

The Centre for Business Mathematics and Informatics (BMI), in partnership with Absa Bank (now Barclays Africa), established by South Africa's North West University (NWU) in 1998 to develop and produce skills needed by the country's big banks, initially focusing on risk management, has since inception produced more than 330 Master's degree students.

Enrolment at the BMI has increased from 13 in 2000 to more than 120 in 2016.

Its expansion into the continent follows a partnership between the university and SAS, the business analytics software and services company.

First established in 2005, the partnership has been renewed every five years.

According to the SAS Institute, there is currently a disconnect between what academia is teaching students in analytics disciplines and what the companies that will recruit them after graduation require.

The majority of tertiary education institutions teach the students to utilise open source analytics software, which works well in the classroom environment of a university and for academic research performed only on small data sets.

The BMI brings together the various business-related data sciences under one roof, with the subjects taught by the top people in these fields.

Murray de Villiers, the SAS Institute Senior Manager: Global Academic Programmes, said after success in South Africa, the BMI initiative was rolling out across the continent amid anticipation of a similar impact felt in the Southern African country.

Among countries set to benefit, as mentioned by the executive include Cameroon, Egypt, Ethiopia, Ghana, Kenya, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

"Zimbabwe has a very good education system. They are well positioned. There are quite a few universities we are engaging with such as the University of Zimbabwe and the National University of Science and Technology," he disclosed.

In the East African economic powerhouse, Kenya, engagements are also at an advanced stage particularly in the capital city with the University of Nairobi and Strathmore University.

NWU and SAS also have Ethiopia and Uganda in the region.

De Villiers lauded the engagements with Ethiopia's Bahir Dar University, an institution that stands out with its vast flora and fauna at the campus.

"Awesome people, great university, under the trees," de Villiers said.

The Ethiopian institution is collaborating with the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) around the BMI.

SAS and its partners have also been engaging with Ethiopian Statistical Association since last year.

Further north, the partners are engaging with different universities in Egypt, including the Universities of Alexandria and Cairo.

They are currently working with the Arab College of Science and Technology and Maritime Transport.

"We have started engagements in Tunisia as well. It being French-speaking, it takes a little bit longer we got to make sure we get the right people. Our engagements in Morocco are going quite well," de Villiers stated.

"In West Africa, we have had our first engagements in Ghana. We have engaged for the past 18 months in Nigeria. We have had engagements in Cameroon with the University of Cameroon."

Despite the major strides made in the expansion exercise, de Villiers remained wary of upheavals afflicting some countries.

"In broad terms, in countries with open economies it's easy to engage but the moment you get a political-unrest economy it becomes difficult," de Villiers pointed out.

"We nevertheless wait for opportunities to engage. There were some problems in Ethiopia and Kenya recently. We had to wait for political tempers to cool down and we then just carried on with our engagements."

Political unrest, especially election-related can be a hindrance.

"It hinders and takes away attention from building an academic programme but those are usually of a short term nature. However, it is long term in some countries.

To implement a sustainable academic scheme such as BMI, a fully functional economy, with a viable banking sector is a prerequisite.

"When a university needs to grow a programme, they actually have to employ new lecturers. For that, they need money. That why we have industry getting involved. We have been fairly successful in engaging industry," de Villiers said.

He welcomed the involvement of such firms as mobile operators as MTN and Orange.

De Villiers expressed optimism at the impact of initiatives such as BMI in addressing the skills gap in Africa.

"What I have found out in Africa is that it is a continent with immense intelligence. It's just a matter of moulding it and steering it in the right direction and then they are on their own and they do fantastic things," he concluded.

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