During series of workshops and seminars across Africa, we asked groups of students where they would like to work upon graduation. At Universality of Nairobi (Kenya), none of the engineering students we spoke with showed any interest to work in the public utilities. At Ahmadu Bello University (Nigeria), the brightest of the engineering students noted that public utilities like Nigeria’s PHCN (public electricity corporation) and NITEL (public telecom corporation) were lasts on their lists. From Uganda to Cameroon, Senegal to Botswana; government agencies are not attracting the very bests of African talents. These students do not see public utilities as places to build their careers.
In a seminar in Benin, we made this observation to students: “why do you complain when there is no light considering that the very best among you are not interested in helping to provide that light”. They all smiled and said it was none of their problems. We gave a lecture making an argument that any sector that cannot recruit and retain the bests in the land cannot compete. It does not matter whether this sector is run by government (many public utilities are still monopolies in Africa) or the private sector.
The point is that we cannot necessarily expect the governments to give us the best service on electricity, water, etc when the brightest people do not engage in those areas. When they hire third class graduates, they cannot provide a first-grade service. It is the same analogy where a school district asks a teacher to provide A students when the teacher him/herself is not an A grade quality. It is a vicious cycle and can only be broken by getting the right talents in the pipeline.
The best African technical graduates are employed by banks and MNCs. The few more ambitious and risk taking ones travel abroad. Usually, the ones that make it abroad are above average; at least they pass the visa interviews. Under these conditions, the monopolistic public utilities have to plan with some graduates who may not be on top of their games. (Certainly, we do not claim that all those that work in public utilities are not bright; we are discussing averages here. We are aware of first class graduates in these agencies, though we acknowledge that those might have been hired more than a decade ago.)
So how do you fix this problem?
That is a big question because public utilities are not efficiently managed and lack dynamism you will see in banking or MNCs. The bureaucracy is stifling with usually below average remuneration. To compound all is that many African governments do not see talent drains in the utilities as a problem they have to find a solution.
It makes one laugh when governments issue orders that public utilities in different African countries would double capacity. Nigerian governments have consistently missed targets in this yearly ritual. Great, they will do that using foreign contractors on some lucky years. But when they are gone and time to sustain that capacity, you will notice in few weeks, the system has broken. In the good old Africa when public utilities had the brightest stars from universities, competing far better than banking, many nations had better electricity and water than today.
It is about knowledge and skill – the greatest tool of this century. Tell your politicians that knowledge rules the world. And they must find ways to bring talented Africans to public service to move our continent forward. Revamp the system, pay them competitively, develop merit based processes and entrust our bests to run utilities and governments and this continent will be better off.