How to Fix Public Utilities in Africa
Any person travelling to most parts of Africa will notice the level of infrastructural decay in the continent. From roads to electricity, public water system to waste disposal system, the continent continues to struggle to join the league of modern world by not providing necessary sets to its citizens.
During the time of Africa’s greatest generation, the legends of our 1960s that liberated us from colonization, we saw a continent on the path of continuous progress. It had a virtuoso agricultural system and was revamping the social amenities. Good and lasting roads were built and Africa was respected across the regions of the earth.
Those days, the brightest African minds were living in Africa. From Chinua Achebe to Camara Laye, Africa gave the world literary icons. Interesting, as our literature was developing and growing with African voice and writing under the African Writers Series, our engineering was substantial. Our engineers were responsible for the railway system which was functional and efficient.
Our engineers built the best roads. Our few water boards were working. The electricity where they were was reliable. Construction houses were not collapsing. Across the universities, there was an aura of order and intellectual haven. The public utilities were functioning and government had access to the brightest African minds to hire and retain.
It was an honor to be working for government because they offered the best package.
But, that was then. Things have changed, for worse. Military governments destroyed that harmony and alienated many Africans to their leaderships. Many left the continent and some vowed never to work for government.
During series of workshops and seminars across Africa last year, I asked groups of students where they would like to work upon graduation. At Universality of Nairobi (Kenya), none of the engineering students I 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 short, the students thought that by working with government, people will think they are not good enough to compete for private sector jobs.
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 nevertheless 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 include 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 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 edges and multinational corporations (MNCs). The few more ambitious and risk taking ones travel oversea. Usually, the ones that make it oversea are above average; at the minimum 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.
Sure, this does not average 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 concede that those might have been hired more than a decade ago.
Many of our public utilities are not efficiently managed and without 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 for more than a decade. They promised to raise electricity capacity; they will revise at year end.
On scarce occasions, they have small success because they brought in some foreign contractors. But when these expatriates 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. Those talents will not just sustain the capacity, they will enhance on them.
So how do you fix this problem?
It is about knowledge and skill – the greatest tool of this century. To modernize and make utilities functioning in Africa, it is time African leaders understand that talent drain in the public is hurting everyone. They must find ways to bring talented Africans to public service to move our continent forward.
This can be done by revamping the system, paying competitively, developing merit based processes and finally entrusting our bests to run our utilities. Fixing Africa’s public utilities is perhaps one of the most important competitive weapons the continent can use to reverse brain drain and accelerate economic development in the continent. It is time not to handoff the brightest talents to the private sector.