U-M Africa Week engages audience in conversations on development and growth of Africa

Wednesday, February 17, 2021 - 9:08pm

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Courtesy of Lara Janosz

Discussions about the impact of technology on the development of African nations, specifically through the Ghana-based Ashesi University, occupied much of the fireside chat that began the second day of the University of Michigan’s first Africa Week conference. 

Africa Week includes a series of virtual discussions and workshops that delve into key issues and opportunities that play a role in shaping the future growth of African countries. It also seeks to engage the U-M community on issues related to Africa and accelerate partnerships between the University and African leaders. Africa Week’s events will continue throughout this week, closing with workshops on Friday and Saturday.

Valeria Bertacco, professor of computer science and engineering and vice provost for engaged learning, was one of three organizers of Africa Week. Andries Coetzee, director of U-M African Studies Center, and Brodie Remington, executive director of International Giving and Engagement at the University, also organized the events.

Bertacco opened the fireside chat by explaining that the idea for Africa Week came to her after a trip to Africa last year with a group from the Provost Advisory Committee.

“I worked with Andries Coetzee to draft a strategic plan on how the University could engage with Africa in future decades,” Bertacco said. “Africa is one of the fastest growing places on the planet … Michigan students would really miss out if they didn’t engage with that place … this is how the conference came, to keep that conversation going.”

The conference not only registered U-M students, but also people around the world.

“We have 800 people registered for the conference,” Bertacco said. “They are all over the African continent but also all over the United States. It's not just Michigan — it's many other universities who now have leads if they want to engage or create new engagements.”

Each day, the conference was dedicated to a different key theme or issue that has played a significant role in the growth and development of African countries. These key issues were economics and health, higher education and heritage, and technology.

Bertacco noted that even though each day has a different theme, “a lot of topics keep referring to and touching on and crossing over with each other” throughout each conversation.

Tuesday’s fireside chat was an example of these crossovers, since the technology theme also touched on higher education in Africa. The chat featured a discussion between Alec Gallimore, College of Engineering dean, and Patrick Awuah, founder and president of Ashesi University. 

A Ghana native, Awuah founded Ashesi University in 1999 as an independent nonprofit university with the goals of improving innovative and quality education in Ghana. Awuah earned a master’s degree in business administration from University of California-Berkeley and a bachelor’s degree in engineering and economics from Swarthmore College. Awuah also worked as a program manager for Microsoft prior to returning to Ghana and founding Ashesi University.

According to Coetzee, speakers like Awuah were chosen based on their vision for the future of Africa.

“We were thinking about visionary people who have a vision for Africa and whose values are in alignment with the values of the University of Michigan,” Coetzee said. “There are so many people we would love to hear from, so it’s not difficult finding speakers like President Patrick Awuah.”

Awuah said his motivations for starting Ashesi University stemmed from his experience as an engineer and a problem solver, as well as the desire to improve the future of Africa’s leadership and educational system.

“I realized that a fundamental problem that we had was a problem of leadership that was unwilling to challenge the status quo and act to change the status quo,” Awuah said. “If we could change the way education was done … geared towards critical thinking and problem solving … I could set up a university that would serve as an example to others, and hopefully change the educational system to something different.”

Awuah said technology plays an instrumental role in the development of Ghana, as well as Africa as a whole. According to Awuah, an engaged education system that expands beyond Africa’s borders is important to creating technological developments that will push the continent forward. 

“Technology is a multiplier … in just about every aspect of our economy and every aspect of our society,” Awuah said. “Everything we do is going to be made better and more productive by the use of technology … it’s a way to achieve efficiency and increase productivity. People are going to create new technologies for our context. All of this requires the ability to connect with other cultures and really be able to reach across our borders and learn from others, and also connect with each other on the continent across internal borders.”

Awuah said students should take the opportunity to study in Africa to get a better understanding of African culture and their educational systems.

“It would be really terrific, if (students from U.S. colleges and universities) could also come and do some of the same subjects that they're doing in their home institutions,” Awuah said. “If you're a computer science major coming and working alongside computer science majors here, it actually adds to the experience of engaging with African students.”

In an interview with The Michigan Daily, Bertacco said she hopes Africa Week will allow students to understand opportunities to engage with global communities.

“I do hope mostly students take something away … especially a better understanding of Africa and where Africa is heading,” Bertacco said. “I hope to motivate many more individuals at U-M, across the United States and also in Africa to partner and collaborate together.”

In an email to The Daily, Rackham student Desnor Chigumba, president of the African Graduate Students Association, said she supports the University’s choice to feature speakers and scholars from Africa at the University.

“I hope this will establish more mainstream programming and focus by the University to recruit African students (and) develop more partnerships with African universities and businesses, as well as cater to the African student population that is already here,” Chigumba wrote.

Coetzee said he is optimistic there will be more Africa Weeks to come.

“Putting together an event like this is a huge endeavor,” Coetzee said. “To do it in-person would also be a hugely expensive endeavor … We will continue doing at least smaller events but hopefully, and I’m being optimistic here, this can be Africa Week one … Hopefully it can be at least a semi-regular event, and it should also sometimes happen on the continent (of Africa).”

Daily Staff Reporter Lara Janosz can be reached at ljanosz@umich.edu


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