Malawi Government emphasizes education at the expense of innovation

A disclaimer first – I have a PhD in Astronautical (Aerospace) Engineering. I am an expert in space environments and spacecraft interactions. I do not intend to knock education; I like education. I think education is very important, especially for our developing country.

My brother who is a chartered accountant once attended a seminar organized by the Malawi Accounting Society. The guest speaker was a Zimbabwean, a millionaire, who had gone through two bankruptcies but then got back up every time. In his address to the society, the tycoon said something quite interesting – “Africans are obsessed with degrees. They are fond of piling up degrees just to be known as educated. But they never do anything tangible with them”.

Africans do believe in education; and I think this is a good thing. In the United States, Africans [not African-Americans] are the most educated immigrant ethnic group; more educated than Europeans, Indians, Chinese and others. Nigerians and Ghanaians are the most educated of all immigrant nationals living in the United States. Perhaps, Africans, having been segregated for many years find education as a tool for asserting themselves. Perhaps it is because we come from a region where the only known strategy for getting out of poverty is a good education.

School girls at a laboratory

BUT, is there such a thing as too much emphasis on education? The answer is a resounding YES! It appears to me that our nation’s overemphasis on education is crippling the country because we are overlooking other more importing issues.

The first example of this crisis is in the area of innovation. We are putting too much emphasis on education at the expense of innovation. When President Mutharika took office he promised to promote scientific and technological innovation. All he has done, so far, is build universities and technical schools. The Mutharika administration is making an erroneous assumption that more education means more innovation. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The nurturing of innovations (on one hand) and education (on the other) are two different animals. Innovation does not necessarily come from education. The greatest inventor, Thomas Edison never went to school; the inventor of radio Marconi, never went to school. The Wright brothers, who gave us the airplane, never went to school; Bill Gates/Steve Jobs dropped out of school, etc. All these individuals were able to come up and develop world-changing ideas without necessarily getting high education.

In order to develop the country we need more innovators who will turn into entrepreneurs, developing and exporting wide-ranging ideas. I suggest that instead of building more universities and technical colleges, the government should use those funds for nurturing innovations. Programs must be set up to help those with credible innovative ideas to develop and commercialize their products. Government must use all available resources to challenge our people to come up with ideas that will develop our country.

Of course there are those people who will immediately bring up that favorite excuse “Malawi does not have that kind of money!” Well, it has just been reported in the press that government has released K22million to Malawi National Football Team. Instead of giving that money to soccer why don’t we invest in innovation? Surely it is better for Malawians to grapple with innovative ideas than have the money spent on eleven grown-up men kicking a rubber ball, the purpose of which I am yet to discover! Where are our priorities?

The money we get as aid, from the US and other western nations, is actually money made by people of those countries. Entrepreneurs in those countries work hard and pay taxes to their governments. The governments then take part of those taxes and give us as aid. Is it not time, we empowered our own citizens to make this money in our own country?

The other area in which our overemphasis on education is counterproductive is politics. In Malawi, one cannot be president or Member of Parliament unless he has a Malawi Secondary School Certificate of Education. This law is archaic and should be removed. Democracy is about representations. In a country where the majority of people do not have the MSCE, it is undemocratic to require those who represent the people to have the certificate.

We need people who understand problems of their communities to represent those communities in parliament. It should not a matter of whether they are educated or not. After all, with modern technology it is easy to have instant translation of parliamentary proceedings.

When I go to my home village, I often talk to people who articulate problems of the area with clarity. Unfortunately these will never be able to represent this area in parliament because they are not educated enough. Instead you have people who spend all their time in Blantyre coming to these villages to contest for parliamentary positions. Is it any wonder that our politicians seem to have very little passion for the people they represent? Should it surprise us that our MPs can easily be bought and sold? They barely live among the people they claim to represent.

As we continue to develop our beautiful country, we need to open a debate on these issues.

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