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Interview with Professor Francis Gichaga on ERB Standards in Engineering

Professor Francis Gichaga

Prof Francis Gichaga, who has taught civil engineering for 40 years, rose to be the University of Nairobi Vice Chancellor and is currently serving as the Chancellor of Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, has spoken out on the controversy that has been raging in Kenya between some institutions of higher learning and the Engineering Registration Board (ERB).

Q: For some time now there has been controversy between some universities and Engineering Registration Board (ERB). What is your position?

A: “ERB is provided by Kenya’s Act of Parliament, The Engineering Registration Act which commenced in 5th September 1969 for registration of engineers and for connected purposes. ERB uses international standards that cannot be compromised to accommodate few individuals or institutions not willing to follow the laid down process for registration.”

Q: What is the root cause of this problem?

A: “The greatest problem in having some universities developing engineering curricula that are not recognized by ERB – some of those involved even though they might be have PhDs in related fields are not registered engineers.

“Thus when ERB looks at the curriculum, experience and whether the lecturers are engineers themselves – the institutions are found wanting. It should be noted that some of the training that engineers go through does not require the mental capability and rather rigorous training in the industry that ERB esteems highly.”

Q: Why so much emphasis on a bachelors degree?

A: “At undergraduate level students go through a curriculum that cuts across all the major pillars of a given disciple of engineering. At masters level one specializes in a narrow area. Thus, in project implementation an engineer will be required to seek consultation from other specialist in other fields.

“But it should be understood that there are those who go through a BSC, MSC and PhD while others take the path of Diploma to PhD – ERB has clauses to accommodate them all.

“ERB lays down this emphasis because the application of engineering uses principles (and stakes are very high), some of which are taught at formative levels of learning but at that given time the student do not have the capacity to put them into application. It is after one has gone through the whole mill that theory and application get married.”

Q: What about some of the lecturers who question the adaptability of ERB with emerging technologies?

A: “They need to remember that technology is supposed to be adapted, to build on what we have learned and experienced.

“There is so much that cannot be done by IT alone. For example, it cannot tell soil strength – the soil must be taken to the laboratory to be tested and necessary calculations done to establish its strength.”

Q: What criterion is used by ERB for registration?

A: “ERB considers one’s bachelor’s degree script for registration rather than a masters or doctorate degree which is specialization in one given area of any given discipline in engineering.

“After one has attained an engineering degree from a recognized institution by ERB he/she is supposed to spend three years of practical training in industry because at the university we teach concepts and theories. At university there is not sufficient time to take the students through the required industrial training.

“The problem we are experiencing is that some graduates skip industrial training as they proceed for the postgraduate studies. Some end up attaining a PhD without being registered thus feel shy to humble themselves to be supervised with people who do not have their credentials.

“However, ERB has clauses for registration of all classes of engineers and technicians, from diploma to bachelors degree, that is: registered graduate engineer, registered graduate technician engineer, registered technician engineer and registered consulting engineer.”

Q: Then where does the problem arise from?

A: “For some institutions and individual graduates, there is a temptation of trying to go down an easy path.”

Q: Is this why ERB appears to be so adamant?

A: “Maybe, because it’s mandated to ensure that every registered engineer has attained the right experience and knowledge – to give a professional opinion in his/her areas of specialization.

“ERB is supposed to inform the public of those who are qualified to be engineers to save them from unwelcome consequences.”

Q: Where then, is the place of a technician?

A: “Technicians are people who qualify very quickly because in their training they match between class and the industry. However, a technician cannot reach some conceptual domains of engineering.

“Thus they play the role of a nurse to a doctor. Engineers cannot execute their work without technicians; they are the implementers of the engineers’ designs.”

Q: How can we prepare future engineers?

A: “For us to have future engineers upon which the nation can depend – science and mathematics should be appreciated from the formative years of schooling. However Arts and Sciences must be nurtured in equal effort. Science alone is not enough. For science to be applicable it must be married with humanities for it to be appreciated and to be relevant in any given society.

“Engineering is based on sciences but is oriented on serving humanity. No project is complete till it’s appreciated by humanity. Thus engineers need to consult their client before undertaking a project. That is why we have regulating bodies like the National Environment Management Authority (NEMA).”

Q: Where does the triple helix come in?

A: “The Government has agreed that every graduate should go through a well formatted programme. Industry should incorporate academia – sitting at the board of companies. However the structure at our universities does not allow a free hand for industrialists. University should be running something for a specific industry to give students a chance to acquire industrial experience to be ready to join the market.”

Q: Then where is the place of a code of ethics?

A: “Apart from being regulated by a constitution, engineers need to be guided by a laid down code of ethics. “An Engineer should admit and accept their own errors when proven wrong and refrain from distorting or altering the facts in an attempt to justify their decisions,” the Code of Ethics says, and an Engineer should practice “the highest standards of integrity.””

Q: With ERB in place for all these years, why is the sector now having so many problems?

A: “The greatest challenge facing the engineering sector is poorly designed projects not supervised by registered engineers.

“Some of the personalities that have been involved in collapsing buildings leading to death and loss of investments are those masquerading as engineers; thus they cannot be legally taken into account.

“When a project is supervised by a registered engineer the owner can take the case to the board – if proven incompetent one will be de-registered and a legal action can be taken.

“When ERB establishes that it’s due to the negligence of an engineer – the ERB starts a commission – which can direct the case to the High Court of Kenya for legal action to be taken.

“So far nobody has been pinned down because clients are more interested in putting up their project rather than following the laid down procedure. And, most of the time those who are involved are not registered engineers.”

Q: Will this continue forever?

A: “In engineering huge money exchanges hands and everyone is interested in being at the apex where he/she can command the turn of events.

“Building are collapsing due to a make–quick-money syndrome. For example, cement should be left to dry for 28 days before another layer is put on but most of the time this is not obeyed.

“If all buildings went through due process the rampant cases of collapsing building could be non-existent.

“Nairobi City Council has all the records for all buildings that have been approved by the city engineer. One can use these records to confirm whether a project has met the laid down requirements.”

About Robert Okemwa Onsare

Robert Okemwa Onsare
Robert Onsare is pursuing Electronics Technology at the University of Eastern Africa, Baraton. He is a Cluster Strategy trained facilitator by Kenya's National Economic and Social Council (NESC). Mr Onsare has been an incubation student at the University of Nairobi, School of Engineering, FabLab, a venture project of the university and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He is a member of the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS) and a published poet. Mr Onsare is based in Kenya.

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One comment

  1. Having read through the interview, I am left wondering where the future of Kenyan engineer lie. First, if ERK (formerly ERB) continue with the chest thumbing it has had for many years since its inception, it will do more harm than good to the engineering profession in Kenya. ERB has for a long time been an exclusive members only club for civil, Mechanical, Electrical and very lately chemical and agricultural engineers. Under the stewardship of the likes of Prof. Gichaga and Engineer Kamau (Cabinet sec for Transport & infrastructure), both of who are veteran civil engineers, ERB has ensured that they register as few people as possible. In a country with more than 60,000 graduate engineers who went through various rigorous engineering programs in various public universities, satisfied their respective senates and consequently conferred with degrees, ERB has registered less than 10,000. Let no one imagine that the rest don’t want registration. Its only that ERB has made it so difficult for any graduate engineer working in any other sector apart from roads, building and power to register, hence the anchoring of ERB in the ministry of roads. The powers that be at ERB has ensured that no other newer engineering program makes it through registration. They hind behind ERB “not recognizing those” programs as though no emerging changes are happening in the engineering profession globally. In a nutshell, the veteran engineers don’t believe anybody else can be an engineer if he didn’t do what they only know as engineering. This is very unfortunate scenario because the engineering profession has been evolving from time immemorial and will not stop with Kenya. Actually, engineering only started with military in the historical times. With time it was extended to offer solutions to civilians and hence the name “civil engineering”. Overtime, it became so complex and there was need to fragment it to several forms, hence the emerging of mechanical and electrical divisions. Agricultural and chemical engineering emerged from mechanical engineering, and the evolution continues. It is therefore very ignorant for the likes of Prof. Gichaga and his ERB team to imagine that the evolution of engineering has reached menopause and therefore curtail any efforts of embracing new changes and advancements in the engineering profession. This is very unfortunate because our universities are left stuck behind when the rest of the world makes great leaps in engineering advancement. To me, they are just afraid of change. As I write this, I am one of the graduates ERB has refused registration, having successively undergone a very rigorous training for five years at the university of Nairobi. Ironically, I am currently pursuing a masters in Engineering(civil and environmental engineering) at the university of Adelaide in Australia, a prestigious university whose global ranking is more that 1500 positions above University of Nairobi where Gichaga has been the VC in the past. It is my prayer that one day God shall open the eyes of the ERB bosses and stop the injustice they are doing to kenyan engineering graduates.

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