Course Diploma recipients with their teachers in front of the Eritrea Institute of Technology Main Library. Photo: Rediet Taddese

Development through higher education capacity building in Eritrea

In 2015, five Finnish-Eritrean projects focusing on fields such as communication and information sciences, agricultural sciences, geography and geology, and education and teacher training were funded by the Eritrea Specific HEI ICI programme.

Päivi Helminen and Pekka Hurskainen from the University of Helsinki, are coordinators for the projects Digital Library Services and Strengthening Geoinformatics Teaching and Research Capacity in Eritrea Higher Education Institutions (GIERI), respectively. Although they work with different projects, they have had quite similar experiences regarding their projects in Eritrea, and believe that the collaboration has proven, so far, to be fruitful.

The EIT Main Library. Photo: Sini Piippo

Digitizing Libraries in Eritrea

The Digital Library Services project, which works in cooperation with the Eritrea Institute of Technology (EIT), focuses on improving library services and access to information through staff training and upgrading ICT facilities.

“EIT already has a digital library, but a lot remains to be done to improve the services it provides. The main tasks of the project include creating an automated library system, expanding the actual content of the library, and implementing an open source system so that no license fees are needed,” says Helminen.

So far, training and information sharing sessions have been held with library staff in both Finland and Eritrea. The training sessions have been successful. “During my visits to Eritrea I was happy to see that especially young people were very willing to learn and participate in the project. It has been really rewarding to work with the Eritrean partners since they have been very cooperative and are eager to work with us,” Helminen says.

Although the cooperation is with only one institution in Eritrea, the plan is that the staff at EIT will become experts who can then share the information further. One major goal is therefore to increase cooperation between the different university libraries in Eritrea as a way of ensuring the sustainability of the project.

The biggest challenges to date have been procuring the IT equipment and getting the younger Eritrean staff to join the training sessions in Finland, since special permissions are needed in both cases. However, according to Helminen, she has learned that a lot can be done even with small resources. “In Finland, we often think that because we don’t have enough funding that is the reason why we don’t have certain things. However, it’s much more a question of the will to develop and the will to find out what is already available.”

Helminen believes that her unit at the University of Helsinki also benefits from the project as it forces their experts to learn more, to acquire more international contacts, and to learn to be content with their own services and concentrate on developing those. “Eritrea is a very interesting and special country, and I really hope that other people will have the chance to visit it and meet the people.”

Geoinformatics laboratory at the Adi-Keih College of Arts and Social Sciences. Photo: Pekka Hurskainen

Geoinformatics for development

Focusing on geoinformatics (GIS) training and research capacity development by partnering with four Eritrean higher education institutions, the GIERI project was originally designed to provide training to teachers and lecturers following the training of trainers approach. However, considering the feedback that the Eritrean partners wanted something more tangible, the project later evolved into designing a Master’s programme in GIS and remote sensing.

The training of graduate students began in April 2016 with 12 students from the four partner institutions and the Eritrean (President’s) Mapping Office. In 2017, there is a plan to run a teacher exchange programme by inviting up to four Eritrean project participants and make it possible for them to use the facilities at the University of Helsinki and to encourage collaboration with the team in Finland.

At the moment in Eritrea, there is a great need for geoinformatics applications in different sectors, such as mining, agriculture, forestry, fishery and other marine sciences. The project also seems to have a special relevance in Eritrea in terms of studying the impacts of climate change since the country is already turning into a desert and rendering it as one of the most vulnerable in Africa.

Future geoinformatics specialists at the Qohaito plateau. Photo: Pekka Hurskainen

“Technology is relatively cheap, but the manpower to use it effectively is what is lacking. That is what this project is all about,” Hurskainen says. The new GIS curriculum, its graduates and the equipment that will be upgraded are expected to have positive impacts that will outlast the project cycle.

Ensuring gender balance has been one of the challenges in the project since there are very few women studying GIS in Eritrea. “Currently, we have only one female student, and she is one of the best we have,” says Hurskainen. Reflecting on Eritrean higher education in general, Hurskainen says that a lot of work remains to be done in terms of having more graduate programmes and students. Right now, there are no PhD programmes in the country, and the number of Master’s programmes is quite limited.

Speaking about the personal experience of offering courses and training in Eritrea, Hurskainen says that Eritrean students are the most motivated, disciplined and committed he came across working in higher education, and that it has been a pleasure working with them. “Over there, higher education is considered a privilege; here we sometimes have the tendency to take it for granted.”

Highly encouraging experience

Compared with other projects Helminen and Hurskainen have worked with before in the East African region, they both think that collaborating with Eritrea has been a unique experience. Especially since Finland is one of the few countries that have collaborated with Eritrea. “Eritrea is quite unique, especially in terms culture, ethnic composition and language,” Hurskainen says. Yet there has not been any major communication problems, and both coordinators find similarities between Finnish and Eritrean people.

The collaboration seems to have a solid basis, which means both Helminen and Hurskainen feel motivated and dedicated to ensuring the projects are as sustainable and long-term as possible.

(Text: Katja Sjöström & Addisalem Yallew)