Paul Giniès turned a failing African university into a world-class problem-solver

Today 2iE is recognized as a 'center of excellence' producing top-notch home-grown African engineers ready to address the continent's problems.

Thibault Dufour
Paul Giniès is the general manager of the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2iE) in Burkina Faso, which trains more than 2,000 engineers from more than 30 countries each year.

Five cylinders stand side by side, shaded by the trees. Inside each is a mix of compost, worms, sand, and cow dung.

Amare Tiruneh carefully pours waste water into one of them. He is trying to develop a way to better purify water in urban areas. The prototype stands in the middle of a campus in Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa.

Only eight years ago, Mr. Amare, an Ethiopian, would have never traveled across Africa to pursue his research, much less to a school in a small French-speaking country.

But eight years ago, Paul Giniès was not the director of this school.

Since 2005, the Frenchman has been general manager of the International Institute for Water and Environmental Engineering (2iE). Based in Burkina Faso, one of the poorest countries in Africa, the international higher education and training institute provides programs every year to more than 2,000 up-and-coming engineers from more than 30 countries.

Whether seeking a bachelor's, master's, or PhD degree, 2iE students focus mainly on green energy studies in such areas as water and sanitation, environment, energy and electricity, civil engineering, and mining, as well as management science. 2iE is the first engineering school in Africa to have its diplomas accredited by the French Engineering Title Commission and subsequently recognized in all of Europe.

More than 95 percent of 2iE graduates find a job within six months.

"2iE plays the role of the social ladder," Mr. Giniès says. "Two-thirds of our students are from the middle class. Some even come from as far as Madagascar to study in Ouagadougou."

One aim of the school is to stop the brain drain that has plagued Africa for decades. According to a 2010 study by the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium, 1 out of 2 African researchers lives in Europe.

Amare wants to return to Ethiopia with his project, which he calls the vermifilter.

"I want to contribute to society and help the poor with my research," he says excitedly. "If my idea works, it really has the potential to make a difference here in Africa."

That sentiment is echoed across the 2iE campus; not only do graduates find jobs, they remain in Africa. "2iE is an international platform that sees Africa not as a hindrance but as an opportunity for the global community as a whole," Giniès says.

This was not always the case. When he arrived in Ouagadougou in 2005 to take over as head of the school, Giniès found a flawed institution, entirely dependent on rapidly diminishing funding from France and West African states. The students were all on scholarships granted by the French government: 210 faculty members taught a mere 220 students. Everyone assumed he had come to close the failing school.

"Quite honestly, I was not expecting such a delicate situation," Giniès recalls. "The establishment was comatose. I really hesitated between staying and leaving."

In the 1970s Giniès, who is trained as an agricultural engineer, studied butterflies in the Poitou-Charentes region of France. "Perhaps it is that butterfly effect that landed me here today," he jokes.

During the 1980s, in missions for the French Ministry of Cooperation and Development, Giniès consulted on food and water safety in countries such as Niger, Mauritania, and Burkina Faso. Following a three-year stint as a European Union representative in Malawi, he landed in Ouagadougou.

"Most astonishing was the fact that in order to study in Ouagadougou, you had to have a French scholarship, a truly anachronistic situation," he explains. "Moreover, 15 technical assistants from the French government worked at the school, which was, quite frankly, shocking." Remnants of the infamous "Françafrique" attitude of colonialism lingered.

He found an ally in Amadou Maïga, who was then the research director at the school. Reforms followed quickly.

"He's bold and impatient," Dr. Maïga says. "There is no going in reverse with him. Things need to get done today, not tomorrow."

Giniès replaced French and other European staffers with Africans. "We needed to hand over more responsibility to Africans," he says. Students now pay tuition ($2,600 for a bachelor's degree, $5,200 for a master's), no small sacrifice for a middle-class African family.

"In July 2005, the students revolted," Maïga recalls. "They blamed us for the disappearing French scholarships. I was trapped in my office the whole day. [The armed] forces had to use tear gas to rescue me."

Giniès also doesn't mince words, Maïga says. "He's very persuasive. When he approaches potential partners for funds, he does not hide the challenges. But, at the same time, he also stresses the advantages of 2iE."

Today, partnerships abound between 2iE and renowned international institutions such as Princeton University in the United States, Hokkaido University in Japan, and the World Bank, which recently approved a grant of $10 million to improve the facilities at 2iE, which it calls a "center of excellence."

"Before, we were chasing everyone for funding and partnerships," Maïga tells the Monitor. "Now we sometimes find ourselves sending apologies and refusing them."

Giniès credits the school's new direction for its success. "We analyzed needs of companies, as well as those of the African continent," he says. "Naturally we turned to the green economy. Moreover, we opened the school to com-panies in order to also meet their needs."

2iE students participate with groups such as the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in various projects, finding solutions to problems in water and environmental resource management.

"2iE is certainly a model of success," says Gib Brown, education program officer for USAID in West Africa. "Its professors and researchers are publishing cutting-edge research in internationally peer-reviewed journals, and its students are contributing to finding answers to important development, engineering, and health questions."

Kahitouo Hien and Christophe Mandi, two 2iE engineers from Burkina Faso who specialize in environment and nutrition, won an entrepreneurship award (the 2012 Social Impact Assessment Award) from the University of California, Berkeley for their start-up project called FasoProt. It fights malnutrition, which is responsible for 50 percent of the deaths of children before their fifth birthday in Burkina Faso.

FasoProt uses shea caterpillars, a highly nutritious larva found in the region, to create products that reduce malnutrition and improve food security.

"I am very proud of this accomplishment," Giniès says. "Our students have come a long way to gain this kind of recognition."

FasoProt could not have seen the light of day without 2iE's business incubator, the "technopôle," which gives assistance, including financial aid, to graduates who want to create start-up businesses. The start-ups must be green businesses.

Companies turn to 2iE students for help in finding eco-friendly solutions to problems. The mining company Essakane (in 2009 gold became the No. 1 export of Burkina Faso) has sought 2iE's help in limiting water evaporation from its storage tanks.

Giniès is watching that project closely.

"It's impressive how much he does," Maïga says. "He follows every issue, whether it's academic, scientific, or managerial.... His personality is instrumental in making 2iE work."

Partners, staffers, and students worry about what will happen to 2iE after Giniès leaves. But Giniès dismisses it the same way he does praise: He talks of a team effort and his confidence in the staff. "The 2iE students are Africans of the world," he says. "They are the ones who will build tomorrow's world, and they rely on what 2iE has to offer. We do not have the right to fail them. So we trudge on and develop. There is still a lot to do."

And with Giniès, that means today, not tomorrow.

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