Five Questions for the Director
Five Questions for Abdellatif Zerga, Acting Director of PAUWES
Abdellatif Zerga has been involved in solar photovoltaic research for nearly 20 years. A physicist by training, he holds a PhD in Physics from Tlemcen University in Algeria, where is currently a professor. He completed post-doctoral research in France involving third generation solar cells, and has worked in France, Germany and the U.S. Aside from his teaching at Tlemcen, Zerga is currently conducting numerous research projects at the University where he also previously was Vice Dean of Academic Affairs. He also brings industry experience to the academic world, having worked with start-ups and multinational companies on solar cell technology.
Q: What inspiration for the PAUWES Institute do you take from your educational background as a scientist, your work in industry, and your experience as a university administrator?
A: From the beginning, I was fascinated to learn about the origin of all phenomena – this is the basis of physics – in fact, it is the foundation of all science. My work has been in solar photovoltaics. Solar technology is many things – biology, environment, ecology. Both energy and water are very important to ensure progress and development in Africa. In the area of solar energy, we have a lot of resources, but little investment until now. As for water, we have made a lot of progress in sanitation and water resource management, but more is needed. I have worked with scientists in Africa, Europe and in the United States and I see that African students have a great contribution to make. The role of our institute is to give them the assurance they need that they will have the same conditions as fellow students in high-ranking institutions outside Africa. This is our responsibility toward them as teachers. It is not just our role to give them training, but also to accompany them in making their ideas reality, so they will also be successful and make a contribution to Africa in the future.
Q: What is your vision for the Pan African University Institute for Water and Energy Science?
A: At the PAUWES, we can prepare the next generation of scientists and policymakers. I believe we can change many things in Africa if we improve the instruments and tools. We have many resources, but we lack experience. Through this institute, we will focus the efforts of researchers and teachers in Africa to create a broad network of experts who can focus on the same topics and merge the priorities for African policy. This network will encompass both those people who are involved at the scientific level and those who are responsible for policymaking, because in order to ensure progress and development for Africa we need people at both of those levels working hand-in-hand. Our aim is to nurture an elite group of scholars and civic actors who, in turn, will contribute their high-level of expertise in the fields of water, energy and climate science and policymaking to the benefit of the African continent. We are seeking the highest quality students, whose aim it is to become leaders in these fields and create strong, supportive connections with other Africans in related areas of research, government, business and civil society. The Algerian government is supporting this institute with facilities, with scholarships, with highly trained faculty. The host university – Tlemcen University – has very interesting facilities. It can provide an infrastructure for up to 1,000 students, provide lecturers, faculty and technical staff. If the students are engaged and committed, then they will have every chance to be among the best in their field globally. As a model for our region, this programme will be a great benefit.
Q: How will you help them to realize their ideas? What doors to you expect PAUWES to open specifically for students and for research?
A: Students want to turn their ideas into reality. Too often, ideas fizzle out because of a lack of money or connections to industry. At PAUWES, if students have an original idea, we will help them to develop that. We provide the facilities, the infrastructure and the teaching. If the idea turns out to be excellent, then we can help them obtain a patent. The challenge is how to build a start-up with a student in the short-run. For this, we will have an incubation center, which will be a very attractive feature at the institute. Another goal is to create a network of alumni; to give graduates a chance to meet up and also to support them in their professional lives once they move on. We want to foster a sense of community spirit and teach the students how to develop strategies for their professional lives. One of the things I hope to make possible for students is to build closer links to industry. This is very important for students in Africa, where money can be scarce and many good ideas get lost before they reach the patent stage.
Q: Student life is an important part of generating those ideas, is it not?
A: The role of education is not just to give training. It is also to accompany the student in their studies and in their lives. Students can be the very best at what they do if they are engaged and committed to what they are doing! We are dedicated to the kind of modern teaching where students have a close interaction with their professors. But we also provide more than that. We also create an environment where students can be inspired. As Vice Dean of Academic Affairs at Tlemcen University, I had responsibility for over 4,000 students, some from other African countries. We provide the basic infrastructure for the welfare of every student: a comfortable environment, labs, classes, a library, housing, catering, transportation. But we are also very committed to creating a good atmosphere for social interaction, for getting to know their fellow students. I would like to see them share their cultural experiences, to organize some events that would bring people together. In the future we expect to attract students from other countries, not just from Africa, but also those from the African diaspora who would like to return to the continent and make a contribution for the future of Africa.
Q: What will be some of the benefits of the PAUWES for Africa in general?
A: We aim to educate a new elite which will be able to make decisions that are best for the long-term development of the African continent. These people will make a difference in their fields, contributing much needed technical improvements, valuable, practical research, and create a network that spans the continent for the coming decades. This project is of great consequence for Africa, not only for the revitalization of higher education, but also as an opportunity to learn from the experience of the thematic partners – in our case, Germany. This was at the core of discussions when we applied to host the PAUWES at Tlemcen University. Africa is big and diverse. We need to bridge our regions. In my opinion, this is one of the most important political decisions made by the African Union. It will give us the chance to build a common project for Africa, to attract the best students, to contribute to research through cooperation and to make technical improvements that will support policymaking in the future. We will have the first real networking model, which will not only improve the quality of research, education and technology, but also contribute to our self-sufficiency. The PAU is an initiative of the African Heads of State and Government of the African Union. It is a premier continental university network whose mission is to provide a comprehensive postgraduate education geared towards the development of a prosperous, integrated and peaceful Africa. The PAU system includes institutes and research centres in Kenya, Nigeria, Cameroon, Mauritius and at other major African universities. PAU is guided by the vision of an Africa managed by its own citizens and acting as a dynamic force in the international arena.