Eric Biribuze is an African-American who was recently honoured with the 2018 Black Engineer of the Year Award for Professional Achievement at a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) conference in Washington, D.C. He was recognized for his successful 20 years of contributions and accomplishments at Corning – a multinational technology company.
Biribuze is currently the Business Operations Director at American corporation Corning Incorporated. One of best known Corning inventions is the low loss optical fiber, which laid the foundation of the Internet and the connectivity we all enjoy today.
Sunday Times’ Julius Bizimungu spoke to him about his long-time career as an engineer, staying, studying and working abroad, as well his insights on how Africa can best develop the next pool of engineers.
Below are excerpts;
As someone who was born in Africa but later left the continent, what is it that you see as the experience that Africans living and working abroad don’t get on the continent that they get in the west?
From my experience, the main benefit of living and working in the US is the access to highly developed infrastructure, strong institutions and highly sophisticated ecosystem for a good business environment.
I am encouraged with the current trajectory in Africa, including the success the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA). I believe that the integration of African economies can establish a strong foundation to deliver similar infrastructure and institutions as in the developed world that will attract the Africans in the Diaspora to come back home and be key contributors.
You were recently honoured with the 2018 Black Engineer of the Year Award for Professional Achievement in the United States. What do you attribute this award to?
The Black Engineer of the Year Award is a prestigious nation-wide and annual award in the United States, when only 12 people in the whole US are selected in key competitive categories, including the Professional Achievement category, in which I won. My selection for the award was a national recognition of a lifelong commitment to hard work, multiculturalism, innovation and delivering strong results. I was an innovator on a key data centre product line, working with a team that developed a product portfolio (EDGE) from concept through development, launch and successful commercialization. That product line has earned Corning more than $1B in revenues to date.
Has the award inspired or motivated you anyway?
The day I learned that I have won The Black Engineer of the Year Award, I was very excited and immediately shared the great news with my wife Claudine, and our 2 children Prince and Mercy. Immediately after that, I realized that this award did not just belong to me or my immediate family, but to many people who have contributed to my journey including my dad and mom, siblings, extended family, colleagues, classmates, teachers and all who I have encountered in this long and productive journey.
There is an African proverb that says that “it takes a village to raise a child” and in my case, it has taken a global village to make me who I am today. So in my heart, this award is a global award in a sense, and for everyone who supported this journey since childhood in Africa. So for all the African kids and youth reading this today, this award is for you, it is for you to go out there and be the best you can be. Please dare to dream, dream big, and big things can happen. My award has made me realize that I now have a big responsibility to pave the way for others, but broadly sharing my story and more importantly engaging in the development and the advancement of STEM for our African youth.
What has been your contribution to Corning Incorporated that made you stand out?
I have been recognized for my successful 20+ years of contributions and accomplishments at Corning. I am a collaborative leader with track record of delivering strong results in both the Communications and Auto Sectors, in diverse functions and cultures, including leading teams in the United States, Mexico and China.
I have been able to uniquely link the connections between research, development, manufacturing and commercial teams – creating new, exciting and life-changing innovations, with a strong belief that we can always improve, that we will win and do it by being great teammates.
One of notable success is to lead the development and launch of a new product portfolio in the data center (EDGE) that has earned Corning more than $1B in revenues to date.
How would you rate Africa’s landscape for engineering, and what is the ultimate role of engineering in driving Africa’s transformation?
I believe that engineering in Africa is starting to emerge, and its development will require to be sustained. It all starts with education, all the way from the elementary school. The education systems from elementary to University need to have a major emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
Additionally, governments and private sectors will need to help develop the infrastructure to create opportunities for individuals with engineering degrees to develop and thrive. Most of the developed economies have been transformed by innovations that were initiated and led by engineering efforts, and I believe Africa won’t be the exception, science, engineering and technology will drive Africa’s transformation.
As an African engineer, what is it that you think is a single most role that people like you have in supporting the continent to increase diversity in science, technology, engineering and math?
As a son of Africa, I feel that I have a responsibility to participate in the positive transformation of Africa. As a role model for the next generation of African engineers, my contribution is to inspire the African youth to see in themselves huge potential and work hard to see through their potential to be a reality.
I can see myself as a potential bridge of corporate America, where I have tremendous experience and opportunities of collaborations with African businesses or institutions for mutual benefits. It would be my ultimate honor if I could help connect the two worlds I hold dear in my heart. My current homeland in the US and my African motherland in the transformation journey of Africa.
Whose biggest role is it to develop the ecosystem of engineers in Africa?
In my opinion, Governments have the biggest role to lay the foundation that fosters the environment, in which our youth can be excited to be engineers and can be successful at it. Of course, Governments cannot develop the ecosystem by themselves alone, but the private sector as well as international partners can play and should an important role.
How best can African countries invest in research and development, and what model can be used to create research labs that enable development and promotion of innovations?
I cannot pretend to have expertise in how Governments make investment decisions to offer an informed opinion. However, I work for Corning, a company with one of the oldest and most successful R&D (Research and Development) labs in the US, and in my experience, our R&D lab is the cornerstone for our company business success for the last 167 years.
The success for our R&D lab is mainly due to a heavy dose of investments, with around 10 percent of the company revenues, hiring the best scientists and researchers, the collaboration of the leading global universities and largest global corporations. That is a model that can be emulated by both other labs in Africa, by either the Governments or Corporations.
Do you see the continent able enough to chart its own way of building the next generation of engineers?
I have no doubt that Africa is capable of building a successful generation of engineers. It will certainly require the commitment by Governments to lay the foundation starting with the education system, the participation of private sector, NGOs and the collaboration with international partners, including leading universities, major global corporations and other relevant institutions.
I would love to see, for instance, the emergence of an awards ceremony for African Engineer of the Year Award, similar to the award I have won, to encourage the best engineering minds to aspire for highest achievement in the engineering field. From what I read and understand, Rwanda has already started establishing the building blocks of what I am describing, and therefore, I can foresee a brighter future at the end of the tunnel.
What is your connection to Rwanda?
My wife, Claudine Uwimbabazi Biribuze is from Rwanda. Her family lives in Kigali. We have visited Rwanda numerous times and I have come to admire the tremendous development in the last 20+ years. Rwanda reminds me of the Asian Tigers (Singapore, Hong-King, Taiwan and South Korea) that led a spectacular growth that was known as the Asian Miracle. I believe that the example of Rwanda can be a catalyst for the entire region, with EAC and AU both aspiring to remove barriers to intraregional trade.