The Way Russian Education Is Transforming Zambia
While almost 90% of the Zambian population are employed in agriculture, the country’s economy is, however, powered by the mining sector. Is working in mining engineering considered prestigious in Zambia? What living opportunities may it provide? Here is what a Zambian-born graduate of St. Petersburg Mining University who returned back home six years ago has to say on these and other questions.
The Republic of Zambia was one of the world's poorest states in the 1970s. It faced a whole range of issues at the time — massive unemployment, insufficient funding of education and medicine, lack of essential food products and water. Economic reforms were introduced by the country's government to change the situation. Yet their focus was reduced to transition from state-driven economy to private entrepreneurship. Despite that, by putting reforms in place, and with the assistance of IMF loans, the situation improved somewhat.
Now Zambia has turned into the second-largest copper producer in Africa. Still, less than 6% of the country's nationals work in mining. In fact, getting a job in this industry is a non-trivial task.
"I had been studying until I reached the seventh grade, but then I had to leave school because of lack of funds. Instead, I was working in bars and cafés. In Zambia, primary education continuing from the first grade till seventh is compulsory and free. Although I must note that even buying a school uniform, shoes, or textbooks can be too expensive for some families. And children living in rural areas often need to walk to school by foot, sometimes many kilometres, since they live too far from a nearest public school. There is no free secondary education in the country. It is not very expensive, but I could recommence studies only two years later, once I moved to my aunt's place, in Lusaka. Then I continued my education," says Clement Sitali Nawa, the Mining University's graduate.
Before he moved to the capital of the country, Clement had been living in Chingola, a city located near Nchanga, the country's largest and world's second-largest copper mine. Chingola was initially built to service the mine. So therein were accommodated miners and engineers employed both at the mine and nearby situated processing plants. Twice a year, Nchanga opens its doors to visitors willing to see how the industry functions. Clement himself has been there several times on guided tours.
The boy's elder brother worked at that mine and used to mention the difficulties he was facing or what he would like to learn. As a result, Clement got interested in the extractive industry. Though seeing what life mine workers lived, he decided he would rather be an engineer.
As Clement recalls, "I realised I had a goal. So when I returned to school, I dug deep into physics and chemistry; I joined a math club. I even entered a local university upon graduation. That is a task of extreme difficulty, since being admitted to a tuition-free programme - especially for specialities in demand - is nearly impossible. I became a student at the University of Zambia (UNZA), the largest learning institution in the country. But unfortunately, I was accepted to the School of Education. I was in my first year, and I already knew there were plenty of teachers in my country, which meant that very soon I would either join the ranks of the unemployed or get some low-paid job. Besides, I was sure that it was not teaching that I was interested in. I wanted to work in mining, but I could not afford to pay the fee for studying at the School of Mines in UNZA. One last option left for me was to try applying to one of the foreign universities."
This is when the young man found out about Rossotrudnichestvo, an organisation responsible for promoting Russian education services abroad. Thence he decided to participate in an annual contest and compete for a quota enabling free studies in one of the Russian universities.
Over 4,000 graduates of Russian universities have already found employment in Zambia, with some of them working in senior positions in the government. In 2020, 138 applicants from Zambia were admitted under the quota system. Thereby nine enrollees had to compete for one study place. Altogether 600 Zambian students are currently studying in Russia.
After passing the competition, Clement found himself in Saint-Petersburg Mining University, and in 2009 he became a student at the Faculty of Mining Engineering.
According to the former Mining University's student, "Mining sector accounts for more than 70% of Zambia's foreign exchange earnings. Some major mining companies, such as Glencore and Vedanta Resources, are present in my country. I simply added these two factors up an made up my mind. Now I have been working for six years at the Lumwana copper mine of Barrick Gold Corporation. I must admit I received an education of excellent quality. The Mining University gives students exactly those skills and knowledge that are needed on the job market, it teaches to think critically, prepares for entering the economy. Internships and industrial attachments organised by the University were also beneficial to me. One of them took place at Konkola Copper Mines Plc. There I ended up working at the Nchanga Underground Mine, that one I was living near to when I was a child and got me interested in the profession. In my third year, I completed studies a few months earlier than usual and undertook a five-month-long internship in blasting. At first, I was trained in planning drill and blast operations, and several next months, I spent examining and analysing the work of local specialists."
Upon graduation, Clement returned to his home country and became an engineer in short-term mine planning.
"At seeing my CV, the employer paid the most attention to my qualification of 'mining engineer' and, to a lesser extent, to the experience. In comparison with agriculture, mining employment provides much higher incomes and better working conditions. For example, our local branch employs engineers from all over the world, and to make it happen, the company is ready to accommodate them and meet their needs. I personally work in shifts – 28 days at the mine and 7 days at home, in Lusaka. I am provided with free air tickets every month, an individual furnished apartment with home appliances in Chingola, free meals in the canteen, and a car. We do not even pay for fuel ourselves," notes the Mining University's graduate.
There has been recent news on Barrick Gold Corporation thinking of selling the Lumwana project. Clement says it could be linked to the fact that Barrick is primarily involved in gold mining, with copper operations being held only in few regions.
"They want to focus on gold operations. All employees are contract workers, therefore if the company does not succeed in negotiating sales terms with a new mine owner, it means the contracts will not be renewed. As my country is rich in ores, there are many both international and domestic mining companies operating in Zambia. Some of them invited me for a job interview, once I had sent out my CVs after coming back from Russia," sums up Clement.
The young professional wants to progress further in his career. Moreover, he is going to compete for a quota granted by Rossotrudnichestvo next year again. Six years ago, he obtained a Specialist's degree. Now Clement is aiming for Master's studies — also at the Mining University, but this time preferably with specialisation in economics of the mineral resources sector.
"I believe this will help me occupy a senior position in a mineral company or, perhaps, I become a teacher at some university. I really miss St. Petersburg a lot, and it would be great to move back there for a few years to continue education. Russia is like a second home to me, a home where many good friends live. We actually still communicate, for instance, via social media. I have as well lots of great memories back from university days. As such, I used to play football in the university team starting from my first year. The medals that I won throughout that time remind me of those days, " admits the Zambian fellow.
Shortly before the coronavirus pandemic kicked in, in February 2020, Valentina Matviyenko, Chairwoman of the Federation Council, paid an official visit to Zambia and met with the President Edgar Lungu. During the discussion held on cooperation prospects between the countries, particular attention was paid to the raw materials sector and education.
As Ms Matviyenko noted, "Russia is known for high-quality mining education, strong science, and qualified engineering staff. And under mutually beneficial agreements, we could assist Zambia in mineral prospecting."
Valentina Matviyenko also reminded of agreement on the establishment of a Centre for Nuclear Science and Technology signed in 2017. Through joint work, the Zambian economy should change qualitatively. Electricity supply problems have become a significant challenge for the country due to the severe drought the region faces. Hydropower plants provide 80% of total energy in Zambia, and water scarcity, in turn, affects the performance of the mining industry on the whole. Ms Matviyenko expressed confidence that a way to facilitate the construction of the centre would be found nonetheless.
She confirmed as well that Russia is ready to increase the number of quotes granted to Zambian nationals applying for the university-level education.