In This Issue
Summer Bridge Issue on Engineering for Disaster Resilience
July 1, 2019 Volume 49 Issue 2
The articles in this issue present examples of engineering innovation to develop resilient infrastructure.

An Interview with...Ekua Bentil, World Bank Specialist

Monday, July 1, 2019

Author: Ekua Bentil

RON LATANISION (RML): Thank you for joining us today. We’re delighted to have this opportunity to speak with you, and happy to have an electrical engineer who is involved with the World Bank and finance and all kinds of things. How did you choose to study electrical engineering?

EKUA BENTIL: I grew up from the ages of 6 to 10 in Liberia. When the Civil War broke out there we suddenly had to leave everything and flee for our lives and we returned to Ghana, where my family is from.

I was in the 5th grade at the time and realized that I really loved math. In high school, I excelled in and loved math and physics, especially the practical aspects of physics. When I was about to go to college I did a bit of research to see what would be a good area for me to study. I did a lot of reading and I talked to my dad, who’s a physics professor, and he said “see what you like” and I just picked electrical engineering.

CAMERON FLETCHER (CHF): How did you end up at Bryn Mawr? That happens to be my alma mater as well.

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DR. BENTIL: Wow, small world. I had done a year of electrical engineering in Ghana and then applied to schools in the US. My high school, Wesley Girls’ High School, is an all-girls boarding school (boarding high schools are common in Ghana). When I was looking at schools in the US I came across Bryn Mawr, a women’s college, and I saw that they had a very strong physics program. They had a 3-2 engineering program that I could eventually participate in to get back into electrical engineering. So although I was in an electrical engineering program in Ghana, when I saw Bryn Mawr’s physics program I got very interested. Once I enrolled, I was not disappointed. The program was very strong, I liked the fact that the school was small, and they gave very generous scholarships so I got almost a full ride to do physics at Bryn Mawr.

RML: I see in your CV that the 3-2 dual bachelor’s degree involves Caltech. What is that program?

CHF: And how did you manage it across the country?

DR. BENTIL: When I initially applied to Bryn Mawr they had this 3-2 engineering program only with the University of Pennsylvania. When I got to my second year, I learned that they had the 3-2 engineering  program with Caltech as well. To prepare myself, I took some engineering classes at Swarthmore College, in addition to my physics classes, and applied to Caltech and got in at the end of my third year at Bryn Mawr. So you do 3 years at a liberal arts college and then go to a university where you do 2 years of basically a full engineering undergraduate degree. It’s like you’re transferring but you have to meet the minimum requirements to earn degrees at both institutions. I graduated with two undergraduate degrees: in physics from Bryn Mawr and in electrical engineering (EE) from Caltech.

There were phenomenal students at Caltech—-people who just wanted to do science. That was the environment there. Because I had to meet the minimum requirements of the EE program in two years, it felt like I was drinking from a fire hose, but I really wanted to do this. At any point in time, I was in first-, second-, and third-year EE classes in the same term.

I spent a lot of long hours in the labs. I would go in at night and come out and it’s daylight. It felt like I was emerging from the dungeons! But I was determined to push through because I loved engineering and was passionate about it, so I knew I had to do whatever I had to do.

RML: And your thesis research at Princeton focused on semiconductor devices. What was the specific nature of your thesis work?

DR. BENTIL: My research group at Princeton did a lot of work in the mid-infrared range, dealing with semiconductors and how to fabricate lasers, detectors, and other devices that could be incorporated into gas sensors. Mid-infrared lasers are ideal for sensing gases because a lot of gases have  unique fingerprints in the mid-infrared range. In my group, the core work was developing and optimizing what’s known as quantum cascade lasers, which work very well in sensors used in detecting gases in the mid-infrared range.

I ended up doing a little of everything. I did some device-level work and then system-level work as well. I integrated the quantum cascade laser, mirrors, detectors, and other components in a system and built a gas sensor.

I also worked with students at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana to deploy the laser sensor in a fishing community, where they processed a lot of smoked fish over firewood—smoked salmon and other types of fish, very common in Ghanaians’ diet. Women would do this type of work and spend long hours in the smoke, and there were a lot of anecdotes about women getting respiratory problems and other related health issues.

I wanted to see if we could make a sensor that we could deploy and use to identify the gases the women were inhaling from the wood smoke. I also wanted to work with students in Ghana and to bring over some of the technology and the work we were doing, to in some sense give back to Ghana.

RML: That led into your current activities at the World Bank, didn’t it?

DR. BENTIL: Yes. I had always wanted to have a big research complex in Ghana where we would do research into the latest—well, I wasn’t sure exactly what, something about semiconductors and maybe sensors, building off the work I did at Princeton. I always had that desire to give back, since I had done a year of university in Ghana before coming to the US and also grew up on a university campus. So I hoped I could go back and add value to the training of future engineers and scientists and to the applied science research culture. 

 I wanted to find a way of helping to develop the research culture in African universities, specifically in Ghana. I dreamed of having a big complex where researchers would come and do research, with different facilities, labs, accommodation, child care, libraries—I had the image in my head.

But when I was graduating from Princeton, I had applied for research positions at different companies and had an offer from Intel, but Goldman Sachs had also reached out. They had picked up my resume and wanted to interview me. I hadn’t applied to Goldman Sachs and never would have thought of applying there, but I decided to give it a try since they had found my resume and reached out. So I went in and did the interview and 12 interviews later, they offered me the job.

While I worked at Goldman Sachs, always in the back of my mind I was aware that deep down the core of my heart was to build capacity in Africa . I knew I would really love to do it. More and more my heart ran closer to that.

I had been at Goldman Sachs about 3½ years when I got an opportunity to go to an event where I met a World Bank manager and she invited me to come talk to her. When I got there as we talked she mentioned “this initiative that we just started, the Partnership for Skills in Applied Sciences, Engineering, and Technology (PASET), to build capacity in Africa.”

RML: It sounds like your dream.

DR. BENTIL: Exactly. It was interesting because I had started asking people who worked in the development world what it would mean for someone with my background to do that type of work. When I was looking at changing jobs from Goldman, I wondered, ‘Do I go back into academia or do I look into the development world? What are my options?’ 

It was a risky jump for me to leave Goldman at the time because the position she was offering was a consultancy and my husband had just started his law PhD at Georgetown and we have two kids. So it was a risk but we talked about it and he said, “This is what you’ve always wanted to do. Go try it out and see where it leads.” I did the consultancy for one year at the World Bank, and then I got hired full time.

RML: At Goldman Sachs you were working as a risk modeler, which must have involved largely computational skills, is that correct?

DR. BENTIL: Yes, programming, computational skills, and some finance, which I had to learn on the job—I came in with zero knowledge of finance. In fact, when they were interviewing me several interviewers basically said, “What are you doing here?” And I consistently said, “I’m here because your manager picked up my resume and invited me to come and interview with you.”

RML: The word risk piqued my interest because risk management is, especially in engineering, very important.

I’m curious about applied research in the program you’re leading with the World Bank. What kinds of research and projects are being done in the countries in West and Central Africa?

DR. BENTIL: With the new Africa Centers of Excellence (ACE) project (the third in the series of ACE projects) that I’m leading now we have 49 centers and 7 colleges of engineering that I work with across 12 countries in West and Central Africa.[1] It’s a big opportunity. When you look at the work these centers are doing, we have broad categories of the STEM fields as well as health and agriculture. We have centers looking into the genomics of infectious diseases, the Internet of Things, cybersecurity, water, power, coastal resilience, climate change, environmental risk, mining and the environment—the whole gamut. It’s a lot of different areas and sectors where Africa needs capacity both in training people and in doing applied research.

RML: In the countries with the program, are there engineering students actively involved in research on, for example, water or energy or agriculture? Is it funded through the World Bank and the governments of the countries that are involved? How does all this work?

DR. BENTIL: There are two sets of programs that I work on: PASET, which brought me into the World Bank and is across all of Africa, and the ACE project. Under the ACE project, the governments get loans from the World Bank; for some governments it’s a mix of loans and grants, but for the most part these are loans to the governments, and from these the governments give grants to the centers, which are selected competitively.

And then we use a results-based funding mechanism that incentivizes the centers toward excellence. Core results are predetermined and each result is allocated a dollar amount if achieved. As centers achieve the results, they receive funding for their planned activities; on average, centers get about $5 million for 5 years (the exact amount varies from country to country).

The centers are expected to develop their academic programs and seek international accreditation of them. They need to train a certain number of students at the master’s and PhD level (the engineering schools that we look at have undergraduates as well). They need to have research published in international peer-reviewed journals; and their research is evaluated for its relevance and impact on development.

We also promote strong linkages to industry—local, regional, and multinationals. We encourage the centers to form regional networks based on their thematic focus areas and to also partner with universities in the US, Europe, Korea, China, Japan, India, Canada—across the world.

I think in the past in Africa, a lot of focus was on fixing basic education before making efforts in -higher education. The ACE project for the World Bank was the first regional project in higher education in -Africa. It has really changed the narrative, which is good, and now we’re on the third ACE project, which I’m leading.

Also importantly, a lot of funding in Africa focuses on agriculture and health. Engineering programs are hardly ever supported. For obvious reasons, development partners have been  more interested in health and agriculture, so engineering schools in Africa are struggling.

It’s good that now the focus is shifting, especially as we move toward conversations around the digital economy and how to get Africa there, which will be through a lot of these computer science and engineering programs that we have begun actively supporting.

CHF: Tell us about your work, specifically the kinds of things you do.

DR. BENTIL: Under the ACE project, my work is to engage with the governments, contribute to the design of the project, and manage its implementation, including compliance on environment and social safeguards, procurement, and financial management.

As we move toward implementation, we do monitoring and evaluation of how the centers are performing with respect to both various results targets they set and the overall objectives of the project. I make sure that we are progressing in line with those targets. It is a lot of constant problem solving. We also have supervision missions where we work with experts in the various -thematic areas. They go and assess the centers along with some of my colleagues on the ground to see how they are performing; if there are any problems, we work through them with the centers.

RML: These are experts from the university system in Africa? Or are they external to Africa? Where are they from?

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DR. BENTIL: We bring in experts from all over. We gather resumes and recommendations and then we bring these experts in to work with us because we can’t do it all and we are not experts in all of these thematic areas.

On the PASET program, we have funding for original academic scholarship and innovation from some African governments and from Korea to really push scholarships for PhD training in applied sciences, engineering, and technology fields. I worked on that program in the early stages of designing and am still one of the coleads.

The second thing I do with PASET is I lead a benchmarking initiative. We get data from African universities and assess their performance with respect to some benchmarks. It involves general data collection and how to use the data for strategic planning, which is a struggle for most African universities. We are working with them to understand the importance of management information systems and how to set them up. Because if you don’t have data how do you plan? You have to do planning for your university.

RML: Do you have any collaboration with engineering schools in the US or Europe?

DR. BENTIL: For ACE the way we’re currently working is that the individual centers, because there are so many, form and manage their own collaborations. A number of them have collaborations with institutions in the US.

On the PASET side, we are working with US universities to determine those that would be interested in hosting some of the students in the scholarship program. Worcester Polytechnic Institute has shown  interest, as have some faculty from MIT and Rutgers, among others. We also have collaborations with the Korea Institute of Science and Technology and with Seoul National University, and we are developing several other partnerships.

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As I stated earlier, with the ACE project we are now supporting engineering schools. There’s a lot of peer-to-peer learning. We are very interested in doing and knowing more. What are some of the top universities in the US doing in their engineering education that the African universities could learn from and vice versa?

CHF: Ekua, I’m wondering how your engineering mindset informs your approach to your work.

DR. BENTIL: Well, I tend to be too focused on details. Sometimes it’s good but sometimes I need to step back and look at the big picture. I think because of my engineering training there’s a level of attention to detail, accuracy, that I bring to the table. But sometimes my colleagues encourage me to “just let it go, it’ll be okay!”

And there’s a level of persistence as an engineer. Especially let’s say if you’re an engineer who works on a plane design, you need to make sure you are precise because even a small error could cause serious problems. There is some element of that in my work—I want to make sure things are right before I move on. I think I add some value in that way.

And there’s also the systematic approach to learning that I use when I take on a new project. I compartmentalize it into buckets in terms of how I should work through it and the flow of steps involved. I try to have a picture of that in my head and then I can put it on paper.

CHF: That sounds very useful given the complexity and scope of the projects you’re working on and leading.

RML: Those are very healthy engineering instincts. They play a very important role in trying to roll out and extend and cultivate a program that has such important consequences in terms of the people who are involved.

Along those lines, what does the World Bank view as success? When the World Bank looks at this project in 5 years, what will they be looking for?

DR. BENTIL: For the technical part of it, the World Bank will consider how much of the funding was disbursed, because the disbursements of a results-based project are linked to how well the centers are performing in terms of reaching their results: as they meet results, they get the funding. So that’s the first thing the World Bank looks at: disbursement.

We are already moving the needle on quality. With the first series of the ACE project (as I said we are in phase three), a number of centers got international accreditation for the first time for their academic programs, which is a very big deal and we will continue to encourage this. A number of countries participating in the project ask, “How can we replicate this at our other universities?” They are seeing that these centers in the ACE projects are making a big difference.

The World Bank will also look at the impact on the direct beneficiaries of the project, including the students, faculty, and their institutions. One of the things we’re looking for in this third phase is institutional impact. We wouldn’t want to have centers being like an oasis, isolated, where the centers are healthy but their universities are not. How do we link the centers more strongly to their institutions in improving financial management, procurement processes, data management, management/governance of processes in the university, development of regional strategies?

In my view, success is being able to influence change and seeing graduates of these programs excelling globally in the world of work and the research outputs from the programs transforming the continent.

CHF: Is there a plan for these programs to become self-sustaining? I can’t imagine that the World Bank plans to support them indefinitely.

DR. BENTIL: That’s a very good question. Sustainability is a big question that we deal with. Five years is a really short time to expect a center to be able to stand on its feet. Usually it would take 10 to 15 years for a well-performing center that has good revenue to build its relationships and its own stream of funding outside of the development partners. Eighteen of the centers from the phase one ACE project are being supported in the this third phase for another five years.

CHF: They are being supported by other sources or they have their own sources of funding?

DR. BENTIL: They are being supported by the World Bank in this third phase. Most of them had $8 million in the first phase, and in the third phase they have a little less than that; the idea is to give them some padding. One of the results that we incentivize them with is to be able to generate external revenue, so we are urging them to form strong linkages with industry so that industry takes an interest in what they are doing and will support them. We also encourage their governments to invest in grant programs that these centers can also apply for. Such grant programs are not common in a lot of African countries.

How can they provide consultancy work for industry? How can they develop and offer short courses for professionals in the ministries in their countries to bring in revenue? Some of the centers are doing that and have been successful in bringing in revenue. We hope we can get a good number of centers able to stand on their feet at the end of this phase.

CHF: You mention linkages with industry. Is this domestic and international corporations?

DR. BENTIL: It’s a mix. For example, at the regional project level, we have been trying to engage with companies that fall under what we call digital development—Intel, Google, LinkedIn, Facebook, Ericsson. A number of these are multinationals, with offices in Africa. We encourage the centers to work with these companies directly. It helps that the World Bank has convening power and we try to leverage that to invite and bring these companies to the table to work with the centers.

The centers also have to look around their own countries. For example, the power/energy centers should look at the utilities companies for partnering, whether they are national or regional.

CHF: Is there discussion of expanding this program from Africa to other areas of the world, such as Asia or South America? Or has this already been done?

DR. BENTIL: There was a similar project in India that the World Bank had led and which the ACE projects built on. With the third phase we have Djibouti, which is part of the World Bank MENA classification (Middle East and North Africa).

I don’t know what could be next, whether we’re going to have other centers in the MENA region or elsewhere in the developing world. But there’s a lot of peer-to-peer learning and sharing of our knowledge that happens internally and so elements of the ACE projects are being incorporated into other regional and national-level education projects within the World Bank.

CHF: Yes, it sounds like a very useful model.

RML: It is a great model. And I think it’s especially important, from the point of view of everyone involved—the World Bank, the African nations, national governments, and the students—to have these important performance metrics that you’ve described. When you can say that your center is being accredited and your students are being recognized for their achievement and the individual programs are developing resources, all of that’s really critical to making a sustained and significant effort. And I can see you’re a major player in that.

The only question I have left is, how old are your kids?

DR. BENTIL: I have a 9-year-old and a 6-year-old.

RML: And doesn’t your work require a fair amount of travel on your part?

DR. BENTIL: Yes, I travel every other month. I try to give myself at least one month off because of my family but every other month I’m on a plane going somewhere.

RML: Oh my goodness. How do you manage being away so much? That would take some considerable effort.

DR. BENTIL: I think that’s one of the most difficult parts of my work. I usually cook up a storm and store it in the freezer right before I leave, so it’s a little intense in the house around that time. All my husband will have to do is microwave the food and get the kids moving to school and wherever else.

RML: That’s a good compromise between mother and father and kids.

DR. BENTIL: My husband has definitely been really incredible in his support to get me where I am now. He would always hear me talk about what my passion was and he would tell me to write it down, particularly when I first felt strongly about setting up this big research complex in Africa. I’ve even gone to speak to my advisor from Princeton about it—I’m still in touch with her.

RML: Who was your Princeton advisor?

DR. BENTIL: Claire Gmachl, an incredible personality. She’s Austrian.

CHF: Ekua, we are mindful that we’re drawing to the end of our hour and I’m sure you have many other demands on your time, but we do want to ask, Is there any message you might like to convey to our readers?

DR. BENTIL: Yes. I think it’s important to recognize that when one part of the world suffers or is not well developed, the developed parts end up suffering as well. We see a lot of migration and the issues related to that. And we’re dealing with a lot of global problems.

When people of a community learn that they are able to solve their own problems, I think that’s the best gift we can give to any community. So investment in human capital is core, and we should bear in mind that, when given the opportunities, people can really make an impact in their own communities, and this will eventually support the work that’s being done globally and ease some of the global challenges we’ve been dealing with in the world.

We need to give this opportunity to all people and getting that message across is critical, even, or especially, in places where people feel that there is no hope. Building the human capital potential in those places is key in making a difference in our world.

CHF: That’s a terrific message.

RML: Yes, it is. I think you’re a living example and a testimonial to that philosophy. I applaud what you’re doing. Thank you so much, Ekua.

CHF: Yes, what a pleasure. Thank you, Ekua.

DR. BENTIL: Thank you too.

[1]  The 12 countries are Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Côte d’Ivoire, Djibouti, the Gambia, Ghana, Guinea, Niger, Nigeria, Senegal, and Togo.

About the Author:Ekua Bentil is a Specialist with the World Bank