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Brian Mushimba with his wife & son at his UA graduation.

Brian Mushimba celebrating his graduation from the University of Arizona with his wife and son in 2000.

Mining Engineering Alumnus Pays It Forward as Member of Zambian Parliament

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Mining Engineering Alumnus Pays It Forward as Member of Zambian Parliament

June 23, 2020
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Twenty years ago, Brian Mushimba left behind a life of poverty in Zambia to earn his engineering degree at the University of Arizona. Now he serves as the minister of higher education for his home country.

Brian Mushimba was 14 years old before he saw a television or stayed in a house with a flush toilet. He and his 15 siblings grew up in a three-room house in Kankoyo, an impoverished, heavily polluted township in Zambia’s Copperbelt Province. His parents had only basic educations, so by the time Mushimba was a teenager, he was preparing to drop out of school and get a job in the copper mines, like his father.

Everything changed when he temporarily moved to a nearby, wealthier area of the district, to help a cousin of his with household chores. For the first time Mushimba saw glimpses of a different life. He asked his cousin what he would need to do to live like her someday. Her answer: “Get an education.”

“By the time I finished helping around her house and went back to my parents, my outlook had significantly changed,” Mushimba said. “I knew there was a better life if I got an education. From that moment on, I went from being an average student to one of the best in my class.”

Mushimba did so well academically that he was awarded a coveted scholarship to the only engineering prep secondary school in the country. Then he performed his A Levels, exams often required for entry into higher education or professional training, through a local program sponsored by the University of Cambridge.

I knew there was a better life if I got an education. I went from being an average student to one of the best in my class.”

“Brian seemed to have an uncanny ability to relate to and get along with all students,” said Kanyembo Katapa, one of Mushimba’s classmates at the time who now works as a manager of geotechnical engineering at Freeport-McMoRan in Phoenix. “He was an outgoing character with an ever-present positive attitude.”

The mining companies, at that time owned by the Zambian government, sent Mushimba and a cohort of 12 other students, including Katapa, off to the United States on full scholarships to earn engineering degrees at the University of Arizona.

A Turning Point in Tucson

A 21-year-old Mushimba packed one shirt, one pair of pants and a pair of shoes and got on a plane for the first time ever to fly to Tucson, Arizona, where he would go on to earn his bachelor’s degree in mining engineering. Tucson held many more firsts for the ambitious young man, including buying his first car and celebrating the UA winning the 1997 NCAA championship. He also fell in love, married and saw the birth of his son just before graduating.

“I look back at life at the UA from 1996 to 2000 as probably the best, and the turning point in a young man’s life, for an incredible future and the life that I’ve lived ever since,” he said. “The time was just mind-blowingly exciting. The UA and Tucson did not disappoint. They gave me the opportunity to discover myself.”

Brian Mushimba and his son.
Mushimba and his son at graduation.

Mushimba headed to Atlanta two weeks after his graduation to start work as a controls engineer at Siemens, a global high-tech company serving industries ranging from energy to health care. He moved up quickly into management roles at Siemens; Lafarge, which produces building materials; and Pratt & Whitney, an aerospace manufacturer. He traveled the world, expanded his skill set, and earned an MBA from Salem University along the way.

By 2013, he was ready to return home with his family. His wife gave birth to their second child while they were living in Atlanta.

Helping Youth at Home in Zambia

“I’d gotten a good education at a university with one of the best engineering programs,” Mushimba said. “And during my career, I’ve developed these incredible technical and managerial skills that may not be as needed in America. In Africa, there might be more of a need for what I have. I could be more impactful.”

He took a role as a technical director at Eskom Holdings, the biggest electricity generator in Africa, where he directed all operations and maintenance activities for assigned power generation plants and worked to improve efficiency. He also began working on his PhD in environmental engineering at the University of Zambia. He was at Eskom for three years before deciding he wanted to give back to his country in a new way, as an elected member of parliament, the equivalent to a U.S. senator.

Mushimba and wife
Mushimba and his wife at his PhD graduation in 2018.

He wanted to be in a position to help break the cycle of poverty in his home district by lobbying for causes like education and accessible health care. Though he had no political experience, his engineering education and career experiences gave him a logical mind and a knack for strategizing. He met with the Zambian president, Edgar Lungu, got approval to start campaigning on the Patriotic Front party platform, and was elected in 2016.

In Zambia, the president forms his cabinet out of members of parliament. He appointed Mushimba as the minister of transport and communication. Mushimba put his background in engineering and his doctoral dissertation work in carbon neutral products to use overseeing the development of transportation and communication infrastructure and networks.

Mushimba in office.
Mushimba at work in his parliamentary office.

In 2019, just after he finished his PhD, Mushimba was named minister of higher education. He is now in charge of ensuring the accessibility, affordability and internationally competitive quality of education for all Zambians. One of his first acts was to create the Mushimba Academic Scholarship for vulnerable youth, in hopes of providing today’s students with some of the same opportunities he had.

“It’s been an honor to do this for my country of birth, and it’s been an honor to see what the quality engineering education I received at the UA has done for this poor boy from Kankoyo,” Mushimba said. “It has totally transformed my life, and by extension, the lives of my family and extended family. It’s given me opportunities that I never thought I could have, even in my wildest dreams.”