INTERNATIONAL O.R.

O.R. goes to Cameroon

International Operations Research

Buea is situated on the slope of Mount Cameroon.

Nkem Khumbah and James J. Cochran

Nestled on the eastern slopes of Mount Cameroon (the second highest peak in Africa) lies Buea, the former capital of German Kamerun that is now a busy city of approximately 100,000 residents that serves as the provincial capital of the South West Province of Cameroon. Although it is far from Cameroon’s largest cities, Buea is home to the primary English-speaking university in Cameroon, the University of Buea (which is called “UB” by the locals).

Among the many ways the university (http://www.ubuea.net/) strives to accomplish its mission to provide opportunities for quality education through teaching and research in an environment that is conducive to such pursuits and in ways that respond to market forces, UB hosts the biennial Buea International Conference on the Mathematical Sciences (http://bueaconference.com/). This conference, which was first held in 2009, features both plenary talks of broad interest and a series of sessions in which researchers present results on a wide variety of mathematical topics. The conference is also preceded by a summer school on a specific topic in mathematics.

The conference is largely made possible through the vision and efforts of one of the authors (Khumbah) who chairs the event. The 2013 organizing committee also included co-chair Boniface Nkemzi of the University of Buea, Miranda Teboh-Ewungkem of Lafayette College and Gideon Ngwa of the University of Buea. University staff members Nana Cyrille, Alexander Mengnjo, Mary Fomboh and Eric Ngang Che provided important support. Conference organizers were further assisted in the planning of the conference by an impressive and diverse international advisory committee.

For the third Buea International Conference on the Mathematical Sciences, held April 30-May 3, a new feature was added – a colloquium on operations research, sponsored by the International Federation of Operational Research Societies. The colloquium comprised workshops and conference-wide plenaries that were designed to introduce the conference participants, who were primarily mathematics faculty and students from West Africa, to operations research with the objective of generating enthusiasm for the study and application of O.R. in the region. The organizers of the colloquium, who also served as the workshop presenters, included ‘Maseka Lesaoana of the University of Limpopo, Thomas Edwards of Wayne State and one of the authors (Cochran).

The introductory operations research colloquium opened with the conference-wide plenary, “From Katie Scarlett O’Hara Hamilton Kennedy Butler to Pretzel Rods to Frankenstein for President to Taxi Wars: One Odd O.R. Odyssey and Lessons for Africa,” that was designed to illustrate the broad range of problems that can be addressed by operations research. After a break, Lesaoana, director of the School of Mathematical & Computer Sciences at her university, conducted a workshop on the basics of mathematical programming. She placed a strong emphasis on applications, formulations and solution algorithms.

The second day of the conference opened with the plenary, “Active Learning to Engage Students in Applied Mathematics,” which featured almost constant audience participation in classroom exercises designed to engross students in mathematics and improve their understanding and retention. Williams, associate dean for research in the College of Education at his university, followed with a workshop in which he demonstrated software for solving mathematical programming problems.

Attendance in the workshops was strong, and enthusiasm for the presentations and the material discussed was high. A large portion of the 200-plus conference registrants attended the workshops, and they were consistently appreciative and fervent. While the colloquium attracted many participants who were from Cameroon (as would be expected at a conference in Buea), conference attendees from Ghana, Nigeria, Central African Republic, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi and South Africa also participated. Interesting discussions of potential applications of O.R. in Africa ensued, and many potential collaborative relationships were forged.

Although this article is entitled, “O.R. Goes to Cameroon!” colloquium organizers quickly learned that O.R. already has some presence in Cameroon since several conference attendees had taken courses in operations research and came to the conference and colloquium to learn more. Ultimately, the O.R. colloquium organizers found a strong interest in and a pressing need for operations research in West Africa – an opportunity they intend to act on again at the 2015 Buea International Conference on the Mathematical Sciences.

Nkem Khumbah is a faculty member of the Department of Mathematics at the University of Michigan and chairperson of the 2013 Buea International Conference on the Mathematical Sciences. James J. Cochran is an associate professor in the Department of Marketing and Analytics in the College of Business at Louisiana Tech University and a co-chair of the 2013 colloquium on operations research at the Buea conference.