There are few industries as pivotal to driving Africa’s sustainable economic development as the construction and civil engineering sectors.
No shortage of challenges lies ahead in the development of Africa’s built environment. These challenges are, primarily, financial; how can capital be raised to improve infrastructure and living conditions across the continent?, and environmental; how can a continent of over 1.2bn people (and counting) develop without accelerating climate change and degrading the natural environment?
Shaping a path of truly sustainable economic development on the African continent will need engineering minds at the forefront of policymaking, strategy, and delivery.
As the leading economies of the continent seek to accelerate industrialisation, does Africa’s civil engineering sector have the depth and capacity to deliver on the mega-projects required for growth?
Who are the innovators that will find solutions to challenges around affordable housing, the infrastructure gap, skills shortage, access to capital and environmental impact?
AfricaLive.net speaks with sector leaders from across Africa to understand how African civil engineers seek to shape the future of the continent.
The arrival of the African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA) marks an opportunity to increase cross-border collaboration, partnership and trade within the construction and engineering sectors.
Furthermore, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the fragility of many supply chains and should concentrate minds on the need to build stronger local and regional ties.
The impact of COVID-19 on the sector has been considerable, particularly in South Africa. Spending on infrastructure projects and implementing AfCFTA to drive international trade are seen by many as the best hopes for the industry to bounce back.
What impact will AfCFTA have upon the construction and civil engineering sectors in Africa?
Where is there opportunity developing for African firms to expand cross-border?
“[During the disruption caused by COVID-19] there were impacts on the cost of building materials, for example. When China shut down, the cost of building materials in Kenya rose by 5 – 10%. This may not have a major impact on a residential project, but it becomes prohibitive in a billion-dollar infrastructure project. This reinforces the need for better intra-regional trade linkages.
The delay in implementing the AfCFTA agreement, along with the pandemic downtime, allows companies to reinforce what they have been doing to get systems in place, and better prepare to take advantage of emerging opportunities. At a strategic level, it allows them time to assess the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the sector, and on companies in the global north. In countries badly affected by the pandemic, a lot of the industrial capacity is in small to medium-sized companies which have been incredibly badly impacted, so this may present new opportunities for African companies to look at where they can take space in that market.”
“With the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) agreement now upon us, we are looking at various strategies that will help keep us competitive. We are looking at providing value propositions so that customers can get their needs met effectively. We are also looking at adopting new ideas and bringing something new not only to the Ugandan construction industry but also to the continental scene. Branding is also a major focus for us because we want to document customer experience and keep a relevant brand throughout the continent.
We are also looking at expanding internationally and having offices outside Uganda. Expanding into new markets means we will open ourselves to increased competition as well as more opportunities. There is also a long term plan to start manufacturing cement and steel so that we can pass over fewer costs to the end customer while also providing quality. We want to grow at our own pace despite the increased competition that is coming throughout the continent.”
Edward Matege, Managing Director, Meak Construction & Engineering Services. Uganda
“Uganda was one of the very first countries to endorse the AfCFTA agreement and that makes us very excited. AfCFTA makes the continent almost one village association so to speak.
We are already partnering with colleagues in Kenya, Rwanda, and Morocco; so this is going to open even more doors to partnerships.
We look forward to more opportunities because the market will expand and resources will increase. It will set the stage for the execution of huge cross border projects that would have been hard to do all by ourselves”.
“Civil engineering is all about developing African infrastructure for us. The 2010 FIFA World Cup gave us the perfect platform to showcase what we can do and we must continue on that trajectory.
We must use that experience to build more and become like Europe in terms of infrastructure development. Though some challenges exist, we have a continent full of young energetic people.
With the population being so young we definitely have the human capacity to build, innovate and maintain. The AfCFTA agreement means that we are now on the cusp of large infrastructure projects throughout the continent.
The tug of war for us will be whether to look at projects all over the continent or just focus on South Africa”.
Bhekani Mdlalose, Group Managing Director, Grinaker LTA. South Africa
“The “AfCFTA” agreement provides for the proper structuring of PPP deals where governments for instance provide land and basic services so that private developers can open up these areas by building infrastructure. In line with the AfCFTA agreement’s target of poverty alleviation, Devtraco is one of the front runners that aims to contribute immensely to value and wealth creation. To produce more wealth through infrastructure, we need to lower costs by effectively controlling factors of production. One of the ways to reduce costs is by more players coming in to increase competition in a way that lowers production cost.
We must structure our policies to attract investment and spur construction projects. The government must also get more hands-on by offering subsidies so that projects can be done more cost-effectively. There also has to be provision within the policy framework, for the taking care of deprived people within society. PPPs can come in handy in building decent dwellings for citizens like it was done in South Africa with ABSA being a leader in that endeavour. South Africa having so much experience in structuring effective PPPs, should be reached out to, so that other African nations can learn.
We can revolutionise this industry by looking beyond brick and mortar buildings and look at green building. Lowering the cost of housing by using different more available materials will lessen the cost and increase the speed of projects. Alternative building technologies, as well as innovations in financing that help lower the cost of service delivery to people is what we should be looking at”.
Annish Doorgapersad, Group CEO, Devtraco Group. Ghana
The Future of African Cities
According to the African Development Bank Group (ADBG), Africa is the fastest urbanising continent in the world.
The continent’s rapidly growing population of over 1.2 billion people, includes 50% of the population under the age of 20, giving Africa the genuine opportunity to transition into a global powerhouse.
However, population growth, combined with legacy issues from poorly planned colonial-era cities leaves African urban areas in need of a rethink.
The ADBG states that between 40,000 and 50,000 people are added to African cities every day, and where housing is available, it is simply not affordable for the vast majority of Africans.
By 2030, 15 cities in Africa will have populations over 5 million, most of whom will live in informal settlements.
There is an urgent need to develop urban areas that are offer better living conditions and facilitate economic growth and job creation.
If African cities can be reimagined, clearly there lies opportunity beyond the challenges. Africa is rapidly urbanising. The continent’s population of 1.2 billion is expected to double by 2050. Over 80% of that growth will occur in cities. With better urban planning, investment to tackle the housing crisis, and investment into physical and digital infrastructure Africa’s cities can be the drivers of economic development.
Finding solutions to the challenges facing Africa’s cities will require collaboration between architects, engineers, urban planners, financiers and government policymakers.
What steps must be taken now to tackle the affordable housing crisis and build the world-class cities of Africa’s future?
“Opportunities are abundant in housing. Reaping from the opportunities will first need us to find cheap ways to build houses. We must identify and make use of inexpensive building materials so that costs passed down to final clients remain low.
The government must chip in by ensuring we have adequate infrastructure. When a construction firm has to build up pathways and amenities themselves, those costs are reflected on the cost of the houses they build. The government must rise to the occasion to ensure costs are kept within reach of the people.
We recently won an international accolade with the world-renowned Shelter Afrique, a housing finance agency, after taking part in their 5000 for 5000 housing project international competition. We are now working with them towards the building of affordable homes in Ghana.”
Senyo Tetteh, Founder, S.Tetteh + Associates. Ghana
“We have a huge housing deficit, as well as, roads and highways that need commercialising. The major risk for me is, therefore, is coming up with sufficient capital to take advantage of the opportunities. Our human capital is rich and capable and we have the right culture for productivity. We also have businesses that can do what companies in America and Europe can do. De-risking Africa will not only involve capital injection, but also a focus on local content.
We need appropriate intervention like what happened in Malaysia. When they were pursuing their national agenda, they got to a point where they had to focus on developing their local capacity. Today, they are in a position to export some of their services both in the form of materials and human resources.
We must have a national agenda that promotes local content we can get behind. If we instead choose to remain as we are with high-interest rates and a nonchalant approach to local content, we just won’t compete. If we change our thinking though, we will be able to turn our fortunes around”.
Rockson Kwesi Dogbegah, CEO, Berock Ventures. Ghana
“Housing is a sector that can see a boom in our area. In most African cities, we have areas that have informal settlements that are not well planned or organised. The people who live in these areas are mostly blue-collar workers like our mechanics. It would be wise if people that are way higher on the pay scale would come together and use their disposable incomes to create better settlements for low-income earners. This is what we should be thinking about because there is a big enough demand to make such a project worth it. At EPC Africa, we want to build at least three thousand homes in the next five years to respond to the demand.
Such projects tie into our future as a continent which is largely dependent on the youth. We need to have an emphasis on technical education, because the more technical people we have, the easier it will be for our governments to build infrastructure. We must build our expertise to a point where it can be exported overseas at a competitive price.
The private sector can be instrumental in lifting our continent from the ashes. We can work with the government as well as international development partners like the World Bank, and come up with result-based funding strategies. Such a strategy would see part payments made after progress is done on a project. Such an arrangement would foster transparency as well as development”.
Ferdy Turasenga, CEO, EPC Africa. Rwanda
The Infrastructure Gap
New estimates by the African Development Bank (AfDB) suggest that the continent’s infrastructure needs amount to $130–$170 billion a year, with a financing gap in the range $67.6–$107.5 billion.
There is actually no shortage of finance available for large scale infrastructure projects in Africa. Over the past twenty years, international investors have shown an increasing appetite for investing in African infrastructure projects.
Addressing Africa’s infrastructure shortfall is absolutely vital to uplift millions of people out of poverty, to drive industrialisation and economic growth, and to ensure this growth and development is delivered in a sustainable manner.
Writing on McKinsey, analyst Kannan Lakmeeharan states that barriers to investment projects reaching completion include a lack of political commitment to long-term infrastructure projects, weak feasibility studies and business plans, skills shortage, and poor program delivery in the planning, managing, and execution of large projects.
Unlocking the infrastructure paradox is one of the great challenges facing Africa. New infrastructure is required, investors are prepared to bring the necessary funding, but projects are not going ahead. Private and public sector leaders must collaborate to deliver the wave of African infrastructure projects that will transform the continent.
How can the engineering sector play a role in unlocking the potential of large scale infrastructure development on the African continent?
Which parts of the continent have the engineering skills in place to manage and deliver on large-scale projects and are, therefore, best positioned for economic growth?
“We have come to a stage in our development where we must identify and prioritise the building of a top ten or twenty projects, which our economy will bank on in the next decade.
There are always fears that a new administration might be apathetic to a project started by a previous regime. Fear of project stagnation keeps investors away. We must clearly stipulate projects that will be undertaken no matter what administration comes into power. A commitment to long term infrastructure projects will give investors the confidence to stay involved, and will also motivate local technocrats to push themselves so that they can contribute gainfully.“
“The challenges facing our government in building large scale infrastructure have to be talked about and addressed. All stakeholders must come together and rally towards the development of infrastructure so that we can stimulate the economy, create jobs and alleviate poverty.
The building and construction sector in South Africa was very strong a decade ago and that was the foundation on which we built our 2010 World Cup bid.
Since then, capital expenditure has been an issue coupled with political tensions. We are however confident things will improve soon. It’s up to us now to come together and do what we need to do to strengthen this industry and economy”.
Abdool Shaikh, Divisional MD Civil Engineering, Grinaker LTA. South Africa
“We talk a lot about bringing in capital from foreign sources and the mistake we make is thinking that skills have to be imported too. African countries must build capacity so that locals can participate in the development of their country.
Building local capacity not only gets locals employed it’s also a thing of pride to build your infrastructure and leave a legacy. The whole narrative that there aren’t enough opportunities in Africa is often shattered by foreigners who come here and succeed. Though these foreign entities usually have a capital base we don’t have, we must work together to exploit the opportunities in our own countries.”
Chris Tshivhidzo, General Manager, Grinaker LTA. South Africa.
“The private sector must be confident in its ability to deliver. Our confidence and desire to deliver will let the government know that we are ready to start taking on major, impactful projects.
The government also has to have the initiative and foresight that’s required to help build a strong local industrial base. The government can only do this by giving local businesses a chance to try and fail until they get it right. We have to create room for local entrepreneurs to gain experience; otherwise, we won’t build a robust local economy. It’s not only about awarding tenders but also building expertise and confidence through training and funding.”
“The future of engineering in our country must be centred on promoting local expertise. It has to involve research and doing things our way because we engage in a lot of copy and paste. We must desist from trying to replicate everything we see abroad. It’s high time we focus on innovation and come up with appropriate solutions for our situation.
We must also improve relations between academia and the industry. Engineering theory must be trimmed so that we can focus more on the practical aspect. It is important to also balance engineering expertise with the business side of the industry. Skills building must come in harmony with the economic impetus of engineering.
The government must come in and support the industry by being intentional. We should emulate countries like South Korea where the government is heavily engaged with the construction industry. In the Ugandan scene, you are pretty much left to fend for yourself. Our situation may make one resilient, but it also stunts the growth of the industry. Our private sector needs support from the public sector to become competitive on the international stage through reserving projects for locals to develop expertise and reducing the cost of capital for contractors”.
Frank Magoba, CEO, Kaizen Africa. Uganda
“As engineers, we have a pivotal role in ensuring that projects are packaged in a way that they are bankable. We have to ensure that the environmental and social aspects of each project are well taken care of. The engineering sector here can find itself with the ability to do little when it comes to de-risking because many factors such as politics and security come into play.
Engineers tend to be very averse when it comes to matters such as politics. Risks such as economic feasibility are, however, in our purview, and we can respond by designing projects with our economic situation in mind. Our government must be keen on infrastructure development so that we can build a robust economy.
Engineering can chime in more productively once our local content policy is strengthened and well enforced. Our local content policy is good on paper but lacks in implementation. Proper adherence to the policy framework will see us start to build for a truly sustainable infrastructural future. Sustainability for us means having infrastructure supply that meets our infrastructure needs”.
Daka Michael, Managing Director, Proess Consulting Engineers. Uganda
“I am excited about the work we have been putting over the last three years on the Mucina Intermodal Terminal (MIT). The project is all about creating a corridor that will help improve trade and movement of goods between South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe. We will have a rail line that will start from the port in Durban, cutting through Zimbabwe, into the Zambian mines. Through the railway, we will have better access to the copper deposits of Zambia and have them exported.
The rails will also help ferry other important goods from these countries up north, to help boost trade volumes. The project also involves the construction of a dry port at the border between Zimbabwe and South Africa to help clear trading activities. We have managed to get the governments of South Africa, Zambia, and Zimbabwe onboard with the projects. The three governments co-signing the project will work to facilitate investments in the project.
We are still doing structural assessments and are in the process of finalising some deals with certain mines. Our target is to have the locomotives in place and begin moving shipments by June next year. The long term goal is to have a railway corridor that keeps going up north. We can have an “AfCFTA” agreement in place, but if we don’t have the means to move goods affordably from Egypt to Capetown, or from Durban to Mombasa, it means nothing”.
Skills Shortage & Future Technologies
In order for industrialisation of the African continent to be achieved within the framework of the continent’s Sustainable Development Goals, a rapid increase in the number of qualified engineers practising on the continent is required.
Saurabh Sinha, Executive Dean, Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, University of Johannesburg, has warned that Africa needs at least a tenfold increase in relevant skills. To do this, it must dramatically raise the number of people who make it from the first year of an engineering degree through to graduation.
More than 500,000 people enrolled for degrees related to engineering and the built environment in South Africa between 1998 and 2010. Only about 15% graduated in that time. Engineering traditionally has a high drop-out rate around the world.
Furthermore, engineering as a profession is not static. Engineering skills should not be static. The dawn of the fourth industrial revolution is disrupting all sectors and industries. Clearly, the future of engineering on the continent is going to be shaped by its approach to technology adoption.
How can the higher education sector and the engineering sector work together to develop the engineering skills Africa needs to fuel its growth?
How will technology adoption shape the future of civil engineering in Africa? What new skills should Africa’s engineers and students be learning to adapt to a changing industry?
“Unfortunately, in South Africa, and elsewhere on the continent, we are not providing our youth with the skills needed to be successful in this new economy. South Africa, and the rest of the continent, should assess its strengths and weaknesses, and address its challenges and take advantage of its opportunities, in this context.
In terms of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and its impact on the construction and engineering sector, government and all stakeholders should compare the skills needed to be successful in this new reality, and compare it to what we have and what skills we are providing our future generations with. The identified gaps should be addressed and a new generation of skilled workers should be created.”
Monty Ditibane, Director, DBI Consulting Engineers. South Africa
“We can better engage with communities by relocating some of our departments and setting them up in these communities.
An engineering department, for instance, can be located at a manufacturing plant. This setup will foster better community engagement and will prepare the students better. In five years I want us to be living the fourth industrial revolution, and not just preparing students for it.”
“Institutions of higher learning must remind themselves that industries are profit-making entities. Our job is to demonstrate our worth or end up becoming redundant. If we cannot provide the services that the sector requires because they doubt our delivery or standards, they will seek out other institutions of learning. We must, therefore, understand our industries so that we can identify gaps that if filled, will make them more substantial profits.
Universities must step away from having an entitled attitude when dealing with industry and instead develop their value proposition. If you become known for offering value, you will be sought after by local institutions as well as international outfits. If we embrace highly specialised competencies in civil works and telecommunications, our students will be highly sought after and our school will be placed on a pedestal.”
“The industry must have a vision of what it sees as its future and the best possible scenario. We then present that vision to academia so that they know how to prepare students. The industry wants to produce the best quality at the lowest possible cost without compromising quality while ensuring social good. Academia must come in by producing quality research that we can buy into so that we can have the outcomes we want. When we have the outcomes we want, we can then help fund higher education initiatives that help all of us.
We must have these kinds of discussions when engaging with academia because they will make the whole industry better. When the whole industry shines, the young ones will want to join in and be part of it. The entire engineering scene in Africa will be attractive if we stay in contact, and do projects together”.
Ing. Leslie Alex Ayeh, President, Ghana Institution of Engineering. Ghana
“The engineering dropout rate in our country will drop if we update our curriculum in my opinion. We must question why engineers aren’t being taught in schools that you can build decently using containers and other materials. We must approach solving our housing crisis by exploring new building materials and new ways to build.
Revolutionisng this industry will involve closer ties between academia and the private sector. New businesses need to use research being produced in institutions of higher learning. Students must also be up to date so that the industry can absorb them. We are focusing on building a container estate with a proper underground system, drainage system, and water systems. Our flagship project will be a model of what we believe Africa can be. As a country and continent, we must also make our regulatory environment suitable for investment. There should be a healthy balance between local content laws and an investor friendly environment. We local players must also open our minds to new ideas”.
Benking Kwesi Mantey, Managing Director, Nom Company Limited. Ghana
“For us to prepare students adequately for the field, we must understand that the classroom is just a phase of introduction into engineering. The real work happens in the field of work and that’s where more emphasis needs to be put. The interface between academia and the industry is, therefore, very important. What academia is producing in terms of training is for the private sector to interface back when it comes to different assignments.
We are in the digital world now where calculators and PCs have replaced log tables and slide rules. It is easier now than ever to develop tools that would help both the academia and the private sector. Technological advancements have also made innovation more possible. Innovation is not necessarily something that just came out, it is something that helps us reduce costs, put in less effort while also reducing the time needed to work.
Aside from innovation, we need to ensure sustainability by having well-trained professionals. All stakeholders from academia, government, and the private sector have a role to play to ensure we have a sustainable industry”.
Peter Magambo, Managing Director, Kagga & Partners. Uganda
Environmental Sustainability & Green Building
Much of Africa will feel the severe effects of climate change more harshly than anywhere else in the world.
Few would argue that building the infrastructure that could potentially lift millions of Africans out of poverty is worthwhile if the very same people have their standard of living impacted by extreme weather patterns, drought, and rising sea levels.
The problem facing the sector is that many of the materials used to build our cities and infrastructure are incredibly damaging to the planet.
The production of concrete and steel, taken together, is responsible for 15% of worldwide CO2 emissions.
Around 8% of global CO₂ emissions come from cement production alone. As other industries such as energy and agriculture reduce their share of emissions, cement production may account for nearly a quarter of all human-driven CO₂ emissions by 2050.
Decarbonising industry and the economy is essential to improve the balance between our ecological footprint and the planet’s renewable resources. This would provide the best possible chance for humanity to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Outside of construction, in urban planning and industrialisation of the economy, careful planning is required to reduce the impact of economic development on the environment.
Should Africa’s engineers play a role in shaping a future which embraces the principles of green building?
What would a truly sustainable future for engineering, construction and infrastructure development look like on the African continent?
“I believe that architects, engineers and all those in the field need to work together to make this green breakthrough. There has to be continuous learning and a willingness to reduce carbon emissions in all we do. We have the hottest continent in the world, and we have to push the green agenda as much as possible.
We ensure that the green building message is not just left to activists and those in the engineering and building field. We are advocating for it to be incorporated into the education system. Social grassroots activism is also important because we must teach every household to at least have one tree in their compounds. We must educate by doing or helping the community get such initiatives done. Once the people understand the importance of green living, then green building will no longer be a foreign idea.
Amid the green push, we are trying our best to make locally available green materials for building. We recognise that working with cement leads to a lot of carbon emissions, and our approach is to limit cement use as much as possible. Our focus in every country we work in is to use locally available materials that produce little to no carbon emissions.
We regulate cement use to about 10 percent and use locally abundant substitute materials like timber and glass.”
“Cross-border collaboration has been hindered for many decades because opportunities had been locked and restricted within individual countries. The AfCFTA provides a platform for people to think beyond their borders and make collaborations that were hard to make before. Governments must now operationalise the trade area spirit and break all barriers to trade. The people in our sector must open themselves to engineers from other African countries so that we can work together and have the chance to thrive.
Our countries benefit when we come together and develop innovative solutions. We are currently developing a solution to help improve our urban air quality. The point is to note the hotspots where air quality is most affected. We want to determine how real estate, transport, and factories affect air quality. The data will help environmental agencies come up with a response while also helping real estate developers, transporters and governments come up with ways to control emissions. This is a solution that can be exported to other African cities once we successfully pilot it.
We have to find alternative materials to build our houses and rely less on earth materials. The Chinese took the lead in this by banning earth materials in construction and used their wetlands for food production instead. In Africa, we largely use our wetlands for building which is part of the reason we are yet to be food secure. If we don’t rethink the way we put up structures and embrace green building, we will be in a precarious position in the coming decades”.
Eng. Lammeck Kajubi, CEO, Queensland & Leeds Consulting Engineers LLC. Uganda