- As part of the African Green Growth report, AfricaLive talks with Dr Bridget Ssamula, CEO of the Engineering Council of South Africa on the role of engineering sector leaders to shape Africa’s green economy and engineering as a vehicle of solving tomorrow’s problems today.
- Dr Ssamula states that “We are now at a place where moving towards a green economy is the only way to go. We find ourselves at a crossroads in terms of what we need to move to a much greener economy with electricity and power generation is at the epicenter of conversation.”
- Facing a broad set of challenges, South Africa’s engineers have developed a unique perspective and level of resilience. How can the South African engineering sector now impact the social, economic and environmental development of Africa?
AfricaLive: Please tell our audience about your journey coming from Uganda all the way to South Africa, and your exploits in academia and the private sector, before being confirmed in your current role.
Dr. Bridget Ssamula: I am a trained civil engineer and that trade has always been in my blood. I did my first degree at Makerere University and then went straight to South Africa after finding my passion in the transportation industry. I soon after started my master’s at the University of Pretoria before pursuing my PhD.
I specialised in aviation because for me the airline industry on the African continent didn’t have enough experts to speak and teach about the science of it. This is important to note because just like with vehicles, the airline industry is a science that has to be mastered properly to help society. Whether it’s about mastering operational design or optimizing the algorithms for profitability and the type of aircraft to purchase.
My first role outside of academia was at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) where I did research to gain groundbreaking expertise on how to add value to cities and towns. Back in 2008, I was involved in a baseline study for the city of Johannesburg because the city wanted to get into climate financing for BRTs.
This experience opened the door for opportunities to do research on freight, rail and port transportation. It also opened my eyes to how important the transport sector is to a country’s growth because it touches every sector of the economy.
After my stint at CISR, I went back to academia and worked with Transnet. I went on to work with other companies and achieved milestones like delivering large projects, and winning project bids in the aviation and ports environment. I realized first-hand just how much engineering shapes economies when I started working in the East Africa region, mostly operating in Uganda and Kenya. I had to adequately articulate the problems the countries and cities were facing before I could land any business deals. To become one of the best at this, I had to articulate even the issues that seemed minor at the time and draw a clear picture as to how the issue could magnify in the future. This is why I am keen on selling engineering as a vehicle of solving tomorrow’s problems today.
My current role as the registrar and CEO for the Engineering sector within South Africa is the culmination of everything I have done in engineering. I have a lived experience of what impact engineering can have and the kind of problems it can solve.
As we sit down and rebuild where ECSA should be, how it should grow and how it can be more relevant for the engineers we are putting in place, I know what they’ve faced with in their work environment, what they need, and the roles they should be playing in trying to shape countries and economies as they make decisions that will shape these countries’ futures.
AfricaLive: How do you plan to use these experiences to work with different stakeholders that are involved in ensuring that the engineering sector has an impact in South Africa and further afield?
Dr. Bridget Ssamula: I sit at the table where decisions that drive economies are made. So the starting point has to be taking into account that our sector holds the keys to driving the economy with all the skill sets and tools domiciled in it. This involves recognizing what engineers can do given free reign and the ability to do their jobs unhindered. South Africa is one of the few countries in the world where it’s not mandatory to register membership with a professional institution like ECSA. This leaves gaps for infiltration by actors who may not operate by the tenets we believe in.
This needs looking into as we work to clearly define the role of an engineer in the economy. We also want to change the perception people have about engineers. We are more than guys and girls out there on the field with hard hats and overalls. It takes decades of planning before big projects are executed. This is a side of us that is not visible. We want to be seen as the future of economies.
We also want to avail resources to our engineers and equip them to be world-class through our accreditations which are globally recognized. As a regulator we are keen to identify what our areas of focus must be at this point in time and what emerging disciplines our country is going to need. We want to go further and identify what would-be engineering students should learn at every stage from high school all the way to college.
AfricaLive: South Africa is a challenging environment. Our recent discussions with sector leaders have brought home the growing problems facing the country such as water & energy supply, agricultural sustainability, the climate crisis and man-made issues such as corruption. How do these challenges shape the South African engineer and the sector as a whole?
Dr. Bridget Ssamula: One of the interesting things I noticed when I came to South Africa 22 years ago was how resilient it was in all sectors. It was a place where the people were resilient enough to find unique ways to survive on their own. It had all the makings of becoming a self sustaining nation in various aspects. Engineers innovated because they had no alternatives and that is the kind of environment we want to recreate.
The past successes of the country are the bedrock of a lot of the programs we have today. Things have changed since I came to this country two decades ago. We are now comparing ourselves with the global standard and also dealing with issues like climate change and inequality. Aside from the global issues, our local problems have made our engineers very agile. They can work in unique environments with specific problems like water scarcity and have the ability to create unique solutions and products.
As far as challenges go, our industry finds itself vulnerable to vices like corruption because our sector is where the largest budget allocations are made. Our projects are also a huge political ticket for any politician wanting to show progress and deliver social access. This is where engineers must hold themselves accountable. We must be above distraction and get to building communities and infrastructure. We must look to seal gaps that allow corruption to infiltrate by getting ourselves on tables where decisions are made. Once we are properly involved, then as a regulator we can carve out the market because we know who did the work and their code of conduct and practice. We have to create a ‘Chinese Wall’ between how the work gets delivered and how decisions are made in a way that promotes local economic development.
We are now coming to an end of our large infrastructure life cycles, which means they need to be rebuilt. This is at a time when funds are tight which can be a good thing because it will force us to be stricter about how money is spent. There is a lot of work being done in the project feasibility stage and getting technical minds to determine which projects have the highest impact. By highest impact, I mean impact on communities, job creation and all the aspects that are important in delivering and preparing South Africa for the next 30 years of infrastructure development that should be able to kickstart the economy.
Adversity is our mainstay as engineers. We are trained to look for problems and find ways to solve them. South Africa’s challenges help tone our abilities but we have to focus on making decisions that cater to multiple stakeholders. Engineers who do a good job always remain standing while those who don’t fall on the wayside.
AfricaLive: Building multi-stakeholder partnerships is necessary to tackle the challenges we face economically and environmentally. However, there is often a disconnect between the output of universities and the needs of industry.
What role do you believe that partnerships between the engineering sector and universities should play across the African continent?
Dr. Bridget Ssamula: Partnerships play a huge role. When I think about my journey, I was starting off my postgraduate studies because there was not much available literature in the African aviation industry. When we train students, we prepare them to go and solve problems of a diverse nature. This is why I believe there is space for research, academia and we have organizations that are doing well to build these synergies. If you think about research in pavement engineering in South Africa for instance, it’s closely linked to the fact that there is money from the funding of chairs by organizations like the South African National Roads Agency (SANRAL), SASOL, National Research Foundation (NRF).
This kind of funding has helped industries like mining, because it sponsors a couple of universities that focus on mining engineering. This funding model cultivates growth and increased synergy. It creates an ecosystem where industry needs are being identified and solutions are being tested in research and academia, using internationally proven models.
Partnerships would also help in agricultural engineering because we have largely left commercial farmers to do their own R&D and manufacturing. Funding must be directed to this specific area so that tailored research can be done. We also need to look at emerging disciplines and go deep into research work and come up with our own solutions instead of copy pasting everyone else’s.
Creating solutions that are truly applicable within our work environment will need strong partnerships between academia and research. It’s great to see the partnerships that exist between South African universities and big companies. BMW is funding a chair in automotive research at the Stellenbosch University while Volvo funds one at the University of Cape Town. This helps our automotive industry transition from fossil fuel powered vehicles, a needed change if we are to ward off massive job losses in 2030. So the need for partnerships is clear, the success patterns are clear but sadly research money is hard to come by. Private companies quickly remove research from their budgets when times are tough. This is another reason why having a large pool of actors to partner with is important.
AfricaLive: From infrastructure development to climate change mitigation, the important decisions on Africa’s future are often taken outside of the continent in, for example, the boardrooms of London or Paris. Is ensuring decisions are made locally key to shaping a sustainable future?
Dr. Bridget Ssamula: Yes this is definitely on the agenda.
One of the things that we don’t do well enough is sell our own stories about things that are being developed locally that are now going global. An example is Pratley Putty, an adhesive that was developed in South Africa currently being used globally.
Politicians also fail us because they are easily enticed by foreign products and complimentary trips abroad which they find more attractive than following up on locally made solutions.
I was in Turkey a while back and I noted their ability to create, industrialize and scale local products. Having a local product that you can sell globally can change the trajectory for any country. This is the model Rwanda is using in order to kickstart their economy. We could do that here in South Africa by promoting homegrown solutions that will help us tackle problems like load shedding. There are many people with solutions to the load shedding problem but their solutions haven’t been scaled to a point where they can produce an inverter, for instance, which can then be marketed locally.
Production and scalability work should also not be left to small businesses alone because this is another trap we fall into. There is a lot of support and funding when a company is small but that soon stops when the company grows. Funding should be continuous so that local solutions can scale properly.
AfricaLive: What does the term “green economic transition” mean in South Africa now?
Dr. Bridget Ssamula : It’s a nexus between the political will and the state of the economy. We have moved past the point where it was a great discussion to have in Paris. We are now at a place where moving towards a green economy is the only way to go. We find ourselves at a crossroads in terms of what we need to move to a much greener economy with electricity and power generation is at the epicenter of conversation.
It’s clear that our current dependency on fossil fuel energy is not sustainable. This leaves us with a difficult decision to make. Do we abandon coal in the current economy and then transition completely to energy sources we know little about? The answer here has to be a resounding no. We have to take a protracted phased approach here in South Africa. Our transition will take longer than Uganda’s and Kenya’s because South Africa has a different history. The backbone of the economy in South Africa in terms of power utilities for many decades relied on the country’s need to be self-sustaining. This means that we have to be smarter with the kind of projects that we push through and the policies that we pursue.
Though our transition may take longer, we have to be swift about it or risk falling behind even further. The automotive industry will benefit from the transition the most because our industry here is struggling. I own an electric car and I can count the number of charging stations available for me to charge my vehicle. This restricts my movements around the city and makes it tougher to navigate. This constraint affects the industry because uptake will be slow.
We must also focus on preparing people for the green economy through training. There must be a clear plan on how the hydrogen jobs will be created for example. There is a lot of work happening in the hydrogen economy and the renewable energy sectors. Though there’s lots of customized solutions being imported, I believe we can scale our own homegrown solutions and have them compete as these sectors mature locally.
Transitioning into the green economy shouldn’t just have industrial benefits, it must also be beneficial for the locals. I do often get asked why I bought an electric car in South Africa with all the challenges that come with it currently and why I continuously pursue a green energy lifestyle. We must get to a place where the vast majority of people understand why such changes are necessary and the infrastructure and solutions that will manage this transition to cleaner energy will create opportunities.