Engineers rise to the sustainability challenge in Africa


The 27th annual FIDIC Africa infrastructure conference strikes an optimistic note in the face of the challenges facing the continent.

Infrastructure professionals from across Africa came together on 18-19 May 2021 to discuss the critical challenges facing the infrastructure sector including the Covid-19 pandemic, climate change, and corruption.

The 27th annual FIDIC Africa infrastructure conference discussed the role of the consulting engineer in a changing world and the issue of climate change, sustainability and resilience was at the top of the delegates’ agenda. The conference heard speaker after speaker highlight that the increasing challenges facing the continent of Africa could only be addressed effectively through availability of green and climate-resilient funding and investment and through engineering solutions supporting sustainable built environment and infrastructure development.

Speaking at the conference, which took place online, FIDIC chief executive Dr Nelson Ogunshakin, said that the Covid pandemic had led to a global halt in construction and Africa was set to remain stagnant this year. “Low business profitability is expected for one to two years, while employment, liquidity, cash flows and margins remain under pressure,” Ogunshakin said.

Looking ahead positively, Ogunshakin said that the situation nevertheless presented an opportunity to build and transform energy, environment, health and water infrastructure and their management. That potential was made clear by Ogunshakin in his speech to conference delegates. “Africa is the second most populous and second-largest continent with a young population and has large infrastructure gaps in roads, internet connectivity, major dams and the built environment. About 30% of global natural resources are present in Africa, so we can see that the continent has people, landmass and natural resources,” he said.

Speaking at the conference, United Nations Environment Programme Africa regional climate change coordinator Dr Richard Munang said that the engineering sector was key to addressing the challenges facing Africa. “Engineering, which is at the core of human civilisation worldwide, must provide solutions that lead to the most optimal outcomes and maximise the social and economic benefits and minimise risks and costs,” he said.

Munang highlighted the significant gaps in Africa’s built environment and infrastructure, with the continent having the lowest density of paved roads globally and being the only region where the state of roads and railroads have declined over the past 20 years. This meant that the continent was facing a 50-year gap at current development rates to close in on world averages, Munang said.

Highlighting the scale of the challenge, Munang said: “Two-thirds of the continent’s population are without power, 620 million citizens are energy impoverished and not connected to grid electricity, while power costs can be up to three to six times higher than for grid electricity consumers across the globe.” And now Covid-19 was a new variable in an already precarious scenario, which is likely to be exacerbated by climate change, said Munang.

The conference heard that African engineers needed to prioritise resilient and green infrastructure and bring their expertise and ingenuity to bear to help solve the continent’s challenges. Engineers had to take centre stage in developing competitive and marketable solutions that fit the dynamics of a changing environment while engaging opinion formers, governments and politicians on the best ways to build a sustainable economic future.

Fidic Africa president and Herbco Technical Services managing director Kabelo Motswagole made the point that a 2019 study of engineering capacity in Southern Africa highlighted that challenge is not having insufficient qualified engineers, but in the application of this knowledge. “Capacity constraints have been exacerbated by ailing economies and endemic corruption in various countries, as well as requirements from lenders that exclude or marginalise local engineers leading to solutions unsuitable for local conditions, with sustainability and maintenance then becoming an issue,” he said.

The conference took a serious look at the role of consulting engineers in a changing world, and certainly did not shirk from addressing issues like transparency and corruption. FIDIC was calling for African countries to invest 5-6% of their gross domestic product on infrastructure, higher than the 3.5% required on average by the rest of the world’s countries, but this was being threatened by a lack of transparency in certain areas.

“We must be mindful of corruption, which is a challenge in many parts of the world and hinders progress. Business integrity, responsibility, performance, capability and responsible government leadership and responsible management are critical to address this,” said Ogunshakin. “Reducing corruption by 40% to 50% – although FIDIC wants to see it eradicated – will provide large amounts of funds to invest in real infrastructure development and capacity building to ensure the sustainability of the continent,” he said.

While the global political, social and environmental landscape would inevitably by changed by the Covid pandemic, the new normal was likely to be green, with increasing demands for sustainable development, the conference heard. “How we should adapt and build sustainable infrastructure that will be suitable for the future will be crucial,” Ogunshakin said.

You can read more about the FIDIC Africa infrastructure conference in this article on the Engineering News website.