The growing challenges in Africa can be addressed through the availability of green and climate-resilience funding, as well as impact investment, if engineering solutions support sustainable, environment-friendly and climate resilient built environment and infrastructure development, speakers participating in global industry body the International Federation of Consulting Engineers' (Fidic's) Africa Infrastructure Conference, on May 18, have said.
The Covid-19 pandemic led to a halt in construction worldwide and, in Africa, the industry looks 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, Fidic CEO Dr Nelson Ogunshakin noted.
However, this also presents an opportunity to build and transform energy, environment, health and water infrastructure and their management, he added.
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, said United Nations Environment Programme Africa regional climate change coordinator Dr Richard Munang.
"Professional engineering is universally associated with providing solutions to complex developmental challenges, yet Africa is a continent of adversity. Challenges and engineering solutions are like opposite poles of a magnet: they attract, and Africa has significant gaps in its built environment and infrastructure," he stated.
Ogunshakin contextualised the investment case by noting that 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, meaning that the continent has people and landmass and natural resources.
The problems facing Africa include 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, presenting a 50-year gap at current development rates to close in on world averages, said Munang.
"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. Paradoxically, there are also unprecedented power outages, and low- and middle-income countries, the majority of which are in Africa, lose up to $300-billion a year as a result of unstable power supply.
"Further, agriculture, which is the most inclusive and potentially catalytic sector that employs up to 65% of the African workforce who derive their livelihoods from agriculture, loses up to 37% of produce owing to inadequate post-harvest processing, amounting to $48-billion a year of lost income, enterprise costs and revenue losses for regional economies," he said.
Covid-19 is a new variable in the already precarious scenario, which will be exacerbated by climate change, Munang added.
African engineers must prioritise resilient infrastructure and principles of green infrastructure, such as rehabilitation work to recover natural systems, such as wetlands that can act as a buffer against excess runoff and the rehabilitation of mangroves to act as storm breaks.
"The application of green infrastructure solutions is also cost effective, and up to six times cheaper than conventional solutions," he added.
"It is a paradox that, in a region where 257-million people will go hungry each day, $48-billion post-harvest losses are experienced in the crucial agriculture sector. Engineering has to think hard for solutions to these challenges that can lead to the creation of diverse enterprise and social technologies to tap into this loss."
Munang, listing priorities that the engineering industry in Africa must focus on, says the disruptive application of innovative technologies is necessary. Global engineering knowledge resources and digital tools, as well as data and information from reputable schools and institutions of engineering, are available and accessible.
This will enable better modelling and simulation to assess impacts of projects and ensure maximum macro- and microeconomic returns, and bolster planning, decision-making and the value of projects.
"Engineering must also make the informal sector its core market for its solutions. It is not possible to ignore the largest and most important sector of your target market, with up to 80% of economic value in Africa driven through the informal sector and solutions cannot ignore the bulk of the population," he said.
Engineers must devise competitive and marketable solutions that fit the dynamics of this segment of the economy.
The important context, however, is that there is a disconnect between policy development and implementation. There are policies broadly in place to curb plastic pollution, yet the continent is the second most polluted continent. Engineers must make the context count and determine how engineering can adapt to unlock inclusive solutions.
"One is the fixation on governments as primary clients; the problems solved and people affected should be in the centre."
Fidic Africa president and Herbco Technical Services MD Kabelo Motswagole highlighted that a 2019 study of engineering capacity in Southern Africa showed that the challenge is not having insufficient qualified engineers, but in the application of this knowledge.
"This highlights that there are insufficient opportunities for local skills development. 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 and lead to solutions unsuitable for local conditions, and sustainability and maintenance then become an issue, if there is no effort to build the local capacity required," he says.
The conference was focused on the role of consulting engineers in the changing world, and Ogunshakin said Fidic Africa is looking at issues in infrastructure, sustainable development, procurement, integrity, ethical project implementation, disruptions and opportunities, and the role of the consulting engineer.
Fidic is advocating for African countries to invest 5% to 6% of their gross domestic product in infrastructure, higher than the 3.5% required on average by the rest of the world's countries.
"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.
"Reducing corruption by 40% to 50% - although Fidic advocates for its eradication - will provide large amounts of funds to invest in real infrastructure development and capacity building to ensure the sustainability of the continent," he said.
"Practitioners in the industry are part of a global industry, but must also understand local, national and regional nuances, and must talk to asset owners, banks, governments, developers, and industries and users, businesses and cities, while consulting services are also important for project development, asset management and outcomes of projects. All these are critical and the role of the consulting engineer cuts across all of them," Ogunshakin notes.
"The global landscape will be changed as a result of Covid-19, and the new world may not be blue, but green, with demands for sustainable development, and how we should adapt and build infrastructure that will be suitable for the future," he says.