Zutari’s Tony Igboamalu, winner of the SAPSA’s 2020 Young Engineering Professional of the Year award, on driving growth through infrastructure development

Q: What does this award represent for the youth in terms of engineering and infrastructure development?

A: It’s an honour for all young and emerging engineers to be recognised among their peers for their endeavours in Africa, which still has immense infrastructure needs. The award represents the role that we have to play in the development of the continent and societal upliftment, in providing sustainable engineering solutions that will have an impact on wealth creation. There are also the obvious benefits of individual professional development and careers being boosted.

Q: In the wake of COVID-19, how can infrastructure development advance Africa’s economic recovery?
A: Infrastructure development plays a critical role in the African economy in terms of achieving the AU’s African Agenda 2063 goals, and the creation of ‘the Africa we want’. Paving the way for an inclusive post-COVID economic recovery is going to be more dependent on technology, and the manner in which the continent has embraced and used online meeting platforms during the pandemic has already brought us closer to one another and is shaping the way we view things for the future. We have, for example, been sharing how we can integrate new technologies during the design, construction and operational phase of an infrastructure asset to significantly lower costs while improving functionality. AI, 5G, new materials and renewable-energy technology are a few of the innovations that will be advancing the infrastructure landscape.

Q: What have we learnt from COVID-19 that will impact on the future of Africa’s infrastructure planning and needs?
A: COVID-19 has been a huge learning curve in how we can improve the way we manage or plan for the continent’s infrastructure needs. The emergence and unprecedented transmission of the novel coronavirus has laid bare the gaping cracks in our societal systems and highlighted the need for a health-aligned societal reset. The inequitable access to the physical and social infrastructure that supports health, such as waste and water, healthy food and safe physical activity, contributes to increased vulnerability to all disease. This means that our built environments, which are ever-impacted by increased urbanisation, will remain continuously in flux, and we need to be more flexible to cater for such unplanned growth.

Q: What type of infrastructure projects are important for the continent’s future social needs?
A: Africa is on the brink of a serious infrastructure deficit. Consider that some 33% of Africans currently live below the poverty line – a  massive part of eradicating poverty requires the provision of sustainable infrastructure. Future challenges – inclusive of recovery from COVID-19 – will be scarcity of food and water. SA, for example, is set to have a water deficit of 17% by 2030. Hence we need to look at the entire circle of needs around water, agriculture, energy and telecoms. Some that will improve the livelihood of Africans in the future. It has become more important than ever, following the pandemic, for governments to prioritise healthcare systems over all other infrastructure to avoid losing critical skills in society.

Q: Has climate change taken a backseat in the wake of COVID-19?
A: Climate change will always be an important factor that impacts on water, agriculture and related infrastructure needs. The most influenced is water scarcity or drought, which could result in a total shutdown of an economy. Think of a situation where there is no access to water… It has a negative impact on food supply, energy generation and disruptions to the daily lifestyle of a community. COVID-19 has not pushed the climate change agenda back; it is still considered crucial for Africa’s development.

Q: Given the needs for remote working and more online operations, what sort of technology infrastructure investment is required?
A: With the high demand of remote working, which I believe will be the new way of living post-COVID, we’re going to need more efficient and stronger/faster IT networks, and this emphasises the speedier roll-out of 5G. All infrastructure must cater for this and be factored in at conceptualisation. Existing plans also need to be rejigged to ensure that they’re as flexible as possible to cater for whatever technology may follow 5G.

Q: Does Africa have the potential to lead the world in terms of infrastructure development?
A: Yes, Africa has the required resources to lead the world in terms of infrastructure development. However, the biggest challenge we have is mismanagement of funds and availability of resources. I think African governments need to address and implement policies to protect public funding and resources to ensure sustainability. This means that our young engineers have a catalyst role to play in informing and introducing fresh new ideas that will create a conducive and sustainable infrastructure environment for all Africans.

By Kerry Dimmer
Image: Francesca Cockcroft

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