The Africa President, International Federation of Consulting Engineers (FIDIC), Kabelo Motswagole, an engineer, who is also the Managing Director of Herbco Technical Services, Botswana, was in Nigeria recently for the 28th yearly FIDIC Africa Infrastructure Conference. He spoke with GBENGA SALAU during the conference on bridging infrastructure deficits in Africa, among other issues.
FIDIC tend not to ring a bell, can you tell us more about FIDIC as a group?
The simplest way to look at FIDIC is that it is an International Federation of Consulting Engineers. It is a group for consulting engineers to put systems in place. We as consulting engineers in Africa are affiliated to FIDIC, the international body, and subscribes to their ethics. And the main objective is to promote the business of consulting engineers putting in place ethical standards, and integrity management standard. So that when we talk to stakeholders, we can stand tall to say this is what we stand for. Our vision is to become the recognised voice of consulting engineers globally. This then get cascaded down to regions. As we are now, we are in the Africa region of FIDIC.
Therefore, as FIDIC Africa, our vision is to become the recognised voice of consulting engineers in Africa. That recognition does not come easy, it comes with hard work. That is really what we are about. One of the things that help us to do this in FIDIC is to put together documents and FIDIC has been doing this for over 100 years; contract documents that manage infrastructures in Nigeria. Most of the infrastructures in Nigeria are managed by FIDIC conditions of contract.
And the relationship between Nigeria and FIDIC is that there is an association in Nigeria called Association of Consulting Engineers in Nigeria (ACEN) and it is affiliated to FIDIC.
What goal is the annual conference achieving?
The yearly conference is to achieve a number of things; primarily among this is to come together as fellows. There is no prize to that, seeing and being able to interact with each other. But on the business side, the idea is to talk about our experiences, so that we can find solutions among the other challenges and achievement. We are not here to lick wounds. We are here to say what have we achieved, what can we achieve better, what are the challenges and what are the solutions. Also, we felt we cannot be the voice of consulting engineers by just talking to ourselves. So we reach out to stakeholders, people that employed us, government, private sectors, and those providing funding to come to see what we do. Please, bring what you thing we could do better so that we can build resilience infrastructure that is relevant to the people. That is the purpose of this conference that we consider very important.
How can Africa bridge its infrastructure deficit?
That’s a million dollar question, because sometimes it is sadden to see the deficit that we have in terms of infrastructure and COVID brought it to the surface in a very raw version. We couldn’t provide clean water because one of the key things during COVID-19 was to wash hands. The hospitals were televant in fight against COVID-19, food was the big challenge but the roads from the farm to the market are terrible. And this really exposed us in a big way. But where does the problem lies, as consulting engineers we would like to say, if you have development to do, if you have infrastructure development to do, we are the trusted partners, we would help you do that. But the big question is, why are the money from the resources in Africa not been channeled into infrastructure, because infrastructure has been recognized not by me and you, but by the government, World Bank that it is the enabler for economic development. It is not economic development first and then infrastructure.
It is a heartbreaking situation that we have resources. In Botswana, we have a lot of diamonds that get exported for adding value. It is only now that we are trying to reserve the trend. And this is very true in many Africa countries, we have resources, but we are not processing them internally. It is being processed elsewhere and we are buying them at high price in return.
Of course, there is poor management of our resources. We have leadership deficit in Africa and that is why we try to encourage engineers to go into politics as we hope that they will understand that the only purpose of being a leader is to provide for the people, but if Africans can get that and wake up to the fact that the guys from development economies do not have our interest at heart, but we get deceived the most times.
The interest of the persons is not to develop Africa, but to get as much resources as possible away from Africa. It is a question unfortunately that cannot be addressed by engineers. It is a question that the society must try to address, stand up, wake up to and take control of our resources and make sure that people elected into power can deliver. And getting our resources to work for us, that really is the big thing. It is an emotional issue for some of us who have travelled across Africa and Europe and you see what our resources are doing in developing other countries at the expense of Africa. COVID has given up a wake up call and a lot of countries are going to change, empowering your people and ensuring that things are done within your border. The local engineers must be the ones at the forefront of the development so that they can go on to maintain the infrastructure. We cannot afford to import skills. Once the border is closed, what are you doing and reason some of us are passionate about FIDIC and ethics.
In terms of level of advocate and intervene, what level of advocacy is FIDIC championing as part of efforts to build the infrastructure deficit?
You know in Africa, the infrastructure deficit is huge whether is road, rail, water, hospitals and schools. The amount of money required to catch up is huge like we are talking about trillions of dollars. So one thing within the organisation is that we provide tools that enable governments and organisations to deliver on projects. We provide the skills and help research, coming up with number and putting up numbers together to say what do they mean and how do we help. And one of the ways we help as consulting engineers is to be innovative, usage of local materials in a cheap way.
One of the things advocated for is usage of labour based technology to bring down the cost of doing infrastructure. Let us face it, like I said earlier, typically from the farm to the market, that is the beginning of critical infrastructure and if that road is un-trafficable, then the food will not reach the people, people will not get to the hospitals. So, we have to use our materials to be able to construct cheaply through locally available materials in a way that enables people to travel. Our advocacy is really to say to government to plan well, suggesting alternative to funding and then procure properly. One of the things we advocate for in FIDIC is called quality based selection of consulting engineers, because a lot of African government are being deceived by going for least cost selection. They are blinded by the cost, they do not look at the quality and part of the major problems arise from there.
Is this your first time in Nigeria?
Yes, this is my first time in Nigeria
And how has your experience been so far?
It has been great. I had a great reception at the airport. I was really impressed with the reception. And on my way from the airport to the hotel, I was impressed by the long bridges that we drove on. In Botswana, we don’t really have water, so our bridges are not long and the people are very wonderful, very welcoming and friendly. So far, it has been great.
When you look at how Africans are painted outside the continent, with your experience in Nigeria, how do you feel?
It reminds me of when we had conference in Mali a few years ago. The outcry from everybody because of what was coming from the media was deafening some people didn’t go and they regretted it. Nigeria is the same, the media portrays us, I suppose it was the same in all countries. When we went to Uganda, it was the same. So far, it is better and completely different from what the media has portrayed and what they want people to believe. It has been wonderful and great, granted that I have not gone the market, which is where really the heart beat of the society is. I will like to take a visit to the market before I go. It has been quite a contrast from how Nigeria is portrayed.
This interview was originally published in Guardian.