THE Zimbabwe Institution of Engineers (ZIE) recently commemorated the World Engineering Day at a time engineers are facing a number of challenges prompted by the deepening economic crisis. Business reporter Kudzai Kuwaza (KK) this week caught up with ZIE chief executive Sanzan Diarra (SD) to discuss the commemorations and challenges the profession faces as a result of the economic headwinds. Below are excerpts of the interview:
KK: Can you start by telling us about World Engineering Day.
SD: World Engineering Day is a day that has been identified by the World Federation of Engineering Organisation (WFEO), which is an organisation which houses quite a number of engineering organisations across the globe and based in Paris, France.
Together with Unesco, they have identified that day which is actually the founding date of WFEO and for the first time they proclaimed the day as World Federation Engineering Day, which is going to be celebrated from this year on across the globe by all engineers, technicians and other engineering professionals.
In Zimbabwe, we had prepared a programme for our own celebrations on the very day which was the 4th of March. Unfortunately, we could not carry out the programme on that day, so we postponed it to a later date to be announced in due course.
In the meantime, we managed to get some of our senior engineers on radio on Tuesday evening (last week) and also managed to put an article in the newspaper on Wednesday (last week) on the day of the commemorations.
We also plan to celebrate the day throughout the month of March by profiling our senior engineers in the newspapers and carrying out various activities to mark or celebrate the spirit of the 4th of March in areas like Hwange, Manicaland, Mashonaland, Masvingo, Midlands, Matabeleland and Kariba.
KK: What have been your achievements over the last decade?
SD: ZIE has been existing for almost 70 years now and the last 10 years is just a small portion of the life of ZIE. ZIE had managed during that time to bring engineers together.
One big achievement I would say is the effort that ZIE made to push for the registration of engineers in this country. Before 2009, there was no registration of engineers in Zimbabwe and the profession was open to all.
Anyone could call themselves an engineer or a technician but by pushing for an Engineering Act, ZIE has managed to get government to take interest in the registration of engineers and to come up eventually with an Engineering Act which has now been put in place. The body is a government body and is referred to as the Engineering Council of Zimbabwe.
Engineering Council of Zimbabwe is a ZIE project. Many people do not know this. We have been working on this project since the late 1980s when we started this project. That is a great achievement because now you have someone calling himself or herself an engineer only if he or she has been registered with this institution and licensed by the council.
In that way also we have managed to cut down on bogus professionals.
KK: How have company closures affected the progress of ZIE?
SD: The problem is very serious because one of the objectives of the institution is to assist engineering faculties and polytechnics that have engineering programmes to help find places for students on attachments before they graduate.
Now it has become so difficult for ZIE to carry out that mandate because the number of firms has reduced so much and you can even send only one student per year on attachment.
We have lost the plot and we cannot fulfil that mandate which should not be the case. I should be in a position sitting here in this office answering calls from principals saying “Dr I have this number of students to be placed in these number of engineering areas can you assist”, and I should be able to say ‘yes just give me their names and the area of specialisation’, but now we can’t do that anymore’’.
KK: What has been the impact of power cuts?
SD: Power cuts have affected our industry especially those who are in the manufacturing and construction sectors. It is across the board. Power cuts have brought a lot of problems in the development of the engineering sector, for instance, I visited a new dam under construction about three weeks ago. They had to bring big generators which could allow them to do the operation which is something you do not expect to see on a construction site of such magnitude.
The whole of 2018 and 2019 was a nightmare because we needed the generators to power the whole building here which is quite a challenge.
KK: How does the use of generators affect your cost structure in your day-to-day operations?
SD: First of all, we have to struggle to get fuel and when we get it its expensive. Diesel is more expensive than petrol and there was a time when we were required to carry the generators to the fuel station since it was not allowed to use jerrycans and if you tell them to fill the jerrycan they would ask you to bring the generator.
We need 20 litres a day to power this small generator and like I said the whole of 2018 and 2019 we used to go even the whole week without power and when the generator breaks down this means no work here to power our computers and we do not have the option of using solar so if we do not have generators, people will just be sitting and doing no work. Our work is on our data base and if we cannot access it there is no work.
KK: What has been the impact of inflation on your institution?
SD: Inflation has been quite an issue and like everyone else we feel the pinch of the inflation. Our professionals make a price quotation today and by the time they get paid the money would have seriously lost value which is a cause of concern in the engineering business. It is affecting us across the board, our members and the contractors.
Everybody is affected by inflation. It is a national calamity which needs to be solved sooner rather than later. No business can develop under this rate of inflation.
KK: What is your take on the calls for Zimbabwe to adopt the rand for currency stability?
SD: You know what, there is this saying from a Chinese leader called Deng Xiaoping when he said “I do not care what the colour of a cat is, as long as it can catch mice”. So to us even if it is the Zimbabwean dollar, rand or the US dollar, we do not mind, but what we need is a stable currency which will enable our members and the rest of the society to carry out their businesses and that will allow them to get profits.That can be achieved only if we have a stable currency.
KK: Do you think the de-dollarisation drive by government is working?
SD: I do not think this is a fair way to go about de-dollarisation when some service stations are allowed to sell fuel in foreign currency and those service stations that sell in forex always have fuel, but there are no queues yet the few fuel stations that sell in the Zimbabwean dollar are now overwhelmed with chaos of queues all over. It is not healthy for the economy. I will encourage the government to try and relook that policy because it is not a healthy situation at all.
KK: Local contractors have complained that they are not getting a fair share when it comes to national projects. Is this a problem that still persists?
SD: This is a very serious problem and this is something we have been very vocal about. To get to today in Zimbabwe where we have over 7 000 engineering professionals in our registers out of those 7 000 we have 3 000 that are professionally registered.
So when you have all these kind of human resources, it baffles me why all these highly qualified professionals can be bypassed at the expense of foreign practitioners to do the job that our local children and professionals can do, probably at a cheaper price.
We are not saying the government should close boarders to foreign engineers and technicians but when there is an opportunity especially in national infrastructure development we expect government to first consider the local professionals and let them work side by side with foreign professionals.
KK: How has the brain drain affected the engineering sector?
SD: It has impacted a great deal in Zimbabwe and if you could do a census of those who are present on the ground you will find out that we have young engineers, those who from students up to the level of graduation and to the level of age 35 there about.
Anything between 35, 45 and around 50, they are out of the country and that is the most productive age where one can give the best out of himself or herself.
KK: How prevalent is corruption in your profession?
SD: The engineering circles are not at all immune or are not hedged against corruption. The largest corruption happens in the construction sector because that is where the big money is. We have been going around recently trying to teach our members to understand corruption and to avoid it.
You do not need to be corrupt as an engineer, by signing to corruption, you are promoting poverty in your country. There is no gain in corruption. We preach this gospel to our members.
KK: Can you tell us about the conference you will be holding this year?
SD: The conference this year is going to be held in Bulawayo at the end of September. It is the first time to hold it in Bulawayo and we have not decided on the theme yet but it will be based on rebuilding Zimbabwe. Zimbabwe is torn and needs to be rebuilt.
KK: What does the future hold for ZIE?
SD: We should look at the future positively because otherwise we will not exist, when you wake up in the morning you have two choices. The first is things are bleak and I will rather not be part of it.
The second one is things are bleak but let me go and do my bit. I think the majority of our members who are here on the ground should learn to live in that positive mindset and things will change for the better or the good of all Zimbabweans.