ENGINEERS WITHOUT BORDERS SOUTH AFRICA
I had the honor of interviewing Michelle Low, a lecturer, PhD candidate, researcher, engineer and co-founder of EWB-SA. She is also fondly known as the Backstage Queen by those in the EWB-SA family. Low is one of the phenomenal women who are part of the EWB-SA team and is the perfect person to interview for Women's Month.
She loves to learn and help and can hardly tolerate it when she is not contributing to the greater good. She makes undefinable things happen at EWB-SA, her work can scarcely be placed into a specific category; such is the range of her skills and interests. Her tagline is #BeHappy and her optimism is reflected in all that she does.
Low is able to find the work-life balance, that we all strive for, between her academic career at the University of the Witwatersrand, her work at EWB-SA and her personal life. Her maturity, sensitivity, knowledge and skill are reflected throughout the entire interview and her words of advice are not be ignored.
1) Describe your engineering journey.
I am at the part where I am lecturing at the School of Chemical and Metallurgical engineering, while pursuing my PhD in Chemical Engineering both at the University of the Witwatersrand, Wits. Thus far, my engineering journey has been more on an academic level and imparting what I know to students. I still have much to learn, although it has been enjoyable even though there are challenges.
2) What prompted you to start EWB-Wits and subsequently to co-found EWB-SA?
In 2010, David Ming sought a way in which student engineers could use their skills to serve local communities. I went to the SAWomEng conference that year and had learnt that there was a student chapter at UCT. David then decided to start one at Wits. I assisted from day one because we wanted to make a space where student engineers can apply what they have learnt, and at the same time help uplift developing communities. EWB-SA was a result of wanting to ensure that there would be a common organization for all of the student chapters, such that they would belong to one body, not operate by themselves, and to learn from one another. The energy from Wiebke was contagious, and gave me the drive to see EWB-SA thrive.
3) Describe what your work at EWB-SA entails.
I have been involved since its inception; my role is actually embedded into many places and no distinct place. If you had to put it in a box, I assisted with the administrative backbone of the organization. Currently I am on the Annual National Leadership Summit Team, assisting with organizing the venue and programme.
4) What sparked your interest in community development?
I might be making a hasty generalization, but I believe that everyone has an interest in giving back and in community development. Given the time in your life, opportunities come up and you take them. I saw that David wanted to start EWB-Wits and I believed in its vision to want to help grow the organization into one that could develop communities using engineering skills.
5) How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
My skills have been more on a problem solving aspect with respect to the administrative issues related to EWB-SA since its inception.
6) What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
I have acquired a sense of pride, seeing the whole organization grow, and that is a result of working in a team, a team in which I could trust and believe in. There are many nifty little things that I have been exposed to working with different people, from hiring of employees to social media.
7) How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
Academia is quite flexible; sometimes you do have time to set aside, time in which you are not researching, lecturing or attending to administrative duties. The balance is that one should always see to getting things done, including “me-time”, and determine what is urgent and important, or just urgent but not important. Therefore, you will catch me on weekends doing either academic or EWB-SA work.
8) How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering space?
In the engineering space which I have been in, that is in academia (research and lecturing) and in the non-profit space, to this date it has been positive. There is support from both female and male colleagues, it really feels comfortable.
9) Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
On the administrative side, I am assisting EWB-SA with their annual national summit. Every year it becomes interesting and it keeps on getting bigger and better.
10) What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?
As a student in engineering you will be challenged; challenged to think abstractly, challenged to push your understanding. Once you graduate, the subject matter may change over the years, however, that thinking, that limit pushing perseverance are qualities which you take with you. Don’t let your degree title or your job descriptions define you, you never know what type of career path you will take. However, you will be a problem solver and implementer. Bear in mind that you also need to understand what the problem is and at the same time design it with what is actually needed than what you think is wanted.
Michelle Low interviewed by Dhruti Dheda
It is always incredible to see young people stepping up to improve themselves so that they can improve their communities. One such event, The Project Leadership Lab, headed by Engineers Without Borders South Africa (EWB-SA), worked with local university chapters across the country to set our chapter project teams on a higher level. The events were geared at teaching skills that were essential to creating successful projects and therefore boosting their impact on communities.
The last Project Leadership Lab took place, one Saturday morning on the 23rd of July, at the University of Pretoria with Engineers Without Borders University of Pretoria (EWB-UP). EWB-UP set up an incredible event to host project teams from EWB-UP and Engineers Without Borders Tshwane University of Technology (EWB-TUT), our latest addition to the EWB-SA family. 36 project members listened to talks about the importance of personal branding by Elaine Porter from WSP | Parsons Brinckerhoff; how to integrate business model canvas thinking and strategic planning into project work by Koketso Rampyapedi, from whY Generation Management Consulting; and, the application of human-centred design thinking in stakeholder management by Yetunde Dada from EWB-SA.
Sonwabile Sigenu, the Chairperson of EWB-UP, gave us some feedback about what the project team members learnt on the day: “The event was a huge success in that it challenged each of us to continue our personal growth as young leaders and professionals. I got to value the power of a personal brand and how it can be incorporated into many things beyond yourself, like in developing the core purpose of a business or an NGO. We also learnt that human-centred design solutions should not even be debatable in this day. This event made it clear that such solutions are key to sustainability.”
The Project Leadership Lab fell in line with our mandate of empowering engineers so that they can empower their communities. We’ll be continuing with chapter engagements in future.
Written by Yetunde Dada
The vision for The Dream Brew was conceived early in 2016. At the time, our goal was to host an event where we could inspire engineers to dream, to challenge engineers to follow their hearts, and to educate them of the work of EWB-SA and open up opportunities for collaboration.
Over the next few months, The Dream Brew gained momentum. A small team of Engineers began planning, sourcing venues, contacting speakers, and learning how to host an event of the highest calibre. Meetings took place in a small pub in Newlands in the evenings, but the real work took place late into the night, week after week.
The event took place on 1 August 2016 at Beerhouse, a legendary social hub on Long Street, in Cape Town’s city centre. Doors opened at 18h30, with the pre-sale of tickets almost a complete sell out. By 19h30, the venue was packed with 80 guests, which included engineering professionals and students, scientists, lawyers, programmers, business executives and entrepreneurs. The venue was electric!
Guest speakers for the night included Adriana Marias (MARS 1), Blake Dyason (Love our Trails), Felix Holm (Maker Stations) and Wiebke Toussaint (CEO and co-founder at EWB-SA). Each shared from their personal journey, captured the guest’s imagination, and perhaps gave permission for each person to explore their own personal journey.
The Dream Brew was an overwhelming success, and has opened up a host of new opportunities for collaboration and future initiatives for EWB-SA. The feedback which continues being received has been incredible, and we are so overwhelmed with the support. The Dream Brew will be back, and will soon be venturing out into unchartered waters. This is only the beginning!
* From the EWB-SA team, we would like to most humbly thank Beerhouse, Adriana Marias, Blake Dyason, Felix Holm, Curtis Chong, and the entire EWB-SA team who supported the event. To everyone who attended, we cannot thank you enough for your support. We welcome your feedback, and look forward to seeing you soon – at the next Dream Brew.
Written by Sammie Chimusoro and Simon Starck
Photographs courtesy of Curtis Pow Chong. Follow @curtipowow on Instagram
I had the pleasure of interviewing up and coming engineering star, Masedi Mmonatau. Mmonatau is a former member of EWB-Wits and co-founder of EWB-Bots, she is currently completing the MSc (Master of Science) in chemical engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand. Mmonatau is bright, determined and passionate about all that she does and this is clearly reflected in her response to the interview questions.
Well I don't really have that much of an engineering journey as I have not had full work experience. I did my undergraduate degree in chemical engineer at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and now I am completing my Masters (MSc) in chemical engineering at the same university. My main research focus is in producing activated carbon fibers for recovering platinum group metals from dilute solutions.
2) What prompted you to start EWB-Bots?
The idea of EWB has always been something that I was attracted to ever since I heard about it at Wits. It is interesting and exciting to know that we can aid in community development as engineers. EWB is a platform which bridges community development, engineering practices (practical work) with student engagement. I liked the idea that it allows the youth to be involved in uplifting, caring and rebuilding their environment. EWB promotes value adding hands on solutions that involve both aspiring and working engineers in bettering the environment and community we live in, and eventually the world at large. I saw it as an opportunity which I wished could grow back at home. Like they say, charity begins at home.
3) What sparked your interest in community development?
I have always had a passion for community development, it just didn't make sense not to help if you could help. One of my favourite quotes is "a candle loses no light by lighting another" (by James Keller)
4) How have you been able to use your skills as an engineer to assist/empower communities?
I feel like there is still lots to do as an engineer, and at the current moment I do not see that major defining task/s that I can say "my skill in this and that has helped to assist and empower a community". I believe that at the current moment I am learning more about the communities I would like to work in and also learning to work with engineers from different skills set to see how we can best assist the community and find sustainable solutions to their problems.What I have learnt thus far through assisting communities is that, the people of a community are not that interested in our technical know how, but it is important that your skills as an engineer relate directly to the needs of the community. Through being involved in EWB projects, I believe my communication and teamwork skills have played a very crucial part in helping communities.
5) Are there any interesting community based projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
At the current moment no, I am more focused on building/growing a strong EWB-Bots chapter and a student chapter EWB-BIUST (Botswana International University of Science and Technology).
To be patient with themselves and with others. "Rome wasn't built in a day." "Think big, start small and build deep." Continuously think about what you are passionate about, what you want to achieve and what you will need to achieve it.
Masedi Mmonatau interviewed by Dhruti Dheda
The EWB-SA Mining for Shared Value work group hosted a screening of “The Shore Break” documentary at the trendy Worley Parsons Melrose Arch boardroom on the 26th of May 2016. The event was hosted in association with the Young Professionals Council of the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. The rather breezy evening presented a perfect setting for the documentary which depicted the complexities surrounding a proposed titanium mine and smelter in a coastal community.
The leading characters in the documentary are the two Pondo cousins who have opposing visions of the future of their land. Nonhle wants to preserve the land and ensure sustainable development. She is supported by a local social worker and some of the community elders who strongly believe that the land belongs to their ancestors. Qunya is a very vocal supporter of the mining project and he believes that mining and the construction of a highway will help boost the economy of the community.
As the screening occurred it became apparent that there is no clear line between who is right and who is wrong. Some of the moments had dry humour associated with them but this opened a platform for solid discussions to take place during the break.
The panel discussion hosted by Nikita Vala was centralised around a few questions that arose from the film. The most critical of these being
1) What constitutes 'sufficient' community consultation and engagement and how do you know that you have achieved it?
2) What is the role of engineers in ensuring ethical conduct in the mining and minerals processing sector?
Panelists Tshepho Mmola (Head of SAIMM YPC) , Xolisile (Former Leader of MSV) and Murendeni(Founder of MSV)
A unanimous conclusion that was brought forward was that community participation needs a more vigorous involvement of the engineers, lawyers and social workers that work in and around the mining space. These professionals need more platforms such as the screening to engage with each other about these matters. Through these platforms, solutions and processes can be generated and put forward to relevant stake holders. This will ensure that a visible impact is made by the young and engaged professionals within the mining space.
- Nomathemba Thabethe
At EWB-SA, our slogan is to empower engineers to empower communities. We provide a platform for members to engage with other volunteers, community members, professionals and organisations, with the idea of developing South Africa for the better. We build physical structures, relationships — most importantly we develop ourselves — and we demonstrate to others the impact that contemporary, socially aware, professionals can play in modern society.
Amongst the urgency of everyday life, amid our own projects and communities, I sometimes overlook that we live in a rather special place in the world, and we are part of a larger picture. As EWB-SA members, not only do we work in SA for local stakeholders, our local projects often underlie universal applications. The insights and solutions that we build are often applicable elsewhere, in different contexts, adapted and used by different stakeholders. Our work requires us to be globally responsible professionals.
This realisation dawned on me, whilst sitting on a bus in downtown Denver, Colorado, in the middle of March, on my way to attend two events as a representative of EWB-SA:
EWB-I and EWB-USA hosted their second EWB Global Forum, at the Sheraton Downtown Denver Hotel, for EWB member associations to attend with the intention of sharing insights and best practices from around the world. This event was supported by the Alcoa Foundation. In addition to EWB-SA, EWB member s from the following nations attended the Global Forum:EWB-Australia
All members gave presentations to the forum about their respective associations and the work that they do. Not only was it interesting to learn about what other EWB associations do and how each member operates in their own special way, a highlight for me was to see how similar we all are, irrespective of differences in geographic location, age, political and financial constraints.
The end of the Global forum signaled the beginning of EWB-USA’s 2016 international conference, which kicked off with a screening of the movie Poverty Inc . Panel discussions proceeded after the screening, promoting a rather lively debate about the global aid system, the effectiveness of development work, and the unique role of EWB in modern society.
This year, the EWB-USA international conference ran over two and a half days, from Thursday evening to Saturday, with approximately 250 EWB members converging on the conference venue in downtown Denver. Invited speakers from various EWB-USA student and professional chapters, NGOs, NPOs and the United States State Department were in attendance, which made for diverse viewpoints and debate throughout the weekend. This year’s conference was themed around the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals (SDGs), with discussions related to water access, sanitation, energy, poverty and healthcare, and effective communication being popular topics of the conference. An interesting observation of the weekend was how discussions around development work evolved as the weekend progressed — what typically started out as engineering-centred discussions, soon evolved into higher-level community and volunteer-centred topics.
In summary, both the EWB-I Global Forum and the EWB-USA conference were well executed events, and a joy to attend. It was a wonderful opportunity to not only learn about what other EWBs initiatives are being undertaken around the world, but also as a way to inform the rest of the world of the work that we do as EWB-SA. The greatest value of this engagement was meeting interesting people and developing good relationships with like-minded colleagues around the globe.
Sometimes, we take for granted that the work that we do is, in some ways, localised for a particular set of stakeholders that we intend to reach. But having the time to step away and talk to others reminds me of the true benefit that we offer to society. In a relatively short space of time, we have come far as an organisation. On reflection, I’m reminded by EWB-SA’s slogan. Through our work, not only can we empower our own engineers and communities, we can also empower others globally — because of our location, we are in a special place to lead by example of what it means to do development work in Africa by African professionals. And the solutions that we engineer, and the perspectives that we share, can often have a far reaching impact that is well beyond our borders.
- David Ming
A few weeks ago, I found myself sitting in a dimly-lit room with 11 other Africans in Toronto, Canada, we went around the circle describing which leadership qualities we admired most about each other. We had only met a week before, but we were slowly becoming the closest of friends.
I recently participated in the Kumvana Fellowship, a programme hosted by Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Canada. Kumvana, a word from the Malawian Chichewa dialect, beautifully translates to “unite so we may discuss and understand.” The purpose of the fellowship is to take exceptional African leaders and expose them to Canadian organisations, cultures and ideas, but also for the African leaders themselves to share what we know about Africa with the EWB Canada community.
The fellowship took place in Canada from the 11th of January to the 10th of February this year, 5 weeks in the freezing cold. It was an experience unlike any other. It allowed me to think deeply about the world and its people, reflect on why there is still such a massive disparity between the haves and have nots and figure out what role I can play in creating change.
One of the insights I gleaned early on in this fellowship was about the social problems in South Africa in comparison to those in Canada or rather, the social problems in Africa compared to those in North America. After a rather crazy scavenger hunt around Toronto, one of the Ghanaian fellows remarked that he had not expected to see homeless people in Canada. I was not altogether shocked by this having seen homeless people during my travels in the US and Europe. However, I realised that this misconception stemmed from the huge disconnect between what we are told about the developed world and what is actually the case and similarly, what the developed world is told about Africa and what is actually the case. It strongly aligns with a TED talk I watched recently given by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on The Danger of a Single Story. Africans are continuously ‘told’ by the developed world that we live in poverty and need help and more often than not, we start to believe it. On the other hand, media channels in the developed world reaffirm this notion by continuously spreading news about the ‘despair’ in Africa.
Many of the social problems in Canada are similar to the problems here, it is only the magnitude of the social problem that differs. At the end of the day being homeless in South Africa and being homeless in Canada is quite comparable. In fact, I am inclined to believe that homelessness is sometimes worse in Canada where temperatures in winter can drop to -40 degrees C.
My Kumvana experience was full of interesting insights and looked something like this…
During the conference in Hamilton, the EWB Canada community spoke endlessly about Systems Thinking and Systems Change Leadership, concepts I thought I understood before leaving South Africa, but was only able to fully grasp during the conference.
Systems Thinking is a perspective and set of methods and tools that make it possible to look at the full extent of a system, rather than at fragments. Using a systems approach, it is clear that longstanding social problems have been created by the systems in which they exist. For example, while giving students in informal settlements, free textbooks or computers may improve access to educational resources, Systems Thinking could help us to figure out why education in rural areas is still such a challenge, how it is connected to other issues and to identify strategic interventions to eradicate this problem.
This underlying concept was scattered all over the conference and it became evident to me that EWB Canada use the Systems Thinking approach as an intrinsic part of their work in both Canada and sub-Saharan Africa, an approach not normally followed by organisations who do development work. EWB Canada, kudos to you!
Back in Toronto, we spent the next week with a French organisation called, Le Playground, who guided us through a personal evolution of sorts, and we met Nadia, who taught us about prejudice, privilege and the difference between equity and equality.
I loved this picture that she shared with us. As young South Africans, we tend to talk about equality more than equity. We get frustrated with equity because we forget the disadvantages of the past, but we need to remember that although it seems fair to give everyone the same opportunity, it is only really fair if we all started from the same base. We still have a long way to go before there is no need for equity in our businesses and institutions and the following picture summarises that concept perfectly.
Image source: http://interactioninstitute.org/illustrating-equality-vs-equity/
All fellows were given the opportunity to live with a Canadian family for two weeks and to meet with interesting people and organisations. I spent my first week with a lovely French family in Montreal. They were warm, inviting and eager to learn about South Africa.
My highlights this week:
During my second week, I lived with an Iranian couple, a Korean couple and a Ghanaian girl who had moved to Canada to study. It was one of the most multicultural experiences of my entire life and I enjoyed it more than any of the visits I had this week.
My highlights in Toronto:
The programme was closed out. Feedback was provided. And the fellows were left to think about how we could utilise the brilliant network we had just created.
I am back in South Africa now. I feel changed by the Kumvana experience. I have been transformed and I cannot go back to who I was before. I am currently sitting next to my to-do list, consumed by the menial admin of my life, desperately holding on to the visions I have for change in Africa. I am restless for change. And I am restless about being a part of this change.
One of my biggest passions since Kumvana is educating people about Africa’s potential. My soul literally dies every time I see an international campaign about donating to ‘helpless’ Africans. We have such incredible people in Africa, innovating for social change more than any developing country, starting unconventional, successful businesses, while educating themselves and others. And most importantly, the beautiful view all Africans share: we will not prosper unless we prosper together.
Hi EWB’ers! As the year draws to a close, the importance for reflection and all lessons learned becomes an integral part for the preparation for a 2016 with greater achievements! 2015 proved both successful and significant for the EWB-SA initiative, which could not have been achieved without our team on the ground and the support of our sponsors and members. THANK YOU!
Quick Re-cap on 2015
EWB-SA has expanded to over 1500 members in 2015, and are still growing! We are excited about those who have signed up and look forward to continuing to empower engineers to empower communities!
8 student chapters at tertiary institutions exist to date, with our first university of technology chapter – EWB-TUT – being on the cards for 2016! We couldn’t be more thrilled about students grabbing the opportunity to engage with professionals whilst making a difference in South Africa’s rural and local communities. Explore our website to see what our communities have been up to.
We launched our 1st EWB-SA Empowering Communities through Engineering Excellence Award to recognise and award the hard work that our volunteers put into making their projects happen. A huge congratulation to theKutumela Molefi Project team from EWB-UP for winning the award. We look forward to the competition and entrants next year! Check out one of the 8 sub-projects of the winning community project here.
We celebrated the closing of this year with our Annual General Meeting, held at the OPEN in the Maboneng Precinct, Johannesburg. The colourful evening brought our student leadership, professional members and guests together to reflect on a year of change. Thank you to everybody who came out and mingled, it was a superb evening.
The AGM was just the beginning to the bigger and better 4th Annual Leadership Summit. Past and present chapter committees got to learn from each other and explore how to reach their potential as young leaders while continuing to build the significance of EWB-SA’s vision and mission – and enjoy the beautiful Magaliesburg!
From the Africities Summit, where we co-hosted a session on Africa’s Infrastructure Build Programme with the Infrastructure Dialogues, to our participation in the Sustainability in the Resources Industry Summit, African Utility Week, and the Symposium for Engineering Education, 2015 has been a busy year with new ground covered by both EWB-SA and our student chapters.
Our 2015 successes could not have been possible without the EWB-SA team and our sponsors and donors: WSP Parsen-Brinkerhoff, MottMacDonald, #cocreateSA and the Alcoa Foundation. We are grateful for your ongoing support.
We will fly to new heights with EWB-SA in 2016. See you there!
From the EWB-SA team
Find us at Africities-Africités on Monday, where we’ll be hosting a joint session with the Infrastructure Dialogues framed around:
“Africa’s Infrastructure Build Programme – making a better life for Africa’s city residents.”
We are excited to be part of the conversation around shaping the future of Africa with the people: Africa’s Local Government contribution to the Africa Vision 2063. Luba Luyaba will be presenting a youth perspective on how to shape the future of cities. This is a big step forward towards raising the voice of young engineers in conversations that matter.
Cape Townians – this one’s for you! South Africa’s first engineering hackathon is happening from 20 – 22 November at 75 Harringon Street. Sign up essential as space is limited to 12 participants only.
Get involved and help us empower communities!
Empowering Engineers to Empower Communities
2016 | EWB-SA is a registered non-profit company | NPC 2013/014531/08