ENGINEERS WITHOUT BORDERS SOUTH AFRICA
I recently had the privilege of interviewing David Ming. Ming or rather the ‘Engineering Maestro', is a senior lecturer of Chemical Engineering at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits), the Cofounder and Director of EWB-SA and the author of the recently launched textbook ‘Attainable Region Theory', a masterpiece which stands at the forefront of research in its respective field.
After achieving a BSc. Chemical Engineering from Wits, he worked at a water treatment company and simultaneously pursued an engineering masters degree. He later travelled abroad and started writing a textbook related to his PhD work. Upon returning, he realised that he could have a bigger impact on society if he forsook the traditional engineering track into industry.
Ming soon discovered many charity projects in operation but hardly any community development projects, and hence went on to create a space where he could employ his skills to help empower communities, leading to the creation of EWB-Wits and ultimately the formation of EWB-SA.
Despite his position at EWB-SA, he always first and foremost considers himself to be a volunteer and wholeheartedly devotes himself to any EWB-SA activity he participates in. He considers having an education and a professional skill set a rare privilege in South Africa and believes it would be almost unethical of him not to employ them to address community issues. He manages all this whilst still working as a lecturer.
Ming finds that the engineering profession in all branches keeps changing, but the thinking and problem solving ability remains constant throughout and that’s the true beauty of studying engineering. In 2014, Ming was chosen as the Mail & Guardian Top 200 Young South Africans, for his contributions in Education.
Ming's advice to aspiring engineers is the same advice that he received from his supervisor, “There is a lot you know. There is also a lot that you don’t know. Try to understand what you know from what you don’t.”
Ming drops quite a few knowledge bombs throughout the interview, exploding the intellectual space below, where you can find the rest of the interview.
1. Describe your engineering journey.
I originally applied to study a BCom at Wits, and at the last moment applied for chemical engineering. I ended up doing one year of a general BSc in my first year at university, because by the time I applied for engineering, it was too late. I then did a postgrad after completing my undergrad engineering degree. At the same time, I started work as a process engineer for a water treatment company. Most of my time was spent driving out to Mpumalanga on Monday morning and driving back late Friday evening. After a couple of years of working, I received an opportunity to spend some time overseas and write a textbook. When I returned, I wanted to do something different and got a job as a lecturer/researcher.
2. What prompted you to start EWB-Wits and subsequently to co-found EWB-SA?
I felt I had learnt so much from my degree after graduating, but there wasn’t a place outside of traditional employment where I could apply my skills. I had an interest in wanting to participate in existing community development projects, but when I started looking around for what was available, I soon realised that nothing really existed that suited this view. There were organisations that simply handed out supplies like food and clothing, whereas others offered some kind of community upliftment programme, but they all felt more like charity than impactful contributions. I looked on the EWB-International website to see if there were any opportunities in Johannesburg, but there was only one newly created chapter at UCT. That’s when I decided to start EWB-Wits.
When I started working, only EWB-UCT and EWB-Wits existed, and they were regarded as two separate entities that shared a common name. Wiebke Toussaint, who was past chairperson of EWB-UCT, had just moved up to Johannesburg and worked in the same office park as me. We met and decided to start EWB-SA as a way to unify our shared view of what the engineering profession could be in South Africa.
3. Describe what your work at EWB-SA entails.
I am currently the chairperson of EWB-SA. My job is to support the CEO, and, along with the EWB-SA board, oversee and guide the direction of EWB-SA as an organisation. What this means in practice is I try and interfere as little as possible with the day-today operations of EWB-SA, and to give assistance and vision for where EWB-SA should be headed in the future.
But just like everyone else, I’m first and foremost a volunteer of EWB-SA. If I sign up to participate in a certain activity, programme or event, I do whatever I can in my skillset to contribute to EWB-SA, and so work can be very different from one activity to another. At the moment, I am currently helping with organising the annual leadership summit.
4. What sparked your interest in community development?
The World Bank scores South Africa as one of the most unequal societies in the world. If you are fortunate enough to have a matric certificate, then you are probably already within the top 10% of the country. Knowing this, having an education and skillset in South Africa is then quite a rare privilege, and so it’s almost unethical for me as a professional to not have an interest in addressing these issues.
5. How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
When EWB-Wits started, we had a number of projects that were closely related to my specific field of study where I felt I could directly apply my technical knowledge, such as building biodiesel plants and biogas digesters. Although, over time, I have used a lot more of my general engineering thinking and problem solving skills. Ultimately the engineering profession, in all branches, keeps changing. But the thinking and problem solving ability is always constant, and that is what is truly valuable about studying engineering.
6. What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
I initially thought I was going to apply what I already knew to help others, in a sort of one-way transaction of knowledge for greater good, although I soon realised that I actually knew very little.
The nature of EWB-SA activities means that you’re always put into new situations, and are faced with challenges and restrictions. At times, you need to manage judgement, or identify an opportunity where you can put up your hand. Projects often fail, and when it happens, you must have the strength of character to pick yourself up, reassess, and continue on. For all these reasons, I have learnt a lot about leadership and failure, which I certainly would not have gained from just following a conventional engineering path.
I also continue to meet a lot of interesting people and friends.
7. What makes EWB-SA different or rather what makes it stand out compared to other organisations of its type?
We have a large community of young engineers, spread over a wide demographic around South Africa. Most organisations group their members into a specific discipline, skillset or interest, whereas EWB-SA has tried to do the opposite of that and challenge what the definition of an engineer is in society. We have a strong interest in leadership development and personal growth, which is reflected in our motto of “empowering engineers to empower communities”. And because of this diversity, even amongst other EWB organisations, we have a unique approach to social development and the use of technology in society.
I think a lot of our members aren’t defined just by their engineering knowledge, but they are interesting people who happen to have studied engineering.
8. How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
If you have existing day commitments, then I don’t think you ever find a balance because there are only a finite number of hours in a day. But doing work that interests you doesn’t make it feel so much like work.
Because of this, I try as best as possible to only do work that interest me and or that I want to get better at. I large part of my growth within EWB-SA has been to understand my own strengths and interests, and when I need to ask someone else for help or when someone else would be better at the job than me.
9. Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
Nothing concrete at the moment, but there are a lot of interesting potential partnerships in the works.
10. What advice would you give to aspiring engineers?
My supervisor said these words to me that I always try to remember: There is a lot you know. There is also a lot that you don’t know. Try to understand what you know from what you don’t.
David Ming interviewed by Dhruti Dheda
Engineers Without Borders- International (EWB-I) hosted its second Global Forum under the theme “Formation of engineers - a global issue” in London in August this year. Wiebke Toussaint, who represents Engineers Without Borders- South Africa (EWB-SA) on the EWB-I executive committee, participated in the forum. Discussion topics ranged from supporting local EWB networks through capacity building to chapter management, gender and diversity, knowledge sharing and an exploration of opportunities for improved international collaboration. The two days provided a great point of connection between different EWB Member Associations and presented an opportunity for EWB-SA to connect and contribute to the global conversation. The need to reposition the priorities of the engineering sector to provide an environment that places people before technology and designs with heart, head and hands was strongly emphasised by EWB member associations from Chile to Hong Kong. EWB-SA looks forward to continued participation in shaping this global dialogue.
For further insight, please refer to the document below:
Global Forum 2017 Report .pdf
Written by Wiebke Toussaint
I recently had the opportunity to interview, Murendeni Matshinyatsimbi, member of the EWB-SA board of directors. Matshinyatsimbi’s engineering journey started as early as high school, when he attended a technical school in Thohoyandou, Limpopo. He later attained an Electrical Engineering from the University of Cape Town. He also has certificates in International Trade Law and Mining Law from the University of the Witwatersrand.
Matshinyatsimbi, can be described as a social developer, educational analyst and a critical observer. His role as EWB-SA board member is to support the CEO and ensure that the organization remains focused on its commitments. His interest in community development began when he reached the realization that, “a man is not an island, we exist in communities. I enjoy serving people.”
Matshinyatsimbi works as as an electrical engineer at Hatch Goba. He was nominated as one of the young African leaders by Hatch Goba to be part of the prestigious Kumvana Program (leadership development and cultural exchange expertise program). He believes that engineers are more than just technical people and that engineers need to equip themselves with other skill sets to help improve the way in which they solve problems, he refers to this as Holistic engineering.
He has also liaised with the Johannesburg Road Agency on behalf of EWB-SA for previous projects and is in discussion with them on ways in which they can collaborate to solve traffic light challenges in Johannesburg. When asked about how he manages his time between his work at EWB-SA and his other commitments, he simply says, “doing anything one enjoys, one cannot really separate the tasks. I try to merge the two wherever I can.”
Find the rest of this informative, inspiring and succinct interview below.
1) Describe your engineering journey.
I don’t even know where to start in response to this question because of the broad engineering definition. Allow me to start from high school. I went to a technical school in Thohoyandou at Limpopo. After matriculation, I furthered my studies in Electrical Engineering at University of Cape Town. After completing my undergraduate degree, I joined an engineering consulting company, working predominately in mining. I was exposed to engineering design at an early stage of my career and that was complemented with site experience for the same project. I’ve worked on multiple projects, both locally and international. It has been an interesting journey, I’ve learned a lot and continue to learn and develop in the field of engineering.
2) What prompted you to volunteer at EWBSA?
It was a simple vision Wiebke (Toussaint) shared with me. I could see myself fitting in and contributing to make that vision a reality.
3) Describe what your work at EWB-SA entails.
I am currently a non-executive board member at EWBSA. My role is to support the CEO and ensure the organisation stay focus on its commitments.
4) What sparked your interest in community development?
It’s a simple realization that a man is not an island, we exist in communities. I enjoy serving people.
5) How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
I’ve used engineering education and public engagement to share my experience in the industry. This year we engaged with the Johannesburg Road Agency (JRA) to link them to our two chapters in Johannesburg, i.e. University of Johannesburg and University of Witwatersrand. The idea was to create opportunities for our members to apply their skills in real life challenges.
Look carefully around you and you’ll see opportunities for you to serve.
6) What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
EWBSA allows one to ask difficult questions our communities face on daily basis. We don’t have all the answers but we have a platform we can safely try and fail. I’ve gained experience to engage communities in a sustainable way and learn from people alike.
7) How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
Doing anything one enjoys, one cannot really separate the tasks. I try to merge the two wherever I can.
8) Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
I’ve learned a lot from the JRA experience. I am still exploring ways we can engage further to help solve the traffic lights challenges in Johannesburg.
9) What advise would you give to aspiring engineers?
In the mining industry, there isn’t much innovation but a lot of optimization opportunities. You can only optimize something you’re familiar with. Get your hands dirty as early as possible and keep asking lots of stupid questions.
Murendeni Matshinyatsimbi interviewed by Dhruti Dheda
In South Africa, 5.3 million people live in informal dwellings. Despite this significant number, there are currently no data sets that can help us understand the lived experiences of South African citizens in informal settlements. Subsequently entrepreneurs, communities and organisations who are trying to design impactful solutions in the informal dwelling space are making their decisions based on assumptions. Levering citizen science to gather a national data set on key indicators of liveability will aid EWB-SA and others to conceptualise design solutions that have the potential to tangibly improve health, well-being and living comfort in informal settlements.
The bottom line is, you cannot change what you cannot measure.
With this ethos in mind, EWB-SA set out to host their first ever Design Challenge. Students were invited to enter the Design Challenge hosted in their city and design a sensor network that could later be deployed across South Africa. They were then tasked with solving one or more of ten innovation challenges all focused on a practical, sustainable, scalable way to collect data for a period of one year.
From 18th to 20th August, EWB-SA in partnership with Geekulcha and Tshimologong IoT Lab, hosted the IoT for Social Good (IoT4SG) Design Challenge in Johannesburg. Three teams, The Ones, Big Connectors and The Prototypes all submitted conceptual designs and became finalists in the national challenge. The teams, consisting of both EWB-Wits and EWB-UJ students, were then given an additional four weeks to work on improving their prototypes.
From the 9th to the 11th of September, the Design Challenge was held in collaboration with the NCDevHack in Kimberley. Students were able to enter one of four categories, Accelerating Economic Growth, Digitalising Tourism, Open Data for Education or Internet of Things for Social Good. Only one team entered the IoT4SG challenge; coming up with an innovative way to get buy-in and help from local communities in deploying the sensor network. They ended up winning the hackathon, becoming finalists in the national challenge. They are currently working on the next iteration of their design.
The most recent challenge took place on the 16th and 17th of September in Pretoria in partnership with the Innovation Hub. This time four teams entered the challenge, a combination of EWB-UP and EWB-TUT students. All four were entered into the national challenge, once again impressing the judges with their creative problem solving skills.
As soon as all eight teams complete their final submissions, the challenge will be judged at a national level and EWB-SA will lead the next phase of the project where the sensors are built and then deployed across the informal sector in South Africa.
Written by Nikita Vala
The ISF International Days started after the Training of Engineers in April 2017. It consisted of the participants from ISF-Argentina, Rede de Engenharia Popular Osvaldo Sevá (REPOS), EWB-SA , ISF-Italia and hosted by ISF-France, namely Jérémy Billon. David Ming and Michelle Low represented EWB-SA.
WORKSHOP 1 : KNOWLEDGE OF EACH OTHER, SIMILARITIES AND DIFFERENCES
We heard an introduction to each organization and what main activities each were involved in. For example ISF-France is more focused on its volunteers and their training understanding global and national issues, raising awareness, tools for actions. ISF-Argentina is influencing the content of engineer training by, amongst others, creating courses, influencing teachers and mobilizing students. There was a common thread of main difficulties discussed as well as ambitions. An example of a difficulty is to give continuity to volunteer commitment throughout the different stages of life. The ambitions list included the need to strengthen the support and training to our members as well as develop solid partnerships and networks in order to strengthen our impact and ideas.
WORKSHOP 2 : COLLABORATION AND CAPACITY TO COLLABORATE
The day started off with two presentations by ISF-France local groups and closed off with session on how each member country to collaborate closer in the future.
ISF SystExt (Engineers Without Borders – Extractive Industries) presented at the opening of the workshop. They are a French NGO that unites geology, mining and environmental engineers working at the national and international scale. We found it amazing that this NGO influences mining policy in France and their opinions carry a lot of weight in French government around mining. You can read more about them via: http://www.isf-systext.fr/. We hope that EWB-SA’s own mining interest group, Mining for Shared Value (MSV), will be able to be just as impactful in the future.
A local student chapter ISF Paris Sud, namely Centrale Supélec (French Engineering School) presented on what they do on campus. What we liked about their chapter are the student activities on campus. Such as: raising awareness on energy (a spinning activity which involved converting exercise to energy), movie week and how to cook meatless meals. Read more about them via http://isfparissud.free.fr/
Before we worked out ways in which to collaborate we had delicious French café lunch. Jérémy used interesting tools to facilitate discussion and collaborations in order to find common ground, mostly was document sharing.
Thanks to everyone from ISF-France and the other organizations for making the week a thought provoking time. We hope to continue the momentum and use the ideas and collaboration to improve.
Written by David Ming and Michelle Low
I managed to get a quick interview with Vanessa Naicker, a rather elusive trailblazer, who’s extremely difficult to get hold of, so you can imagine my excitement when I eventually did. It was well worth the wait and if you ever wanted to see what happens when ambitious business acumen meets innovative engineering then look no further than Vanessa Naicker.
Naicker describes herself as somewhat of a veteran having successfully been part of the mining industry for more than 19 years, hence gems of experience and wisdom flowed easily from her throughout the interview.
After achieving a Metallurgical Engineering degree from WITS, the fresh graduate began her journey at Sasol, Secunda. There weren’t that many female engineers in South Africa in the early 90’s, let alone black female engineers and moving to Secunda was a real eye opener in terms of harsh realities facing a person of colour living in South Africa at the time. However, the petrochemical industry was booming with growth at the same time and so provided her with many opportunities. She later joined the industrial giant, Anglo American and took her first step into the mining industry, where she was exposed to numerous geographies, mining across commodities and various technical, operational and business opportunities.
Coming from a struggle background, growing up in a poor marginalised community and being a student activist from an early age, has shaped her passion for empowering young people. This led to her involvement in EWB-SA and she firmly believes that the future of South Africa lies in the hands of its youth. Coupling her technical expertise with her commercial acumen was a given when she became a non – executive director of the organisation, where she provides fiduciary support to the EWB-SA CEO and team as well as advisory support on a spectrum of topics.
In her professional capacity, she is working on attracting and retaining young people in the mining industry, an industry that has been relatively slack in mentoring and managing young professionals in recent years.
Naicker describes her experience as a woman in the engineering space as ‘jumping into the deep end and swimming hard' and feels that her versatility and adaptability as a professional could be attributed to this determined, firm attitude.
Her valuable advice to aspiring engineers, “Often engineers feel that they need to be bound by their discipline, but understand that we are living in a messy yet connected world and being good at collaborating and integrating ideas is what is required going forward” and also always be true to yourself.
Naicker is surely a force to be reckoned with as a confident woman who can play in that special space where business and engineering meet and is thus a perfect feature for the upcoming August Women’s Month.
Read the rest of this inspiring and very informative interview below.
I’ve been in the industry for a long while. I might even have earned the title of veteran I started off my engineering journey by earning a BSc Engineering Metallurgy degree from the University of Witwatersrand (WITS) in the early 90’s and later acquired a Masters in Engineering as well. Keen to get some practical know how early on, I started my working life as a young Metallurgical Engineer with Sasol in 1994. Back in the 90’s there weren’t many female black engineers in the industry, let alone any living in Secunda, and that in itself created some interesting challenges and harsh experiences of the realities of a black person living in South Africa in the 1990’s. That said these early days of engineering in the petrochemical industry were an amazing growth opportunity and having some really great mentors who provided me broad technical exposure shaped my passion for the discipline, grew my technical expertise and built my confidence. But being a Jozi girl I was keen to get back to the big city to be close to family and friends. So 3½ years later when I was offered a rather unique opportunity to lead materials engineering for another industry giant, Anglo American, I made the move. Making the move to the mining industry was scary and enthralling at the same time but the scope of my work exposed me to mining across commodities and geographies across the world. I have remained with the mining industry for the past 19 years taking on various technical, operational and business related roles and gaining expertise across global operations and corporate functions. More recently my work has been in systems engineering, identifying how value flows through processes and working with teams to optimize our processes for performance turnarounds and substantial improvements to bottom line earnings. Whilst I have had only 2 employers in my long career to date, I have over the years taken on a variety of rich and diverse high profile roles which have been at the forefront of change and innovation.
2) What prompted you to volunteer at EWB-SA?
I am passionate about young people and helping them to be the best. I truly believe that the course of South Africa’s future lies in the hands of our young people. I also know that South Africa is a land with many challenges which are opportunities if you connect the heart with the mind. In addition, given that my career has been rather non-conventional has benefited me in that I have expert knowledge in a broad span of engineering topics that includes material science, mechanical failure investigations, asset management, project studies, coal conversion technologies, industrial engineering, etc. Coupled to this I have strong operational and commercial acumen. Coupling my technical know-how to the benefit of our people and making a real difference to the communities we live in is important to me. Thus it was a no brainer when I was approached by EWB-SA to take on the role of non-executive director.
Together with the other directors on the EWB-SA board, I provide fiduciary support to the EWB-SA CEO and team. We meet a few times a year and I provide advisory support on a range of topics that may involve technical, legal, fund raising, policy, marketing, etc.
I have always been deeply involved in community related issues, both in my personal and professional capacity. I grew up in a poor, marginalised community and was a student activist from an early age. Coming from a struggle background has shaped how I interact and engage on community development matters both locally and globally.
5) How have you been able to utilize your skills as an engineer to assist/ empower communities?
In addition to being on the Board of EWB-SA I also hold a directorship on the Anglo American-sefa fund, which is a partnership fund between the Industrial Development Corporation of South Africa and Anglo American, providing high level strategic, governance and technical leadership for small scale mining companies. This has me interacting with various community entrepreneurs to advance their business interests.
I am always humbled and excited with each engagement I have with EWB-SA. Being in the same space with young people who are so enthused and actively involved in changing lives and making a difference to our world urges me to contribute even more.
This is currently proving to be really hard. I have a very demanding career that sees me travel lots. This does come in the way of family and broader outside the workplace commitments. Time management is thus really important to achieve any balance between all of my commitments so I run a very detailed and forward looking schedule to allow me to stay connected and contributing.
8) How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering space?
This is often a hot topic. Like many women in the industry I have had my highs and lows. That said I have never shied away from putting up my hand for a challenge, and persisting till I get a break. I have enjoyed jumping into the deep end and swimming hard. Perhaps this is because I’m a woman and often have had to work much harder just to prove to my fellow colleagues that I not only can do the job very well but I can excel at it. Over the years I have had the comment that I’m more versatile and adaptable than most professionals, whether this is because of being a female or a personal trait I’m not sure.
9) Are there any interesting projects that you are working on currently or in the near future?
In more recent years the mining industry has not been great at managing, mentoring and providing career paths for young professionals. I want to re-energise this, particularly in light of the fact that the world of work is changing and more and more people are not looking for long tenure in organisations but rather challenging and relevant work that is socially conscious. Attracting and retaining young people into the mining industry is an area I’m keen to contribute to in the near term.
10) What advise would you give to aspiring engineers?
Know that your early career years shapes the direction you take later on so seek some good mentors who will help you to navigate challenging times and open doors to new opportunities. Often engineers feel that they need to be bound by their discipline, but understand that we are living in a messy yet connected world and being good at collaborating and integrating ideas is what is required going forward. As such stay connected by building and nurturing your networks and make sure they are broad enough so that you can leverage diversity of thought. The world is your oyster. Be true to yourself.
Vanessa Naicker interviewed by Dhruti Dheda
The African Utility Week took place earlier this year from May 16 to 18 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. The African Utility Week is Africa’s leading trade expo for the power and water sector providing business opportunities for solution providers, utilities and large power/water users. And EWB-SA was proud to be a part of it.
EWB-SA member and event coordinator Anthony Fry, who initiated the interactive series on water from mid-March this year along with EWB-UCT, presented at the African Utility Week. The water series had aimed to use the current Western Cape drought as a catalyst for new learning platforms, projects and research surrounding water in South Africa. He showcased some of the sanitation solutions that emerged from the water series at the Innovation Hub session, where emphasis was placed on education and skills development.
Ralph Muvhiiwa is the chairperson for Engineers Without Borders at the University of South Africa (EWB-UNISA). Muvhiiwa was nominated for the Young Energy Leader Award at the African Utility Week. This award recognises a person under the age of 35 from a public or private company who has made an outstanding contribution to the energy/water sectors. He was nominated for the EWB-SA activities that he does at Unisa, specifically the production of biogas from cow dung. He also presented this topic at the event where he talked about the biodigester in Muildersdrift and how this technology can help fight against energy poverty.
Ralph Muvhiiwa met up with Anthony Fry at the event and they both had a meeting with the team from Impulse Water to try identify potential synergies between them and EWB-SA. They carry out many projects, mainly water projects and they would be willing to ask for students to work on these projects when the need arise.
During the first half of 2017, EWB-UCT ran the pilot phase of the Technical Advisory Board. The TAB was introduced to link student chapters with needed guidance from experienced professionals. Their advice should add project sustainability and help project groups achieve their objectives within the academic year.
So far, EWB-UCT has hosted two TAB meetings, with the very first held on the 10th of May 2017. EWB-UCT Project Leaders, project coordinator and chairperson met the TAB in a cosy classroom on UCT upper campus.
The meeting environment was informal and open, project teams presented their project ideas to the TAB. In turn, members of the TAB gave constructive criticism on these ideas and strategies that would be employed to realise them, suggestions and praise. Project leaders walked away with much needed direction and new impetus to drive projects forward and impact communities in a positive way.
In addition to the benefit to project, members of the EWB-UCT committee have also received beneficial advice from the TAB.
The second TAB meeting took place on the 14th of June. Each project team was grouped with a TAB mentor for a more in depth and project specific discussion.
The EWB-UCT committee and projects team in deeply grateful for the guidance provided by the TAB and hopes to improve our future engagements.
Written by Masana Mhinga (EWB-UCT Project Coordinator)
I recently had an opportunity to interview Wiebke Toussaint. Most might know her as the co-founder and previous CEO of EWB-SA, but she is much more than that. What can I call Toussaint, an engineer, a thinker, a creator, an innovator or an adventurista? These terms seem plenty, but are definitely not enough to describe her. She’s an enigma to say the least. Armed with a Mechanical Engineering degree from UCT, a Diplôme de français professionnel Affaires B2 from the Paris Chamber of Commerce, the multilingual (English, Afrikaans, French and German) Toussaint set out to connect people and technology, society and engineering, drawn by the risk, responsibility and complexity of the problems posed by modern society.
Toussaint cofounded EWB-SA in early 2013, whilst she was still a junior engineer at Hatch Goba. Hatch Goba, later nominated her as one of the young African leaders to join the Kumvana Program (leadership development and cultural exchange expertise program). In 2014, she was recognised for her business acumen, by the prestigious Standard Bank Rising Star awards, under the Service: Public and Private sector. She has also worked as a business analyst at an e-commerce company and later as a data scientist in energy research.
Toussaint is driven by her belief that if the new generation of technically skilled people are nurtured correctly, then South Africa and the African continent will flourish; she aptly refers to herself as an African dreamer.
But if you think that Toussaint is all work and no play, then you’re wrong. She is known to be able to balance 8 spoons on her face and continues to practise balancing more spoons, in her attempt to beat the world record. Her three great loves are people, nature and energy.
She strongly feels that “we all have the ability to make time for things that we are passionate about and an eight hour work day actually isn't that much, is not that long. I think there's an hour or two that all of us can give every day to make a difference, to create the future that you want to create, cause that is what gives meaning to life and that is what makes a normal day worth living.”
Clearly she’s a woman who wears many hats and follows her heart. Still, I cannot fully describe her, the closest I can get is that her speciality lies in making things happen, so I guess we better watch the space!
Enjoy the complete interview below in celebration of one of our founding mothers.
1) How did your engineering journey begin?
I started my engineering career at Hatch Goba. I was a first year student of theirs and spent some time working there, first as a piping engineer and later looking at energy efficiency and knowledge management. Since then, I’ve worked as a business analyst in an e-commerce company and am now working as a data scientist at UCT (University of Cape Town).
2) What prompted you to create of EWB-SA?
I co-founded Engineers Without South Africa (EWB-SA), while I was working at Hatch. I felt inspired to start EWB-SA because I believe in the agency of young engineers who want to make a difference in South Africa and no space existed in which we could volunteer our technical skills to make a difference in society. I felt immensely inspired by the number of young people or young engineers that approached me to be involved because they believed in the future of South Africa and wanted to make a difference.
3) What type of work were you involved in during your association EWB-SA?
Over the years my work at EWB-SA has entailed everything, starting from social media to organising events to meeting with student and professional members to building our community, executing projects and engaging sponsors. So whatever the work was, you name it, I did it.
4) What do you feel you have acquired/gained (both for your professional and personal development) through your association with EWB-SA?
What I most enjoyed about working with EWB-SA, was engaging with our community and our members, being part of the journey of young engineers as well as mentoring and I think our Summit [Annual Leadership Summit] to me was always a special event at which I got the opportunity to see the hard work that our students have put into it. EWB-SA has provided me with an awesome opportunity to gain practical business skills and to play and to discover skill sets beyond technical engineering. So I've learnt a lot about engaging with stakeholders, about leading teams, I've learnt a lot about human centred design, about understanding the role of your customer and of your client in the design process which I think are things that aren't typically covered in the engineering curriculum. I've learnt about what it means to build a tribe, about what it means to motivate others.
5) What makes EWB-SA different or rather what makes it stand out compared to other organizations of its type?
And I think what the true value of EWB-SA is that it really provides a microcosm of a space in which we can in which you can try and which you can fail and learn. So the same way in which I've had the opportunity to learn things which I would never have learnt in normal corporate. I know that each project provides an opportunity for our members to learn real life skills, real engineering skills, leadership skills, teamwork, stakeholder management and Human Centered Design in a way that they wouldn't otherwise. What makes EWB-SA different and special is that as a community is that it's okay to fail. It's not only just okay, we encourage trying, we encourage making mistakes and if you continue to try and make mistakes, eventually you'll get it right. It's a given that some of them will work out and others won't. So we want our students to keep trying, to keep making mistakes. Beyond the skill that I’ve gained, EWB-SA has really been a family to me and I've met the most magnificent, marvellous, inspiring individuals through EWB-SA. So it’s being part of a community and coordinating, navigating and inspiring a community that has really added value to my life.
6) How do you maintain a balance between the work at your day job and your work at EWB-SA?
I think we all have the ability to make time for things that we are passionate about and an 8 hour work day actually isn't that much, is not that long. I think there's an hour or two that all of us can give every day to make a difference, to create the future that you want to create cause that is what gives meaning to life and that is what makes a normal day worth living. So I don't think it's actually that difficult to find ways to volunteer, to give back, to contribute, to be part of the community, part of a vision, part of something we believe in. And I think in doing that we enrich our lives a lot.
7) How would you describe your experience as a woman in the engineering space?
I love being a person in engineering and I love being a woman. I know that being a woman in engineering often isn't that easier or maybe rather it becomes progressively harder the further along your career as you progress. However, I think that engineering is a field in which technical competencies count and it's important that whether you're a woman or a man, that you become good at what you do, that you build skill sets that are necessary and that you speak out for what is right and what you believe in. I think that empathy in design and putting people first is something that has been lacking in how we do engineering and I think that those are skills that women are stereotypically more accustomed too and I think that , that is something that we can really contribute to this sector. So I see being a woman in engineering as a massive asset and something that we shouldn't be shy about. I think there's a lot of value to add when we bring different perspectives to an old setting.
I'm doing my masters in artificial intelligence at the moment and I'm very excited about the opportunities that that the space holds, especially if we connect our traditional engineering sector with the world of data. I'm enjoying not having a specific project for the time being, since I've stepped down from EWB-SA. I'm pretty sure that in due course, not too long, some new projects will emerge. But for now, I'm enjoying just gaining the skills to reposition myself in what I consider to be the future of engineering.
There is so much to discover in the world and so many ways to get involved and view things beyond the pure technical realm. My advice to all young engineers would be to not get stuck and be bogged down in the technical aspects of life only. Branch out, get involved with something, build your networks, learn beyond maths and science- try to understand the fundamentals deeply, but other than that make sure you branch out. Try to understand the people that you designing for. Give of your time, give of your skills, join a community and be entrepreneurial. Think of opportunities and widen your scope of what you consider opportunities. Don't just think jobs, don't just think employment. As engineers we are in a unique position to be value creators. So keep challenging yourself, asking where can you add optimum value, where can you truly make a difference and follow your passion.
Wiebke Toussaint interviewed by Dhruti Dheda
This April umnandi went to South Africa to conduct its first two workshops in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Umnandi, a nonprofit founded in late 2016, has the mission to provide young South Africans with practical knowledge, tools and motivation to pursue entrepreneurial projects that benefit their communities. The project was initiated by students of Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship, a university in Sweden, and implemented in collaboration with EWB-SA.
Over 70 participants attended the two workshops. The first workshop, held in Johannesburg, specifically targeted South Africans from low-income households. It was held in collaboration with Sci-Bono, which is a contact that was established by EWB-SA. The second workshop, held in Cape Town, was predominately attended by engineering students associated to EWB-SA UCT and Maties.
The workshops started off with the infamous “Egg Drop Challenge”, which required creativity, teamwork and hands-on construction skills. The participants were divided into competing teams. Each team received an egg, a budget and the chance to buy various materials like straws, paper and plastic cups, where each item had different price tags. The goal: Develop a solution to protect the egg from a five meter drop. In keeping with the entrepreneurial spirit groups were also challenged to keep their solutions cost efficient, quick and creative from a design perspective.
A key aspect of the workshop involved introducing and working through the umnandi 5 step model. This model was developed to help participants take an idea from conception to an initial planning phase. It forced the teams to apply newly learned tools, think outside the box and take various business-related topics into account. “Who should be my first customer?”, “Which stakeholders are important to consider?”, “How can I test my product, gather customer feedback and improve?”. By exploring these and other questions, interesting insights emerged and the ideas were refined, altered or merged.
“Focus!” was a recurring theme during the workshop. In every step of the process, and particularly in the beginning, focus! Focus on a small group of customers. Focus on a few core features of your product or service. Discard aspects that do not contribute to this focus, minimize the overhead and stay lean. Once you see that you are on a good way, you can start expanding.
The workshops were full of energy and engagement. The participants identified key societal problems and issues in South Africa. Various creative processes resulted in thought-provoking discussions and revealed interesting ways to approach these issues.
Moreover, plenty of interesting business ideas were found and refined to a stage, where a first test-implementation would be the next step. It is now on the students to follow up and get their ideas out in the world.
Although for now the umnandi team is back in Sweden, we are looking forward to future workshops with new themes, more learning, and plenty of fun!
Thank you to our partners and supporters Chalmers School of Entrepreneurship (CSE), Engineers Without Borders South Africa (EWB-SA), Sci-Bono, SAAB and countless individuals for various contributions throughout our journey!
Follow us on social media and get in touch! www.umnandi.com @umnandientrepr
Written by Simon Geldner and Sammie Chimusoro
Empowering Engineers to Empower Communities
2018 | EWB-SA is a registered non-profit company | NPC 2013/014531/08