SMEC CEO Logashri Sewnarain speaks about infrastructure growth in South Africa

By Fiona Wakelin

For more than 70 years, SMEC South Africa has delivered high quality advanced transport and energy infrastructure solutions to a broad range of sectors including geotechnical, management services, power and energy, resources (mining, oil and gas), transport, urban development, water and environment.

Having joined SMEC in 2018, Logashri Sewnarain brings over 24 years’ experience in managing major roads projects in South Africa as a senior level Professional Engineer and Professional Project and Construction Management Executive to her appointment as CEO. Prior to this appointment, she held the role of Functional General Manager, Roads and Highways at SMEC South Africa.

Congratulations on your promotion from FGM to CEO at SMEC South Africa. These are challenging times indeed. Please share with us your views on:

  1. The government has gazetted infrastructure projects worth more than R340-billion. What is your opinion on the future of infrastructure development in South Africa and which sectors are a top priority for promoting economic growth?

The commitment by government to prioritise the rollout of key infrastructure is encouraging and applauded, and serves as the much-required stimulus to bolster economic recovery and drive job creation across many disciplines.  It is heartening to see that budgets have been set aside for the maintenance of infrastructure, as deferred maintenance can result in exorbitant rebuilding costs. Blended financing models will be used to attract private sector financing thereby increasing the available investment in infrastructure construction and maintenance.

History has shown us that built projects and construction, by its very nature, serve as the best levers to drive any economy. Each of the prioritised sectors and identified projects are equally as important, as each contributes a vital source of economic growth, community wellbeing and financial returns. At this juncture, transport, water and sanitation, energy, human settlements, digital infrastructure, agriculture and agro-processing have been deemed as priority sectors.  In my opinion, transport is vital to economic growth as roads are the economic arteries of a country, linking ports and various other access nodes to the economic hubs. The projects identified are necessary to improve the transport corridors capacity, mobility and safety – all of which, are directly proportional to economic recovery.

  1. What are some of the game changing innovations in the field of infrastructure engineering – and how has tech impacted on the sector?

The concept of Building Information Modelling (BIM) extends far beyond the idea of a 3D model. This is what the industry has required for some time in the form of a common exchange platform between disciplines across all projects of varying magnitudes. With an increase in the complexity of projects and interaction between the various project disciplines, the risk for gaps, overlaps and clashes has grown tremendously. While BIM is a platform that is still being developed, it has already shown value in terms of the ease of interaction it provides – not only between the professional team involved, but also for the contractors implementing the project. This has increased the drive and ease to produce 3D models of various levels of detail at a faster pace. It also creates a framework to transition the wealth of information to the management phase as the project moves from an idea to a design and ultimately an asset, thereby giving impetus to the project’s whole life-cycle.

The advent of Augmented Reality in the infrastructure sector has made it possible to bring a project to life without turning a single sod. The ability to lift the drawings and design from a 2D presentation into an immersive 3-dimensional reality is now available at our fingertips on our tablets and smartphones.

In addition, technology such as drones, have immense value in the infrastructure sector as it gives us a window through which to view a project that we’ve never had before. We now use drones for construction monitoring, site surveys and the inspection of elements that are difficult to access.

What’s more, advancements of Virtual Reality (VR) has enabled us to bridge the gap by bringing designs into a more familiar 3D environment. We now have the opportunity to immerse ourselves in the size and scale of the projects that we’re investing in. As designers, VR is a means to validate our design and gives us increased confidence.  Big data has also changed the way we work and store data, thereby ensuring accessibility at any time in the future.

  1. Regarding the role of women in engineering – what role should the industry play to ensure that women rise to executive management?

This must be intentional and deliberate by means of a concerted effort to trust and give opportunities to individuals to showcase their talents. Ensuring that women rise to top management within the engineering profession begins with a bottom-up approach whereby we upskill and develop our young female professionals from graduate level. In addition, a top down approach should be applied within industry whereby diversity and inclusion strategies that actively support women are implemented.

Industry needs to develop and retain women engineering leaders through a pipeline of relevant and robust programmes as well as interventions that are tailor-made for the varying stages of career progression. These programmes and interventions need to focus on building a wide range of skills including strategic thinking, leadership, commercial acumen and change management.

  1. As a senior level professional engineer, how important is it to promote engineering and STEM Education, particularly for young women in South Africa? What needs to be done to ensure young girls have the choice of qualifying in these sciences?

Careers in STEM are vital to a country’s economy and growth, and as such, it is paramount that a pipeline of careers are developed to improve our resource pool and maintain a competitive edge globally.

As a collective, we need to develop an environment that encourages young girls to excel and participate in mathematics and science from junior school to senior school. A concerted effort from both the family, educators and the community to encourage female participation in STEM subjects is required. This support will boost their confidence, which is sometimes lacking when selecting subjects and courses in senior school. Furthermore, schools need to implement comprehensive career guidance services that assess aptitudes, learning and personal working styles, to inspire and help learners make informed decisions about their careers. The correct selection of courses will ensure that that young girls gain access to universities and select careers in STEM.

  1. In terms of running a successful company, how important is it to invest in people?

People are, by far, the most valuable asset of a company. I believe that investing in talent is at the core of sustainable business growth and success. Effective talent management practices and investments not only enables staff retention, but also allows for a more engaged workforce. No business strategy can be successfully executed without a talent strategy that considers what skills are needed to move the business forward and achieve its strategic objectives. Assessing workforce needs should be an ongoing and conscious effort.  The added benefit is that when an employee feels valued and engaged, they have a sense of belonging thereby giving off their best.

  1. Do you have a message for entrepreneurs and businesses struggling to survive COVID-19?

It is an especially strange and scary time to be an entrepreneur. When in the midst of a crisis of this magnitude, the best thing that you can do is to keep moving with intention and adapt to the changing environment.

With the pandemic causing massive shifts is the economy, it is hard to gauge where the South African economy is at a macro level. Instead, focus your time and energy on adapting your business to the ‘new normal’ – make sure that you are active in the digital world, remain visible to your clients and continue to network. You must identify the best levers to enhance your efficiency and competitiveness.

Spend time developing multiple future scenarios and consider the associated resources and strategies for success within each. This way you will be well placed to take advantage of new opportunities when business begins to ramp up again. Finally, in the inalienable words of Bill Gates, “Success today requires the agility and drive to constantly rethink, reinvigorate, react and reinvent”.

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