Friday, May 24, 2024
InterviewReorienting construction

Reorienting construction

Aisha Mohammed (Eng.), 38, was appointed construction minister in the new cabinet of Prime Minister Hailemaraim Dessalegn. A civil engineer by training, Aisha is not a new face in the PM’s cabinet. She previously held a relatively less demanding ministerial portfolio as minister of culture for about one year before the PM decided to reshuffle the Council of Ministers and gave her a new portfolio regulating one of the most vibrant sectors in Ethiopia: construction. Prior to her ascension to a position of a line minister, Aisha held a senior position in the Afar Regional Administration. Recently, Aisha attended the 12th CII-EXIM Bank Conclave on India and Africa Project Partnership held in New Delhi from March 9 to 10, 2017. At the conclave, Aisha spoke at length about the opportunities available for Indian companies in Africa and some of the challenges African countries face when it comes to undertaking infrastructure projects. Asrat Seyoum of The Reporter caught up with her at the conclave for a brief interview. Excerpts:

The Reporter: You are here to take part in the 12th Conclave on India-Africa Project Partnerships. For a starter, what would you say is your takeaway from this conference?

Aisha Mohammed (Eng.): If I can start from the simpler things, this conclave is a venue, which brings together a number of recognized construction companies from India and Africa. It offers a good learning opportunity for us if we want to host such vibrant business gatherings in our country. But, the most important takeaway for us is the opportunity to see what is out there in terms of technology in the construction sector and how we can adopt these back home. As you can imagine, there are a number of recognized Indian construction companies with the technological and financial capacity willing to share their expertise and their services to Africa. You see, the construction sector has advanced so much in recent times.

Most of the companies represented in the conclave employ highly advanced technologies, which can save considerable time and money. As you know, we have a number of big infrastructure projects at the planning and implementation stages. So, we need to find technologies which can save time, energy and money. This is one of the responsibilities that the Ministry of Construction is entrusted with. Apart from that, we also have a much broader aim of nurturing stronger relationships with the Government of India and how we can collaborate on our projects. To that effect, we have conducted a number of meetings with government institutions and private companies. So, basically, we have tried to explore opportunities for further collaboration and partnership with Indian companies.

You have mentioned that you have been conducting meetings with various parties during the conclave; could you tell me a little something about the outcome of these meetings?

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For example, we visited India’s Ministry of Housing and Urban Development. As you well know, construction ministry is a new ministry; so we held discussions with our Indian counterparts to learn a thing or two to help us better organize our ministry back home. On top of that, we have discussed how they can assist us in the future. We have actually identified the specific areas where they can render their help to our nascent ministry. What is left is for us to go back home and prioritize our needs and continue interaction via formal channels. Their ministry has managed to bridge the housing gap in India within a very short time by using time-saving technology in the construction of public housing units.

In fact, India has a goal to ensure universal access to housing for its citizens by 2020. Although I am not sure as to the exact timeframe, Ethiopia too has a target to do the same. So, we also need to learn how to plan and achieve such targets. We need to plan what the timeframe would be for us to reach such a target, given our human and financial resources. Also, what kind of technologies can we adopt from India to considerably shorten this timeframe is an important issue we are exploring. However, our focus is not limited to adopting technology and experience from India. In fact, we are also exploring the possibility of enlisting Indian companies in our housing projects. In this regard, we have been in contact with Indian construction companies which have the technological capacity to greatly accelerate the rate of construction in our housing projects.

Could you tell me some of the deals you have struck in this regard?

Although it is still early, we have taken interest in one particular company reputable in the building of prefab houses in India. We have reviewed its track record and realized that it could build houses for different weather conditions at remarkable speed (seven days per house). This particular construction technology would cut down construction cost by 30 percent while shortening construction time by up to 90 percent. So, we are thinking in terms of collaborating with this company at least in the beginning at some of our government projects and later on creating a linkage with our private companies in the construction sector. But, like I said, it is too early to reveal the name of the company or any concrete deals that have been struck.

Timely delivery has been a serious challenge in public housing projects in Ethiopia. If you look at the 40/60 housing schemes, although five years have elapsed since the government announced the scheme, it has not yet transferred a single home to beneficiaries — even to those who have already paid up 100 percent of the required amount. What do you propose to address this?

To begin with, I would say that the actual construction of the houses in the public housing projects is not the mandate of the Ministry of Construction (MoC). The ministry’s mandate is regulating the construction sector. We are also tasked with bridging the gap in capacity. We are also responsible for identifying and adopting new technologies in this sector so that issues like the one you just mentioned would be addressed. But the building of public housing is not within our purview.

Don’t you think a strong regulatory body is also lacking?

We do have a number of regulatory and legal frameworks at our disposal. So what we need to do is raise the awareness of all stakeholders about the importance of adhering to regulatory requirements. This is better achieved by educating the stakeholders and operators by explaining what would the consequences would be if these requirements are not observed. These regulatory frameworks are there to protect all stakeholders and operators in the construction sector. So, we have to explain what would happen if they are not followed.

That being said, there are also gaps in the current regulatory framework. We, therefore, have to update these frameworks to keep pace with the changing technological landscape. And most important of all is the issue of instituting a system. We can’t ensure adherence to regulations if we don’t already have a system in place.

If we take the national building code, it was updated a few years ago to incorporate the latest requirements and standards in building construction. But, we do see a number of construction activities even in Addis Ababa that are clearly in violation of this code. Could you comment on that?

Ethiopia has always had a building code but what happened some years back is revising this code to incorporate the latest standards in the sector. Unfortunately, not a lot of people know about this revised code. So reintroducing this code to stakeholders and operators was one of the things on our to-do list when the ministry started work. We also have a building proclamation that covers the steps that need to be taken, starting from a building permit to usage permits. So, we have to educate the community about these proclamations and codes. Contractors, consultants, engineers and everybody in the field must be made aware of these regulatory requirements.                              

If you follow the news, there have been a couple of instances of buildings that have collapsed recently. This poses a grave danger to the public. What plans do you have to address this pressing issue?

We are in the process of reviewing the problems at the moment. Again, there is the Addis Ababa City Administration, with full authority to issue permits for construction and usage of buildings in the city. It is under its watch that such things were allowed to occur. Perhaps we might have failed to fully utilize the legal framework and control mechanisms that are in place to prevent these kinds of situations. Perhaps, the accidents were a result of not following the rules and regulations.  I believe the building proclamation that I referred to earlier has ample provisions aimed at preventing these kinds of things from happening.

However, these rules have to be followed strictly to safeguard the integrity of the construction undertaken in the country. This requires strict follow up and guidance on the part of the authorities. The ministry and the city administration have to make sure that those doing the day-to-day follow up at the grass roots level have the requisite know-how and capacity to enforce the rules and regulations.

If I may redirect you to one of the issues you raised in your address at the conclave, being able to design and implement bankable infrastructure projects is a big challenge to African economies. Do you think this is a challenge for Ethiopia as well?

This challenge is true for Ethiopia as well. Most of our projects, either at the implementation or design stages, require an immense amount of financial resources. For instance, our energy, road, railway and even our housing projects need to attract financers. So, these projects have to be bankable. They have to be designed properly and should be attractive to financiers.  Then, the money (to finance these projects) has to be secured. After securing finance, we need to have strong local implementation capacity. No matter how favorable the financing mechanism is (loan or grant), we have to be able to use the money wisely. So, for all these to happen, we have to have a strong implementation capacity.

Apart from strong local capacity, adequate implementation coordination is also very important. This is true even for cross-border infrastructure projects such as the Ethio-Djibouti Railway or the cross-border power projects between the two countries. As you know, we are a land-locked nation, and there is always a mutual interest that calls for cooperation and coordination.

In Ethiopia, there are serious coordination problems when it comes to infrastructure projects. I’d like to get your perspective on that.

Yes, that is true for our projects as well. We do have enormous challenges in terms of coordination at both local and cross-border levels. To address these challenges, we need to develop our project implementation capacity. We need to build capacity to do a better job, starting from the project design stage to securing financing, and all the way to the implementation phase. We need to coordinate our implementation down to the wereda and kebele (lowest) levels. There is a new agency established to oversee the coordination aspect of infrastructure-development projects in Ethiopia. There are different actors involved in infrastructure development. And federal institutions are responsible for coordinating among these different actors.  

Since you took the reins of the ministry, what have been the major challenges?

Number one, because the ministry is new, it needed an infrastructure and direction. That was a major challenge. But, that has now been addressed. Then, we needed to build strategies and governance systems. We needed to address man-power issues since there are huge challenges in this regard. For the construction industry, it is specifically challenging to find qualified managers and strategic leaders.

How is your interaction with the private sector?

We have worked extensively with the private sector. As I told you, during the setting up of the structure of the ministry and its systems, we have managed to work with the private sector. We are also working with the private sector in other capacity-building programs. So, we were working together with the private sector when we were organizing the new ministry. In future, we are planning to have a permanent platform for the private sector that will also include the government and other stakeholders. We have already finished drafting regulations for a joint council.

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