The African continent requires a minimum of US$130 billion annually for infrastructure development and preservation. Highlighting this number recently, the African Development Bank also pointed out a financing gap of around US$68–$108 billion.
On 10 July, the ANC’s Economic Transformation Committee officially launched a discussion document entitled ‘Reconstruction, Growth and Transformation: Building a New, Inclusive Economy’. This proposes a massive, infrastructure-led economic recovery that will include expanded public-private partnerships and a strengthening of the District Development Model at the local government level.
Earlier in June, African Union Chair President Cyril Ramaphosa underlined the importance of infrastructure as a growth driver at the Sustainable Infrastructure Development Symposium of South Africa (SIDSSA) in Sandton, Johannesburg.
President Ramaphosa stated that SIDSSA represented “a new beginning for infrastructure development – a new beginning that promises inclusive growth, development, transformation and, above all, hope for a better tomorrow for all our people.”
Barely a month after this historic symposium, a ‘new’ player is auspiciously launched in the infrastructure space. A company whose primary focus is Africa and that believes all infrastructure projects must be engineered to have an impact.
Zutari CEO Dr. Gustav Rohde is quick to point out that the ‘new’ company is really one of the oldest in the industry on the continent. Formerly known as Aurecon, it was the merger of Africon, Connell Wagner and Ninham Shand in 2009. The latter can trace its history in Africa back to 1932 – operating for almost nine decades.
In October 2019, the owners of Aurecon Africa took the bold step of deciding to demerge from the global business, headquartered in Melbourne, Australia. The process subsequently culminated in Zutari. The portmanteau name is derived from the Swahili for ‘invent’ and ‘nectar’, namely mzulia and nectari.
Of course, back in October no one could have predicted that the beginning of 2020 would see the emergence of a global pandemic, with Covid-19 having a devastating impact on both a macro-economic and a community level. Dr. Rohde, however, highlights that management could already see the winds of change push back against globalisation as early as September 2019.
“We could see the market changing, and so decided to demerge from the global company to be proudly African. It is interesting how the pandemic has accelerated this trend towards localisation, especially as borders remain closed and international travel continues to be restricted. The fact that we are a private, management-owned company with African owners makes our commitment real – we have a vested interest in our clients’ success.”
It answers the question of whether launching a new company in the current business environment is either an audacious or a risky move. Instead, it is the culmination of a well-planned journey towards Zutari, which is committed to Africa because it believes passionately in its future.
About 75% of its nearly 2 000-strong multi-disciplinary employees are professional engineers, technologists or scientists. “I think there are very few companies that can match our local capacity, long-standing presence and understanding of the challenges required to operate successfully across this continent,” stresses Dr. Rohde. It is this deep skills base and long-standing presence on the continent that Zutari taps into to make a tangible difference in Africa.
“It is all about making a difference. This refers to responsible infrastructure projects that generate employment and improve local communities,” explains Dr. Rohde. Zutari aims to achieve these goals by partnering with its clients in a process of ‘co-creation’ to derive at “joint solutions that matter.”
Dr. Rohde elaborates further: “We work in conjunction with our clients, rather than going away and designing what we think to be the answer and then presenting it as a fait accompli. Here it is important to factor in the social impact of design.
“Ultimately as engineers we are trained to focus on the technical aspects, but our solutions have both a social and an environmental impact. The best way to embrace these is through co-creation, where we also look at the end user of infrastructure, which allows us to deliver the most impactful engineering that we are capable of.”
Infrastructure development must also be sustainable, which is why Zutari is a leading player in Africa in renewable energy solutions such as solar and wind power. Dr. Rohde stresses that true sustainability for any asset owner or operator focuses on responsible development.
This includes social and environmental factors, as well as embracing appropriate new technology. “It is also about well-rounded operations and a safe and motivated workforce. We work with our clients to deliver solutions that help them stay in business and thrive.”
The ‘new normal’ ushered in by the Covid-19 crisis saw the entire company transition successfully to remote working in March – a week before the hard lockdown came into effect. The company steadily introduced digital technologies over the last decade, an investment now clearly paying dividends. Zutari is uniquely positioned to take on the challenges of working in Africa, where many project sites are remote and access is difficult.
As a final message, Dr. Rohde avers that the new company will focus exclusively on “solutions that are appropriate for the continent. What might be feasible for highly-developed markets like the US or Australia may not necessarily be affordable, let alone viable here. It is our vision and our commitment to achieving the full potential of Africa.”
Dr. Rohde sees the main infrastructure deficit on the continent as revolving around basic amenities such as water and wastewater services, transportation and energy. “Building a road, for example, is not an end in itself. Our vision as Zutari is that a road provides access, which facilitates economic development that, in turn, helps alleviate poverty and empowers communities. To address the infrastructure deficit, we need to approach both public and private sector priorities as integrated and holistic solutions.
“Infrastructure has been rightfully identified as a catalyst for growth and development. Many global companies who attempt to enter the African market do not know the best way to tackle its problems. We are right there at the coal face, where we can make the biggest impact possible,” Dr. Rohde concludes.