By Eng. Michael Kopulande
(BEng, MSc (Struct. Eng.), MSc (Infra. Eng.), REng. MEIZ)
I would like to begin by wishing you my heartfelt congratulations on your appointment as Minister of Infrastructure and Urban Development. Just as well, it is very much in order for me to congratulate H.E Hakainde Hichilema and the UPND party for their election to office during the August 12th 2021 election. I must state here that the whole country wishes you well and indeed we vouch for you to succeed as you lead the citizens of this country.
From the onset, I wish to mention to you Hon. Minister that the wider stakeholders in the infrastructure drive are happy with your appointment more so that you indeed are a member of the Engineering Institute of Zambia, and as such, we have one of our own driving the infrastructure development and growth agenda. Not to take anything away from the distinguished gentlemen who have held your office before, we now feel more than ever before that we have someone in office who understands our language and to some extent serves as our mentor – owing to the vast knowledge and experience you have in this field.
Notwithstanding the above however, the Ministry you have inherited is full of challenges that need your immediate attention and direction. To put it into perspective, much of the highly discussed debt crisis that this country is going through is as a result of your Ministry. As well, the economic growth agenda that the new government has embarked on will only be realized if your ministry responds fast to the challenges and immediately innovates to fulfil the infrastructure needs necessary for economic growth. Simply put, if the livelihoods of the Zambian citizenry were to improve, then your Ministry Sir will have to rise to the occasion and deliver much needed infrastructure on behalf of the Zambian people.
If you allow me Sir, I would want to itemize some of the teething challenges that need your urgent attention;
1. Unfinished construction projects across the width and breadth of the nation: Sir, we do acknowledge that the PF government embarked on massive infrastructure spend over the last 10yrs that they were in power. Unfortunately, of the many projects that they embarked on, with the exception of bilateral and multilateral funded projects, most of these projects remain unfinished across the whole country. In mind I have the Safwa-Chinsali-Mulilansolo road, the bottom road, the Sikongo – Kalabo road, Kafue Hook bridge rehabilitation, Pedicle Road, Chama – Matumbo road, Chipata – Lundazi- Chama – Mafinga road. Mbesuma Bridge construction, Monze – Niko Road, Mbesuma – Isoka road, Kazungula – Sesheke road, Kaoma – Kasempa road, township roads in Solwezi, Kasempa, Mufumbwe, Sesheke, Kabompo, etc. Public universities student accommodation at the University of Zambia, Mulungushi University, Mukuba University, Kapasa Makasa University, etc. Public Universities like Palabana University, Lewanika University and FTJ University. (The full list can be obtained from the relevant departments and government agencies.
2. Sky rocketing interest rates from contractors; Hon. Minister all the projects mentioned above came to a standstill because payment of IPC’s to both contractors and consultants became erratic especially towards the end of 2015 and the situation has hardly improved since then. As a result, works were suspended and equipment was withdrawn from the affected sites. However, interest claims are still being claimed by the various contractors on the unpaid IPC’s. As a result, the government arrears (domestic debt) keep rising every month on the backdrop of interest claims as opposed to unpaid-for measured works. Hon. Minister, you will agree with me that this is a real problem and just as serious (maybe even more serious) as the topical foreign debt crisis. I would want to put it to you sir that as long as the projects mentioned above are not brought to a close, the issue of interest claims will continue being a real challenge to the growth of our industry and ultimately to the growth of the wider economy.
3. Dismal Involvement of the local business houses in the infrastructure growth value chain; Sir, I am sure you are very much aware that most of the construction projects are awarded to foreign firms (both as consultants and works contractors). As if that is not enough, most of the raw materials and plant have to be imported from abroad and thereby leaving our local business houses with only a thumb in the mouth. You may wish to know Sir that I did a full article on this back in 2018 and was published by Lusaka times whose link I have added below for your reference. Hon. Minister we need to resolve this with all the urgency it deserves.
4. Uncoordinated manner in which infrastructure investment is conducted: Sir in my article published by Lusaka times shared below, I belabored to explain how our infrastructure investment should always be tied to the economic development agenda of our country. What we have witnessed in the previous years is an investment that is made without worrying much about its returns. I remember your party Sir whilst in opposition would always mock the government that they are building roads to nowhere. Indeed, as much as this could be referred to as mere politicking, there is some level of truth in this. I would propose to you Sir that going forward, we need to carry out both financial and economic appraisals on all infrastructure projects of a certain threshold (say above ZMW100,000,000) that we intend to construct. This will ensure that all our financial investments on infrastructure are tied to the economic growth of the country.
5. Unsustainable high cost of our Infrastructure Projects; Hon. Minister, at various fora, you have been quoted saying our infrastructure projects are too expensive – more especially in the road sector. As much as I would wish to agree with you, but I would say it in a different way; we need to look at our infrastructure spend with analytical eyes and see if we could achieve more for less. Sir, the answer in this lies in science and technology (and I am happy your government seems to attach seriousness to this sector). Being an Engineer yourself, am very confident that you are aware that efficiency in the use of materials and resources, as well as the discovery of new materials and methods does lead to cost effective ways of doing things. Sir this can only be achieved through sponsoring R&D activities that are well coordinated with a clear objective of achieving certain goals. I am afraid to say therefore Sir that real cost effectiveness will not come through pronouncements but through hard work and the involvement of think tanks around the country or indeed establishing such think tanks with clear objectives.
6. Deteriorating key pieces of Infrastructure around the country; Sir, it is ironic that so much has been spent on Infrastructure development and here I am telling you that our key infrastructure has deteriorated beyond normal service levels. Unfortunately, Hon. Minister this is a reality. In mind I have the Kafue Hook Bridge, The Lusaka Mongu Road, the Great North Road – from Chibombo to Chinsali (bearing in mind that the Chinsali – Nakonde stretch is being rehabilitated). Kazungula – Sesheke road, Kapiri to Ndola road, Mutanda to Mwinilunga road, Indeni Oil refinery, the Zambia Railways track – just to name a few. Sir these pieces of infrastructure needed serious interventions like yesterday. Sir, please find means of intervening in these as soon as possible as the economic wheels of this nation basically depend on these pieces of infrastructure that I have mentioned.
7. Lack of innovation in the way we finance our infrastructure spend; in essence, all of the above challenges that I have mentioned are as a result of our lack of innovation to find solutions to how best infrastructure development can be financed. It may surprise you Sir that from where I stand, there is no method superior than the other. In fact, it is up to your Ministry Sir together with your counterpart at Finance to devise innovative and sustainable ways of spending on our infrastructure growth. The good news to you sir is that such minds do exist in this country and when called upon to advise will be more than willing to devise such methods. To this effect Sir, I wrote an article on this platform that sort of gave a road map to this quagmire.
In conclusion Sir, I must mention that though the challenges at your Ministry are many and may seem insurmountable, their solutions lie within the minds of the many Zambians within this country. I should state here that you stand advantaged in that you are surrounded with staff that is mostly well educated, and the last I checked are some of the best engineers we have in this country. Hon. Minister Sir, colleagues at the RDA, Ministry of Infrastructure, the NRFA, NCC and indeed Ministry of Local government are some of the best and well-trained individuals I have known in my professional life. It is my prayer that you shall fully utilize them to the best of their abilities and of course in conjunction with the private sector, the EIZ and indeed the public universities to come up with the solutions to some of the challenges I have mentioned above. Hon. Minister Sir, I wish you and your team success and I am very confident that you shall achieve even much more than any of your predecessors.
I wish you well.
The author is a Chevening Scholar-UK, Civil/Structural Engineer and Infrastructure Planning Expert.