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How Engineering Can Lead To Social Change In South Africa

Published 1 year ago
By Yeshiel Panchia

South African businessman Teddy Daka says infrastructure is what drives economies and jobs and is leading innovation in this sector.

Teddy Daka watched the recent unrest that gripped South Africa with a heavy heart – an experience shared by many in the country. With violence and looting rife in the country’s Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal provinces, logistics and transport came to a standstill and critical road, telecommunications and transport infrastructure worth billions was destroyed in the process.

At the time of the interview, and in such a scenario, still in recovery from his own brush with Covid-19, Daka managed to bring humor and a positive outlook to leadership and the future of South African business. As the head of Zutari, an engineering, procurement and construction firm in South Africa, Daka is optimistic. “My colleagues say I’m crazy about infrastructure.” says Daka, an academic, philanthropist and executive who has led business transformation in the tech sector.

Previously, when at the helm of tech firm Etion in 2013, he brought its engineering background to the forefront in a digital business environment and saw it as a JSE-listed company. “I wanted to help one more time, to give back to society,” says Daka, returning to business as the co-CEO of Zutari.

However, this turnaround period has come with its own challenges in a Covid environment. But the pandemic has seen the acceleration to a digital business, which Daka sees as a way to bridge the gap between local and international businesses. “Being a company that is transitioning into a digital practice made it much easier to see how we can work around the pandemic… We ramped up very quickly on our remote working tools.”

Daka seeks to find advantages.

“If there’s any silver lining to the pandemic, it’s the acceleration, the pushing of companies to go digital faster than they would ordinarily – it’s allowing us to catch up with more advanced countries… There’s no doubt that the pandemic has begun to equalize between the Global North and the Global South in the use of technology.” Belief in South Africa’s innovation potential is a core fundamental to his optimism despite the recent strife the country has seen, “[For example], South African banks on the digital transformation side are more advanced than American banks. We came up with apps, the way we transfer money… we’re right on the cutting edge of how these things are done.” Daka believes that there is much more room for growth in other industries, particularly when it comes to infrastructure development, and that private and public partnerships are key to achieving this

“There’s no doubt that the pandemic has begun to equalize between the Global North and the Global South in the use of technology.”

growth – and that the responses to both the Covid-19 pandemic and civil unrest are good examples of the state, business and civil society working together to achieve key goals.

“These challenges have brought the parties together – and that’s what we need.” A firm believer in the role that infrastructure has to play in societal upliftment, Daka has a personal commitment to the engineering, procurement and construction industry facilitating growth for the South African economy and its people.

“If I look at my country, if I look at our continent, the goal is to try and bring the infrastructure that allows for economies to grow… That road that we have connected between a village to a city, we’ve increased the traffic between the two, it allows an economy to begin to grow within that space – that’s the impact I am talking about.

“How can we create the impact that we want as engineers?”

“How can we create the impact that we want as engineers? Why is it that with all of these massive budgets that governments have, they struggle to bring the necessary impact. In our view – it’s because of the lack of engineering.”

And when a businessman draws inspiration and hope from nature, you know he has got it right. “I’m more optimistic than ever, and I’m less fazed by what I see today. I tend to take a long-term view… If you listen quietly, when the chips are down, you begin to hear the birds singing,” concludes Daka.

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