Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Are Kenyan Engineers Capable of Building Thika Road?

Yesterday’s post at the Thika Road Blog sparked a response from @BridgeMkr

Having grown up in Kenya then gone to the US for college and worked there ever since in bridge design, I would say that the Kenyan education system was more than adequate in preparing me for engineering school and a career as bridge engineer.

Based on that, I would say that the civil engineering graduates from Kenyan Universities have the basic tools to succeed as engineers in this world.

I read a comment that Kenyan universities are preparing students for 1980’s style construction – and if that is true, then I would say that is a good thing. If one clearly understands how to design structures built in the 1980’s then they understand the basics of design and construction.

There are buildings and bridges built in the 1900’s that are still standing. Over the years, the basics in design & construction have remained the same, with the difference being how well/accurately we calculate the design loads, and how well we design the structure to withstand these loads, the safety factors we apply to them, and the materials we use to construct them. If one understands the basic principles, then the next step of understanding modern design factors, codes, and materials is very simple.

I would rather have an engineer that can design a bridge using the old code by hand, than one who can only design the bridge using modern software packages, (and who does not know how the program comes up with the solution).

China has over a billion people therefore they will have way more engineering graduates. The way forward for Kenya and Africa, is to continue to produce civil engineers who clearly understand the basics in design and construction. Some of these graduates can then go to universities aboard to get their masters and post-graduate degrees, and who can later transfer this additional knowledge back to Kenya and Africa. The graduates that remain in Kenya upon graduation should go work under the direction of more qualified engineers, who can give them guidance on how to design various basic structures at first, with the complexity of the structure increasing as their career progresses. In engineering, like most things, experience, with the ability to learn, counts the most. Those graduates that went abroad, on return to Kenya can start out designing more complex structures based on the experience gained, but should still work under the guidance of more experienced engineers.

It may surprise a few people but today in the US, there is a debate raging on whether a master’s degree in civil engineering should be the minimum qualification for someone to be a registered civil engineer. It is felt that the current undergraduate programs are not adequate, especially if the pay for civil engineers is to go up.

In order for Kenyan and African engineers and companies to compete for, and design, major construction projects like the Thika Road Project, there needs to be a requirement that Kenyan and African engineers and companies be involved in the design and construction of these projects. This can be done by requiring some portions of the project to be designed and constructed by local engineers.

Another requirement, which would add to the cost of projects, but would ensure the transfer of knowledge, is to have independent designs done by local engineers. This means, having Chinese /European/American design firms design the complex structures but at the same time have local engineers and companies independently produce designs of the same complex structure. The local firm’s designs can then the compared to those produced by the foreign firm. Another problem with design & construction in Kenya and Africa is having adequate QA/QC procedures in place to ensure that structures are designed correctly and constructed according to the engineers design using the specified materials.

Through this process, current local deficiencies (if any) would be revealed, and at the same time the local firms would learn how things are done differently by foreign engineers/firms. This design exercise cost is very small, compared to the actual construction costs and I have been involved in projects where two independent designs have been produced.

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