Young, black, female engineers at work. Credit: Candice Wakefield

+ The experience of a young, black, female African engineer working in a diverse team shows how cultural understanding can benefit project management.

As we celebrate Africa Day today, I think it is a good time to reflect on my experience of being a young, black, female engineer working in Africa for a global firm that’s trying to shape a better world. I believe my experience of working in a diverse team shows that Africa needs the best of both worlds: global expertise and unique, local cultural insight.

I work in Arup’s Centre of Excellence for Renewable Energy, which is located in South Africa. The Renewable Energy team is made up of 14 professionals spanning age groups. We come from six different racial groups. We speak six different languages between us. Some of us are married. Some of us are single. Some have kids and some don’t.

In this sort of environment, I think professionals are allowed to be themselves and accepted for who they are. As a result, I feel my approach to project management, although grounded in solid industry principles recognised around the world, benefits from my cultural background when it comes to communication and engaging with stakeholders.

I feel I’m able to connect with local African clients to really understand why they want to do certain projects, and why they want to do them in a certain way. I can delve beyond the request-for-proposal requirements to discover the real user requirements. And then I can translate those into the technical requirements the project team needs for successful implementation.

Because Europe has a longer history of developing renewable energy, when I first started I often found myself as the local project manager for a technical team based in the UK. With Arup acting on behalf of lenders to renewables schemes, I was able to make the developers of those schemes feel comfortable and help them understand why they were being asked to meet different requirements.

I’m just not sure that someone coming in from the outside, which can be seen as an imposition, can do this sort of thing as successfully. So for organisations wanting to expand into Africa and help the region tackle its challenges, I’d say the secret is allowing local people to work in a way that suits the local culture. I know that certainly seems to be working well for us.