Why Africa needs Soil, Water and Environmental Engineering

Sharon_Muyera_1Sharon Muyera is a Soil, Water and Environmental Engineer, currently working with Davis and Shirtliff, Kenya as a Sales engineer.  She believes that engineers have a pivotal role in redefining the scarcities that we face in Africa. Our chat below tells us why, now more than ever, it is important to have Soil, Water and Environmental Engineers. 

Why did you choose Soil, Water and Environmental Engineering? When I was 11, I was fortunate to travel to the UK for an exchange programme. I was mesmerized by the degree of cleanliness. There was no litter in the streets and the air was equally very clean and refreshing. The teachers were very keen on ensuring that the pupils disposed trash in the allocated bins, which were all over the compound. Back home in Kenya, it was normal for people to throw trash out of moving vehicles or even wherever they walked. I was also a culprit as this is what I found in society. My love for the environment developed there and I have never looked back. There is a large market for environmental engineers currently. The world is rapidly advancing technologically and we need to prevent, control and correct any environmental hazards that may result as well as maintain and replenish our natural resources.  I can go on and on.

What does it take to be a soil water and environmental engineer? You need to complete 5 year course in an accredited university and conduct research during the final year. There is a lot of Science and Mathematics involved since the course combines environmental, biological and technical skills to harness natural resources for development while ensuring environmental sustainability.

What role does an SWE Engineer play in our current space of climate change and industrialization? Industrialization is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases which causes global warming and, consequently, climate change. The need to reduce emission of these gases has led to the emergence of the renewable energy sector. The role of a SWE engineer, in this case, is to design mitigation measures for the control of greenhouse gas emissions.  SWE engineers are involved in developing new sustainable technologies e.g. harnessing renewable energy such as solar, wind, biomass and influencing consumer behavioral change through policy. For example, recently, a bill was passed in Kenya that made it mandatory for all apartment owners to set up solar water heating facilities.

How has research shaped your view of what needs to be done in the engineering field in Africa to improve livelihoods? Engineers should begin focused implementation of ideas that would change our continent. I will focus on just two issues: water management and food productivity. We are presently experiencing a global water crisis. I believe that we do not necessarily have physical lack of water, but economic water scarcity where there is very little investment in water resources and human capacity to meet the demand. For example, we receive a considerable amount of rainfall in Kenya, but it is more of a destructive phenomenon than constructive. I believe that we need to actively explore Rainwater Harvesting (RWH) technology and water treatment solutions. Engineers also need to design and implement feasible storm-water management plans that factor in RWH. Another issue is the decline in food productivity because of the reliance on rain-fed agriculture, which is unstable as an after effect of climate change. There is currently an acute maize shortage in Kenya. Engineers should develop efficient and low cost irrigation systems affordable to the mwananchi or common citizen. There are already steps being taken though we still have room for improvement. These products would be absolutely useful to our communities.

What is the typical day of a sales engineer? I work in the communications department also known as Internet Sales where we sell products online as well as via phone. Since a sales engineer understands the product and the technical jargon involved, we are able to provide first hand assistance to the client.  Arrive at work. Meditate. Check my to-do lists and prioritize. Check mails and respond. Receive calls, respond to social media inquiries and live chat. Size water pumps, borehole equipment, solar equipment, generators, pool products and water treatment facilities. Send quotations. Handle irate clients because we also double up as customer care agents. Follow up with existing customers to get feedback on performance of our equipment and how they rate our services overall.


Biggest career lesson so far, and the thing you hate most about your career? I have learnt how to deal with irate clients. I remember the first time I ever received a call from a dissatisfied customer who kept on hurling insults. I got equally agitated and was tempted to react and get into an altercation with the verbally abusive client. Thankfully, I managed to steady my voice and acted as professionally as I could. Over time, I have developed a thick skin and learnt to respond rather than react to difficult conversations with mean clients. What I don’t like: Being a sales engineer, I do not get to wear jeans and snickers as I had pictured my work life earlier.

How is your experience being a female SWE Engineer, the positives and the negatives. There are currently a lot of opportunities for women in the industry thanks to organizations that actively advocate for women empowerment. Since engineering has always been seen as male-dominated career, the presence of women is highly appreciated and valued. Fact is the society will always need engineers to develop solutions to problems, as a result, one gradually progresses in the career based on technological advancements. On the negative side, you have to work a bit harder to prove your technical abilities. People who call in always ask to speak to a technical person when I receive a call. They still question whether I can really help them when I tell them that I am technical. A female colleague once overheard a client saying “Huyu msichana hawezi tusaidia, wachana na yeye” (This girl cannot help us, leave her alone). Another thing is the lack of sanitary considerations for ladies on site, which can be a challenge. Juggling career and family is also quite difficult. After a long day, you still have a family to look after.

Do you have any mentors and do you think they help women further their careers? I honestly do not have a mentor, maybe just role models, but would actually like to get one. I admire our General Manager, Mrs. Margaret Kuchio. She carries herself with so much poise and dignity and knows her work in and out. I would strongly advocate for mentorship because I think it promotes self-assurance and confidence. Having someone to look up to gives you an opportunity to learn how to maneuver in the industry and gives you an upper hand in tackling any challenges that one experiences. It also gives you the drive to advance both vertically and horizontally career wise.

What is next for you? I would like to further my education, perhaps, take on a master in Land and Water Management/ Environmental Science. My long-term goal is to have an impact in the waste management sector. I would like landfills to be a thing of the past through creating awareness and developing environmental- friendly products. I would also like to get involved in policy making and enforcement.

Favourite Quote? “It never gets easier, you just get better. I’ve worked too hard to quit now.”

Any hobbies? Dancing, singing, travelling, creative cooking (Is there anything like that?) coming up with my own unique recipes. I’ve always had a thing for singing. My friends and I produced a song back in campus but we lacked the funds to record (YouTube was not that famous then!). My dreams are valid though! I also love travelling and exploring. My goal is to travel to a country that I have never been to every year. I was privileged to travel to Johannesburg, South Africa this year and it was quite an experience.

Parting shot? Be an expert at what you do. Identify that gift and work towards being the best. In other words, specialize such that wherever you go, you will always have an impact when you leave. Do not settle for mediocrity.

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