Mutinta Munkombwe: Civil Engineer

Written by
Lauryn Mwale
Last Updated
Apr 2, 2023 21:18

Job : Civil Engineer

Company: Currently studying. Previously, Lusaka Water 

Location: Cranfield, England 

Education: BEng in Civil and Environmental Engineering from the University of Zambia. Currently studying MSc in Water and Sanitation for Development at Cranfield University

What has been your career journey?

I just wanted to work in something that was related to development and developing civil structures for people. That’s how  I decided to become a civil engineer. Initially, I went to uni to study medicine, but I didn't think I had the stomach to cut into people haha. In my fifth year, I chose water and sanitation as my focus going into industry. I was quite intentional about where I wanted to land after school.  I did a 4 month contract working in WASH(water sanitation and hygiene) in schools with a not-for-profit  organization called Water and Sanitation for the Urban Poor. I liked how close it was to people and meeting their needs. It doesn't matter who you are or your economic status, you need access to safe water and sanitation. I then worked for a consulting firm for about a year and a half. There I focused on structural engineering. Now, I’m working for Lusaka Water where I have spent the last 4 and a half years. 

How was university for you?

It's definitely tough. Tough but manageable. You have a lot of information that you need to understand very quickly and that is very challenging. But once you form good alliances and discussion groups, it gets easier because working with your peers is really helpful. So much of learning at university was peer learning and that’s a good resources to have. I did my undergraduate studies at UNZA, and it was an interesting 5 year journey. I often look back and miss the place. I had really great lecturers who were supportive and continue to support me post qualification.

How would you explain what you do, in the simplest terms possible?

 As a water and sanitation engineer, I work in operations. That involves maintaining the water supply, water distribution network, making sure that it is operating well and distributing water to our customer base. So, if you have a burst pipe or a leakage, I would be responsible for deploying a team to fix it. I also plan for extensions and expanding the network. This includes studying areas and finding potential for growth, proposing and designing pipelines to get water there. So, that's what I do in a nutshell.

Why did you specifically choose water and sanitation engineering? 

Water and sanitation is a big problem, both globally and in Zambia. And that manifests in all sorts of public health issues notwithstanding the fact that it is a human right. If you have grown up with a functioning toilet and running water in your house, you're actually much more privileged than many others. I wanted to work towards making things better. That's my main interest. And there are also other interesting things that I've learned along the way. There's resource recovery which is the possibility of turning what would be waste into something valuable that could be used for energy and other activities. It's really just about being part of making a difference and doing it sustainably. 

What does an average work week look like?

Well, the days start at 8AM. I work with a team of field workers so we start our days with my superintendent and discuss what needs to be done, what needs to be repaired and what needs to be improved on. Next, I mobilize whatever materials are needed, create a schedule of work and deploy my team into the field. Sometimes I go with them and check what's going on in the field. When I return to my workstation, I respond to emails and study our network as I plan for expansions and extensions. That includes speaking to other stakeholders such as property developers, potential customers and other institutions. We sit down and talk so that I better understand their needs. Sometimes I will do design work. This involves calculations and seeing what’s feasible and building proposals for new pipelines and new distribution networks. That's the core of the work! 

Of course, my boss will throw me one or two things to sort out. Quite recently I was working on a committee to tackle non-revenue water in the company. Non-revenue water is basically water that we don't realise monetary collections for. . It's been a problem for some time and we were looking at ways to reduce that. It involved a lot of research work! I was doing that for about two months, actually. It was very interesting and I loved working on that committee. That’s the job in a nutshell! Now, I’ve taken study leave for my masters. 

Tell me about that. How is graduate school?

I'm doing my Master's in water and sanitation for development at Cranfield university under sponsorship of the Commonwealth Shared Scholarship The course is mainly focused on developing countries, but it also has content that can apply in designing projects and programs in developed countries as well. It’s quite broad in terms of application, for instance I'm gaining skills that can equip me to work in a humanitarian response, which is quite new to me.. Additionally, it focuses on the nuances around water sanitation and acknowledges the impacts  social attitudes, culture, economics, governance and financing can have on access to services. These are   important considerations to design sustainable projects that challenge the business-as usual models that have historically been adopted. I'm glad that I'm gaining skills to design projects and programs that take into account the bigger picture of the water and sanitation sector beyond the hardware and into the systems that make things work. All in all, my graduate studies have been a rewarding experience and I'm glad I was granted this opportunity to grow professionally.

What is the most interesting or exciting part of what you get to do?

I like designing. I really enjoy the technical part of putting something down on paper and seeing that it's going to work. Sometimes it doesn't <laugh>, but it’s exciting to see what the numbers reveal and how my work can serve a population, how it can serve society. So I love my design. I love it a lot. From my grad studies, I love seeing how I can form ideas and opinions in think pieces. I'm learning how to write for academic and scientific purposes and I feel quite proud when I produce a coherent piece. lol!

What challenges have you faced and how did you overcome them?

I'm an introvert and so I'm used to spending a lot of time by myself. I like focusing on one thing at a time, but this job requires you to talk to a lot of people, especially if you work as a branch engineer, you have to talk to a lot of customers. And it's been an interesting challenge to adjust to being a focal point . But it's necessary for the work I do, to understand what people have to say and to meet their needs. It's a role of service and selflessness and every so often people do come and say thank you and that's so rewarding. SO please say thank you to people who work in essential services!haha!  One thing that helped me adjust is intentionally allocating time. Time for customers, my study, rest. For me, that's mindfulness, taking time out for myself to just rest and recover. Doing this also helps me recover from the high levels of stress that come with the job. 

Being younger and female in a male dominated space can be quite uncomfortable and intimidating. Especially if you're not the most assertive personality type. Sometimes it's hard to speak up, sometimes it's hard to make your voice heard the way you'd want it to be heard or to have your opinions respected. Even from people who should be listening to you.But one thing I've learnt through my mentors in my workplace is to lean into my authority. If someone speaks over me I say “excuse me, I was still talking”. Things like that help.I must say I've worked with some really amazing people who have given me space to grow and get better at what I do. They've had the patience to guide me, show me the ropes and put me onto new opportunities. It's because of that sponsorship and support that I feel like the challenges I've had can be overcome and whatever comes along can equally be faced with strength.

How has that experience differed from your expectations?

I thought it would be a lot more technical, haha. There is a joke about learning double integrals and all this crazy mathematics to just come and do everything on an Excel spreadsheet. I thought it would be a lot more technically challenging or I guess nerdy, but it's been thought provoking in ways that I didn't expect. It’s forced me to expand in other places. As I’ve already mentioned, building on the social aspects of things, I wouldn't have necessarily thought about that before. I've also learned more about working with people and working through people to achieve a goal. That's probably one of the most important things I've learned. We hear about this all the time (teamwork makes the dream work) but you don't really know what it means until you're in the thick of a challenge and you've only got each other to depend on.

You have to learn more industry relevant information and practices than what you were necessarily taught in your undergrad. A lot of the time, you're not gonna be sitting down making calculations about everything or following textbooks. You have to make decisions right there and then and use reasoning skills. The industry and theory are not all the way similar. Your undergrad will have enough information to get into industry, but there'll be a lot more learning along the way. One nugget of advice I got that I still hold with me is to remain teachable. 

What type of person succeeds as a water sanitation engineer? What are the skills and personality factors, who should consider doing what you do?

First of all, you've got an interest in helping people.You will get your monetary rewards eventually so at the beginning, the more important thing is staying dedicated to development and the impact of your work. Apply yourself and be willing to be of service to others. You're gonna have to use your initiative quite a bit, so be flexible and learn from other people. Ultimately you have everything that you need to succeed. The internet is a powerful resource, use it to see what skills you can gain to better yourselfAgility, leadership, organizational skills and other skills. Learn about the different software that applies to the sector. Look up literature from NGOs and organizations  that are leading the trends in the sector so that you can anticipate what current skills the sector needs. Approach your work with some curiosity and apply your creativity to look at long standing issues in a different way. 

What is the best advice you've ever gotten?

Acknowledging that fear is a normal thing. I got that advice when I was in a slump, and someone who I looked at quite confident said that. That was reassuring because we often think that “confident” people have it all figured out, but the lows are just as normal as the highs I felt like I had plateaued and someone reminded me to acknowledge the role fear played. It's something that you might not necessarily get rid of, but you can be aware of it. We all have some form of fear, fear of failure, fear that we aren't doing the right thing. And that can happen when you're going into a new place and you are facing imposter syndrome and you're wondering how you’re going to survive. You hear a voice in your head discouraging you. But when you recognise  it for what it is, you can develop counter-arguments. Especially when you start developing a healthy mindset. You'll think, “Oh, you're not meant to be here.” And then you can counter that with, “I've done this and this and that. I've worked my ass off to be here. I am a brilliant civil engineer.” The brain is hardwired to protect you and a lot of that involves staying in your comfort zone. So when fear comes along, do it scared, speak out even if your voice shakes, bet on yourself to make a way even in uncharted territory. You got this!

What advice would you give another young woman like yourself?

Don't be afraid to ask for what you want! If you've got an idea, do the best that you can to see it through to fruition. Even if it's something that would be considered weird or not necessarily taken up by other people. I think you have that idea for a reason. You are where you are on purpose so bring the fullness, including the quirks, of who you are to that space. You might just help other people along the way, go for it. Make sure that you are spending your energy on something that's gonna be meaningful and lasting, not only for yourself, but for your society too. Be true to yourself. Be kind to yourself. It's very important to be kind to yourself. You know, you live with yourself all the time and you might find that there's a voice in your head telling you that you can't do it and beating you down in hard moments. Notice it, Take a break, breathe, be kind to yourself and do what you can. Flourish!



Lauryn is the founder of Project Ignite Her.

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