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Ahead of the African Utility Week conference, ESI Africa spoke with Mlungisi Mkhwanazi, Director of the Africa Utilities Technology Council (AUTC), to voice his views on water resource management, T&D technology application and the importance of attending the event.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 2, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.

Mlu, welcome back to African Utility Week (AUW) where you are hosting a co-located event and are an association partner to the conference. Let’s start with some background on the AUTC and the goals of the organisation.

Great to be back in the buzz of utilities in Africa, the atmosphere is electrifying. AUTC as the African chapter of the Utility Technology Council was founded in December 2015 by a number of utilities and municipalities. The main objective is to bring together like-minded organisations to collaborate on various technology platforms applied within the utilities. These platforms include Spectrum, OT/IT Conversion or migration, cybersecurity, just to name a few. We also create a learning environment where we bring together utilities and OEMs to provide working solutions to our current technological challenges.

Since last year, the AUTC has a much bigger role at African Utility Week, including a co-located conference, and contributions to the metering, water and T&D conference tracks. What can delegates expect from these sessions?

These are interesting times indeed as we see ourselves growing as a brand and delivering on our set mandate. Allow me to start with the most critical topic for not only South Africa (SA) but also the whole continent: the access to and availability of that scarce resource, water.

The country continues to implement plans to address this as three of the nine provinces are teetering on water shortage, with the City of Cape Town recently pegging Day Zero
to sometime in June if rainfall during winter is not forthcoming. In other provinces like the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, the scarcity of water has had a dire impact on tourism,
which indirectly affects the livelihood of these provinces’ communities. Agriculture is also facing closure of some of the country’s farms due to drought conditions, which could lead to high prices as the need for imported staple foods increases – this will substantially affect the poorer amongst us.

The AUTC conference sessions in May at AUW will concentrate on technology application in the water sector, in terms of making every drop count whilst using technology to
preserve and monitor any leakage points. The phenomenon of technological migration strategies being adopted by a number of utilities has prompted AUTC to look at the reasons ‘why strategies fail’. This is borne out by the fact that a utility can have state of the art technology but if funding and implementation is not managed accordingly, the
project is dead in the water.

The AUTC will also focus on T&D, which remains one of the leading topics at AUW. The T&D infrastructure not only houses the telecommunications highway through optical
ground wire (OPGW), but also assists in spreading the reach to every town in various countries. It then enables us to start talking about SMART metering and SMART cities.

Why is it important for utility, telecoms and ICT to be together at a utility event?

We have come to realise that the model that works best for any utility is to have telecoms operated in-house. Telecoms then offers carrier services to the OT and IT departments. The reason they need to be together is so that the silo approach may be dealt away with as these three departments are intertwined – not only in the services area but from the
funding perspective as well.

There are a lot of synergies that can be achieved if these three departments collaborate from a strategic level. Integration of the various systems could lead to a smoother transition from legacy technology to a more packet based technology.

Do you think that the merger of utilities, ICT and telecoms is inevitable? What is AUTC’s vision in terms of this?

Absolutely. The engineers among us need to fine-tune the priorities to place precedence where it is needed. As an example, OT places availability, integrity and confidentiality (in
this order) high on its list; whilst IT has the order in reverse, as confidentiality, integrity and availability. As an organisition, our vision is to magnify the interconnectedness of these three departments to foster integration at every level.

In your view, what are the main challenges facing Africa’s utility sector?

The rollout of renewables is changing the face of traditional energy-mix businesses. Utilities are asking how they can embrace renewables and remain sustainable with new
business models and favourable revenue streams, which will allow their infrastructure and system investments to be maximised. Although the cost of renewable energy has been decreasing over the last five years, the funding remains an issue due to geo-political tensions in some areas of our continent.

What will AUTC’s main message be at African Utility Week?

Our message is that collaborative engagements and knowledge sharing between utilities through Work Groups, OEM workshop sessions, and the broader Global Advisory Councils can drive better use of technologies. It is imperative that we learn from utilities across the world, in order to cross-pollinate our experiences and avoid sinkholes from a
technological angle.

How important is the conference and exhibition for the utility sector?

The AUW represents a concentration of thought leaders as well as technical industry experts in the utility space. A vast area of the exhibition floor is dedicated to showcasing the new and latest technologies that can assist utilities in achieving their respective technological deployment objectives.

It is also a place where like-minded leaders meet to share experiences and find possible collaborations. The host organisation has been doing well in bringing these utilities together for the sake of Africa’s progress. Improvement of access to clean water and the reduction of electricity outages due to load shedding remains the leading motivation for
Africa to meet in this fashion.

This article first appeared in ESI-Africa Edition 2, 2018. You can read the full digital magazine here or subscribe here to receive a print copy.