Helena Uugwanga: Suited to Project Leadership

It’s early morning in the almost forgotten town of Aranos.  A Toyota SUV pulls in the parking lot of what should be a government building in southern Namibia. As the passengers alight, they are welcomed by a senior government official to Aranos who ushers them quickly into what looks like a boardroom. The purpose of this visit is for a top engineering firm to assess a Department of Works project, begins the quantity surveyor (QS), who is also the host of this meeting.

In all of the discussions that ensue, one of the consultants assumes the girl in the room is either an intern or a daughter accompanying her father to the meeting.

Whenever the ‘daughter’ attempts to cut in the discussion which was also attended by senior political leaders of this seemingly forgotten town, she is silenced by senior figures in this meeting. No sooner had the meeting ended then this ‘daughter’ took over at the site visit.

At the site the ‘daughter’ took charge of the deliberations with finesse and began to engage everyone leaving them in awe.

“All along I didn’t know you are part of the team. I thought you were just this man’s daughter or some intern,” said one of the consultants, pointing to Helena Uugwanga and her boss, as they walked back from the site to the vehicle.

“I was only 24 then. Occasionally I come up against someone who thinks I am not the decision maker and think they can go around me. Doesn’t take long before they learn I am here for a reason. This part is key,” says the Oniipa-born Engineering hotshot.

That was in 2010. She had just returned to Namibia as a structural engineer from Cape Peninsula University of Technology (South Africa). The seven years that followed saw Helena’s graph in civil and structural engineering ascend, working on some of the country’s top engineering projects.

From her 2010 days at Conenpro Consulting Engineers under the tutelage of Mbingee Watson Hindjou, there was no time for teething as her first big project was within her first year when she had to work from the inception to the close-out stage of Cimbebasia Primary School Project.

“I learnt the most on this project, as the challenges were across the board. From the foundations to the classroom slabs. Finding solutions for these challenges helped me grow both as a person and as an engineer. But  registering with the Engineering Council (ECN) is one of the highlights in my career. The journey was not easy, but worth it.”

The first of two girls in her small-knit family, Helena recently moved to the high-flying consultancy firm, Emcon Consulting Group, in the Project Management department under the leadership of Pewer Fourie & Colin Steytler.

Adds Helena, “One thing I have learned since my arrival at Emcon last July is that If your co-workers and management acts like a project manager is not a gender-specific role then everyone else falls in line. I have never felt a pushback; the management is never ambivalent. I have not felt like I need to be loud or rough to be heard. When you work with professionals it’s not an issue.

All new people are suspect, once you prove you are competent, those who want to get work done just move on.  So it’s really nothing amazing among engineers, maybe to clients looking in its surprising to hear that this girl, not even lady, is the project manager.”

It’s less than a year since she moved into full-time project management and she already has her hands full. She is leading the new and only mall for Khorixas, currently in the planning stage. She is also assisting on two other lodges envisaged around Namibia, one being Ondekaramba, east of the capital and Sonop in the South for Zannier Properties.

She is now among the few crop of women in Namibia who have elevated their roles as Project Management Leaders and are positively influencing the field.

Her ambition is to advocate for the advancement of project management across private and public-sector organizations.

“Only now Namibians are beginning to wake up to the field of project management, but still the numbers are few. I could name the project managers that are accredited in Namibia, even in my sleep. There is still a lot to learn, I for one, am inspired by the need for more project managers that advocate for skyscrapers.“

“Even for Windhoek to have the highest building which has  about 14 floors is not good for infrastructural development. Perhaps there is a need for architects to have the desire to work with project managers who realise dreams. I like the way the construction around The Hilton is taking shape. Small space, high-rise buildings in a maze. That’s some amazing projects right there.”

A prolific basketball player who was part of Namibia’s first ever national basketball team, Helena is now positive on building a career in project management with Emcon, considering the company’s focus on green, recycling and the entire environment. Besides, Emcon is one of the few multi-disciplinary firms in Namibia with close to seven focal areas, which includes mining and power-planning, a rarity in the field currently.

Bringing together engineers, planners, scientists, policy experts and GIS specialists, and supported by regional and international associates, the Emcon Group endeavors to contribute to development through innovative approaches that consider local realities and economic circumstances, using technological solutions in innovative ways.

Emcon has been delivering lasting innovative solutions since 1992 and has developed significant skill in the Namibian market, with a number of firsts: First 6-star rated existing building in Africa, first rural electrification projects with the first implementation of pre-payment metering; assisting with developing the restructuring of the electricity supply industry in Namibia post-independence; first large-scale grid-connected wind turbine implementation; together with the application of energy efficiency and renewable energy to the built environment, culminating in developing skill in Green Building design.

More recently Emcon extended their capability through their franchise model by adding engineering expertise in the minerals processing, mining, water and infrastructure sectors. As a project manager, Helena has now made it her mission to deliver quality, already she has begun a crusade on the government to stop being lenient on infrastructure spending.

“And quality doesn’t necessarily mean that the outcome is good or great or awesome based on everyone else’s opinion. It means the project result was fitting the organization, it satisfied the customer expectations and it was flexible enough to support any upcoming changes,” she concludes.


Summary profile

Helena obtained her National Diploma in Civil Engineering in 2007, she continued her studies and further obtained a Bachelor of Technology degree in Project Management in 2009 and Bachelor of Technology degree in Structural Engineering in 2010 from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology.  Whilst taking up her studies, she did her 12 months internship at Aurecon and she also worked for Seelenbinder Consulting Engineers as a civil engineering technician during her holidays.

She then joined the construction industry as a Civil/Structural Engineer and Project Manager for Conenpro Consulting Engineers in 2010. She worked on various structural projects and civil projects both for the private and public sector. She was responsible for the overall analysis and civil/structural design, as well as supervision of these construction projects. She had to compile documentation for these projects and ensure the co-ordination of engineering services and project management was done.

She spent the last 3 years managing the civil/structural department in the firm as a senior engineer and she was also the overall project manager for all the structural projects. Her role was to administer the resources in the office, set up a working schedule for the office, ensure that the different project teams meet the client’s needs.

Helena Joined the Emcon Consulting Group in July 2017. Since joining the firm, she has been working as an assistant project manager on the Onderkaremba Lodge and Sonop Lodge for the Zannier Lodges and Hotels, as well as the Khorixas Business Centre as a project manager.

Educational qualifications

  • Bachelor of Technology (Project Management), Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT), South Africa
  • Bachelor of Technology (Structural Engineering), CPUT
  • National Diploma (Civil Engineering), CPUT
  • Registered as an Incorporated Engineer with the Engineering Council of Namibia

General professional experience

  • 2017 to date: EMCON Consulting Group, Assistant Project Manager, Namibia
  • 2010 – 2017: Conenpro Consulting Engineers, Civil/Structural Engineer and Project Manager
  • 2009 – 2009: Seelenbinder Consulting Engineers, Civil Engineering Technician, Namibia
  • 2006 – 2006: Aurecon Namibia, Civil Engineering Technician, Namibia

 

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