Meet the man taking BIM to East Africa

BIM is steadily finding widespread acceptance in East Africa, and one of the people driving its uptake has been Bisrat Degefa, Atkins’ Head of Digital Engineering in the region. He talks to Andrew Pring

Since relocating to East Africa in September 2016, Degefa has been explaining the benefits of BIM to public and private clients and at industry gatherings, using case studies from the UK, the USA and the Middle East.

“We’ve seen a significant increase in international consultants setting up their African HQs in Kenya and they’re bringing with them international BIM expertise,” he says.

Degefa has worked extensively in the UK, Middle East and North America since he graduated with a degree in since he graduated with a degree in Construction Engineering Management from the University of Portsmouth in 2013.

One obstacle he’s encountered in East Africa has been the practice of clients employing separate parties for design, engineering and construction and not having the appropriate contractual relationships in place to manage the process of interface management and coordination “This makes it harder for us to coordinate activities, but also makes it all the more essential that we show how it can be done.”

Degefa operates out of two Atkins offices – one in Kenya, and the other in Tanzania, with a total combined workforce of around 200 staff.

Some of the major projects in region have included the development of mixed-use twin towers in central Nairobi and an extensive master plan incorporating a 10,000- unit, affordable housing complex. In taking on these key engagements, particularly the twin towers, Atkins wanted to push the boundary of its client relationships by utilising all available technology.

“We really wanted to engage with the clients to build a relationship providing more value and control over the design process to them,” says Degefa. “We wanted to get their input and give them a whole new experience of what they would expect from a designer.”

The general quality of the Kenyan workforce is exceptional. They have a very strong work ethic and are very technology savvy. The contrast with the UK and USA is interesting – there, it’s a challenge to get people to adopt innovative ways of working. But not in Kenya – here they want to be shown new ways, they’re very open-minded.– Bisrat Degefa

That meant providing clients with up-to-date design data in the form of rich 3D models—and making it all available through an easy-to-use platform they could access wherever and whenever, something that had not been available to them previously without purchasing software applications and training.” This produced faster decision making and reduced re-work by up to 15% and overall improve client satisfaction.

It required team-wide collaboration and access to design information across geographically diverse offices in East Africa, the Middle East, India, and the UK. To do so effectively, says Degefa, “We needed a cloud-based information-sharing system and therefore selected Autodesk’s BIM 360. This allowed the design team to incorporate BIM 360 into its existing workflow by replacing the use of local file storage as the file-sharing method for coordinating with one another.”

Since adopting BIM 360, Atkins can communicate data rich models to clients and give them timely access to design progress information – “it’s been a real eyeopener,” he says.

Autodesk’s presence isn’t as large here as in some other parts of the world but its reputation has preceded it. Atkins primarily uses Autodesk software for its property and highways projects and Bentley Systems for infrastructure projects.

Clever marketing has helped Atkins push BIM, but it’s become a very competitive market for all professionals. Degefa continues: “We design all of our projects in 3D and utilise digital workflows and as a result our clients benefit from the downstream use of the models such as immersive visualization for VR design reviews and AR site supervision. It is these downstream uses that we provide to our clients which we have found are a good market differentiator.”

In Kenya, there’s no government mandate for the public sector to use BIM. Degefa says the government has yet to realise the full benefits of BIM, and data to show the benefits in the UK and elsewhere have yet to convince officials to get fully behind it. However, they’ve seen a number of major projects prescribe a level of BIM adoption comparable to the UK’s Level 2 BIM requirements.

Standards of construction vary across the region. “Some projects are built to UK standards of design and sustainability,” he says, “but there are others that would be condemned and knocked down according to UK regulations.

“There is quality design and construction capability here, but you have to pay much more for it, relatively speaking.”

The general quality of the Kenyan workforce is exceptional, says Degefa. “They have a very strong work ethic and are very technology savvy. The contrast with the UK and USA is interesting – there, it’s a challenge to get people to adopt innovative ways of working. But not in Kenya – here they want to be shown new ways, they’re very open minded.”

Degefa puts this down to the more traditional approach to construction which has been established in the UK and US over a long period of time and fully accepted. “In Kenya, the attitude is more flexible – people do what they have to do to get on with it. Standards are required, of course, but in this time of rapid technological innovation, we often find the traditional ways of working can sometimes hinder technology adoption and digital workflows.”

The can-do approach means Kenyans are now moving faster than the Western world, and in some areas are more advanced in their use and adoption of technology, Degefa believes.

Alongside his role as a BIM ambassador, Degefa had the responsibility of overseeing and coordinating the integration of the Howard Humphreys (East Africa) business into Atkins following acquisition in 2016.

He’s obviously impressed his senior management, who have just promoted him to a more senior role in Bangalore, India. He’ll be sad to go, but with the foundations now in place, no doubt his work and that of others in establishing BIM regionally will continue with ever-widening take-up.

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