BLOG: Naseema Elias helping eThekwini Municipality be Africa’s most caring and liveable city

Naseema Elias is the Technical Officer for the C40 South African New Buildings Programme, seconded to eThekwini Municipality by Sustainable Energy Africa.

 Naseema Elias is the Technical Officer for the C40 South African New Buildings Programme, seconded to eThekwini Municipality by Sustainable Energy Africa. The aim of the C40 Buildings Programme in South Africa is to support eThekwini Municipality along with three other metro cities in the country to go above and beyond current building efficiency improvement plans, through the implementation of low-carbon building actions.

1. You are the Technical Officer for the C40 South African New Buildings Programme, seconded to eThekwini Municipality by Sustainable Energy Africa. Can you tell us a little about yourself and your journey that led you to join the C40 South Africa Buildings Programme?
I am an experienced environmental and social governance practitioner. My experience working on programmes that call for collective action and learning through sharing, made it clear that addressing climate change needs to happen at scale and in a meaningful way - the building sector offers this opportunity. Buildings have been identified the most feasible sector to tackle climate change.

2. You are seconded to eThekwini Municipality’s Energy Office. Why is the municipality committed to this programme?
The eThekwini Municipality’s dedication to addressing climate change is always understated. The eThekwini Municipality sees the programme as an investment in the quality of life for its future generations. While it may be an ambitious programme, the threat of global warming could disrupt the vision of the City which reads ‘By 2030, eThekwini will be Africa’s most caring and liveable city’. The eThekwini Municipality encourages all developers to be more environmental sensitive in their developments.

3. What would you say are the main obstacles when it comes to achieving net zero carbon buildings? Tell us about the work that you are doing with the C40 programme to overcome these challenges in South Africa.
The C40 programme appointed me as a resource in the City to drive the buildings programme. My appointment supports the development of processes that will allow for successful implementation of the low carbon interventions long into the future. I bring to the municipality a technical knowledge on energy efficiency in buildings and also the capacity to map out other risks and leverages that may be present. My role through C40 in the Municipality has been valuable as I invest time in getting commitment to the change and embedding it.

4. You have been part of the programme for 3 years now. What have you learnt to be an important building block for cities to have a net zero carbon building policy?
Relationships are key. Municipalities are highly complex socio-technical systems – meaning that one should be cognizant that there is a strong interface between people and technology. As one should invest time in understanding new technologies, investing time in understanding the people that work with these technologies and systems is equally as important. A lack of courteous engagement with people in the workplace can be detrimental to the success of any programme. There are many benefits to communicating with stakeholders such as reducing misunderstandings and ensuring that timelines are met, which inevitably decrease conflicts.

5. Net zero carbon buildings are still new especially in developing countries like South Africa. What role can incentives play to ensure there is increased uptake for net zero carbon buildings?
Incentives are a common tool used by governments to stimulate investment in a particular technology or service. We live in a world of high-energy consumption, and while we are also in the age of innovation, businesses will benefit from seeing that their government is equally as committed to sustainability. In a tough economic climate, businesses will continually evaluate how to reduce their operating costs. Therefore, incentivising net zero carbon initiatives will point businesses in the right direction to do this in a way that can offer sustained and long-term cost (and risk) reductions and can also deliver a substantial boost to an organization's bottom line, freeing up resources for other initiatives.

6. Most sub-Saharan African cities are still struggling with electrification. Is it important for them to be thinking about energy efficiency and net zero carbon?

Improving accessibility of safe and sustainable energy to the people is a key indicator of equitable development. Without safe access to energy, people risk their lives by using paraffin lamps or may breathe in toxic smoke created when burning charcoal, wood, coal or animal waste to cook their food. While access to clean modern energy is paramount, energy efficiency should be implemented in parallel to ensure that energy can be provided at pace to meet the rapidly growing needs of Cities. Statistics from the International Energy Agency (2017) show that deep energy efficiency retrofit interventions on existing buildings can have a 50% reduction in energy use – showing how wasteful we have been in using energy. There is also research to show that energy efficiency measures cost far less than the costs of building a new power plant.
Thinking net zero carbon should be synonymous with thinking ‘deep’ efficiency.

7. What key lessons have you learnt during your journey that you like other women entering the field to know? Share a professional challenge that others can learn from and how you overcame the difficulty and the outcome.
I have been fortunate that in my early career, I was given the freedom to make mistakes. Despite this, I always found myself constantly apologizing even for something as normal and simple as providing feedback. I noticed this among my female peers as well and it made me realise that women are systemically made to feel as though we only provide a supporting role in life. This of course may be exacerbated by poor management and bullying tactics.
Initially, the realization that my apologetic behaviours were restricting my personal and professional growth was followed by me adopting a rather aggressive and toxic working style. My pursuit to be strong was incorrectly implemented, and I felt that my usual friendly demeanor would be seen as a weakness. This is not uncommon but I would like to encourage everyone reading this to never belittle others, and to extend kindness and support in the workplace, even during the tough times. Achieving successful outcomes is not done by micro-managing and intimidating your team or colleagues.

I have learnt along the way to embrace who I am and leverage my emotional intelligence to work for me. We have all been told to change ourselves, rather than hone in on our best assets. It is not easy at all to decipher what advice is given to us with good intentions and on the days I falter, I turn to trusted friends and even professionals to help me filter out any toxicity that could be from external or even from ourselves. Seeking counsel has assisted me in keeping a strong mind that is still very open to learning.