One of the youngest Technical Directors and shareholders at leading consulting engineering and infrastructure advisory firm Zutari, Mareli Botha, was named Young Engineer of the Year at the CESA Aon Engineering Excellence Awards on 16 August at Vodacom World. Now in its 51st year and hosted in partnership with platinum title sponsor Aon South Africa, the awards celebrate innovation, quality, outstanding workmanship and professionalism.
Mareli explains that she decided to study chemical engineering due to its connection to systems thinking. She then did vacation work in the plasma engineering department at the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation (NECSA). Completing a couple of designs for a plasma waste-to-energy project, Mareli says she discovered her passion. “The combination of engineering, creative design, and the concept of making a difference to one of the largest problems internationally, namely the waste crisis and environmental impact, became my inspiration.”
This was followed by an internship under Professor Christophe Laux at the Laboratoire EM2C at CentraleSupélec in Paris. Mareli was then invited to complete an international Master’s Degree in Project Management, Energy and Environmental Engineering. It opened her eyes to all the other options in environmental engineering and sustainable design. She is currently working in green process engineering and project management at Zutari.
Mareli explains that process engineering is usually the first discipline to start an integrated engineering design in the industrial space. “It is a lot of fun because it typically allows for freedom to conceptualise new designs,” she adds. It also typically feeds into the business concept throughout the engineering phases, especially during early project phases.
It means that job creation, operating philosophies, and environmental impact are a basic function of all Zutari’s designs. “For green process engineering, it is even more true, since sustainability concepts are embedded into the basis of every design,” highlights Mareli.
Within this space, she works on fascinating projects that could fundamentally change South Africa’s green economy, such as green hydrogen, biogas to energy,waste to value, etc. “These types of projects enable us to create new businesses, with the potential to generate numerous jobs, while improving the country’s sustainability profile.”
Mareli comments that there has been a significant increase in women in the process engineering field over the last couple of years, indicating that the industry and people’s mindsets are changing. “I believe a number of other engineering fields are seeing a similar change. Having good female role models in this field is important,” she stresses.
“As consulting engineers, we work in a constantly changing industry. New technologies, new legislation, new risks and priorities for clients drive the types of projects the market needs,” says Mareli. This calls for ongoing self-development and adaptability to industry advances. Lifelong learning is a reality in a field that calls for deep expertise and relevant skills.
“It is both a challenge and a great opportunity. In my case I ensure that I interact with other experts daily to keep learning and adapting. I have never stopped studying and am currently busy with a PhD, which presents a different and fascinating learning experience. Obviously, since the industry is so fast-moving, work-life balance can also become a typical challenge for most engineers. This is something to manage actively,” says Mareli.
Mareli is passionate about mentoring and says Zutari has provided access to excellent colleagues and mentors in her chosen field. “Having a mentor is very important and having the right mentor is vital. Young engineers should actively manage their own mentoring opportunities: Find a mentor, secure their buy-in, set up sessions, and follow up. You would not believe how willing people are to spend time to nurture the next generation of engineers,” she concludes.