After a 14-day think tank at the Wetskills Water Challenge 2023 in February – “a pressure-cooker programme for students and young professionals with a passion for water” – the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Tariro Marekwa and her peers emerged as the winners. Their model uses systems thinking to consolidate the current efforts in the water–energy–food (WEF) nexus in the Southern African Development Community (SADC) region.
The team’s model was developed after they noticed that there are numerous efforts to amalgamate the current efforts in the water–energy–food nexus, but these lacked coordination and consolidation.
According to the Wetskills website, “the participants work on real life cases from companies and (governmental) organisations. Their challenge: to think out-of-the-box and develop realistic concepts”.
During the two weeks, and together with her teammates, the Master of Science in Civil Engineering student worked on a case provided by the Water Research Commission with the title: “Strengthening cooperation and capacity development in SADC through the WEF nexus”.
The group had to provide a novel solution in the form of a poster, a scientific paper and a two-minute pitch in front of a panel of judges.
The team consisted of Dr Fulya Kandamir from Antalya Metropolitan Municipality Climate Change in Turkey, Zanele Lulane of the Joint River Basin Authorities Project Board in Eswatini, Seipati Poopedi from North-West University, and Nomandla Nxusa from Rand Water South Africa.
Kamva Somdyala (KS): How did you find out about the Wetskills Challenge and what motivated you to participate?
Tariro Marekwa (TM): I found out about Wetskills through a colleague who had also taken part in it back in 2018. He encouraged me to apply, and I remember applying just before the deadline.
KS: What was the thinking behind the solution you provided?
TM: Our first meeting as a group was a brainstorming session where each member proposed what they think would be a preliminary solution. After this meeting we went on to read further and we realised that each of the solutions we had suggested prior had already been implemented.
We had to go back to the drawing board, and this time around, we focused on how we can merge all these existing efforts and encourage collaboration instead of working in silos. We thought of ways to have a more holistic view to the WEF nexus, and systems thinking was the most ideal solution to apply.
“I am now confident of my capabilities because of this experience.”
Systems thinking is a way of making sense of a complexity by looking at it in terms of wholes and relationships rather than by splitting it down into its parts. Based off this, we developed the SSWEFT model, pronounced as ‘swift’, standing for SADC Systems of WEF Thinking.
KS: How did you feel when your team won?
TM: Winning the Wetskills Water Challenge 2023 is such a great feeling! After all the work and hours put in, it paid off. I will be taking part in more challenges in the future because the content you learn in a short space of time is invaluable.
I am now more confident in my capabilities because of this experience. It was my first time taking part in a competition of this nature and I would recommend it to anyone who wants to get out of their comfort zone.
KS: What were some of the challenges you experienced during the 14-day think tank? What were your greatest learnings?
TM: In just 14 days we had to provide a scientific draft paper, a poster presentation, business canvas model and a two-minute pitch in front of a panel of judges. From the onset, the amount of work we had ahead of us was apparent and stressful.
One of the most valuable lessons I took away was that not all stressful situations are bad, some are meant to help you grow. After this experience I can truthfully say I work very well under pressure.
KS: Do you think interventions made at challenge-oriented think tanks like the one you attended get enough recognition for providing answers to some of the challenges?
TM: Follow-up action is important for competitions like Wetskills because these are real solutions to real-life problems.
In my view, the reason some solutions do not get recognition is because no one takes ownership. Luckily, in Wetskills all the cases have case owners who work directly with the participants. We worked with Dr Luxon Nhamo from the Water Research Commission so we are confident that our solution will be taken into consideration.
Challenge oriented think tanks should adopt this approach because it links the solution to the entity that needs it and guarantees action.
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