A distinguished Ethiopian Construction Materials and Management Expert: Prof: Dr. -Ing Abebe Dinku

19 Mar 2017

Today’s guest is Abebe Dinku. He is a Professor of civil engineering at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology. He is responsible for teaching courses related to construction materials and construction management. He served as a member of a task force set up by the Prime Minister’s office to draft Terms of Reference for the nationwide fire-safety. He is as well main researcher in assessing and improving the quality of bricks and blocks in the Ethiopian construction industry and co-researcher in developing basic construction equipment such as mixer, vibrator and grinding machine in the project funded by the Agency for Rented Houses.

Likewise, Prof. Abebe was a lead expert in producing documents entitled “Preparation of Construction Projects Cost estimation Guidelines and Bidder pre-qualification criteria development for the Addis Ababa City Construction Bureau.  Besides, he is the only civil engineering professor in the country in his area of specialization and has been serving Addis Ababa University since his graduation in 1982. The Ethiopian Herald had a short stay with Prof. Abebe with a view to familiarizing his personal and professional life with  esteemed readers:  Enjoy reading!


Tell us about yourself.

To start with, my name is Abebe Dinku. I am a professor of civil engineering at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology. I am responsible for teaching courses related to construction materials and construction management. I was born in 1959 at a place called Addis Alem, 45km west of Addis Ababa, though my parents permanently lived here in the capital.  The thing was, when I was about to be born, my mom went to Addis Alem town to deliver her first baby son   as her parents were living there. This being the case, I was born and baptized there and later grew up in Addis Ababa at a place called “Teklay Biro” which is also called “Quas meda”.

I belong to an extended family and blessed with seven sisters and two brothers. To my amazement, my brothers are civil engineers too. My mother departed this life seven years ago due to natural  cause and my father is active at the age of eighty two. By the way, I attended primary and secondary education at Medhane Alem Elementary School and Medhane Alem Comprehensive Secondary School, respectively. Having successfully passed the Ethiopian School Leaving Certificate Examination, I joined Addis Ababa University and later enrolled in the Department of Civil Engineering at the Faculty of Technology.  Eventually, I graduated and began working as a graduate assistant at the same Faculty which is now named Addis Ababa Institute of Technology.

What are some of your childhood memories?

I have so many childhood memories. They still  trail across my mind.  I lived in a community that cares about others. As our parents were not the only people responsible for our life, the community at large was showering us with pieces of advice. As a child, I had a habit of playing football with my peers over and over again.  I was leading a happy life. At the time when I was a grade nine student, the 1974 revolution erupted. Red terror  was raining havoc in every nook and cranny of the country and thus many of my  peers passed away including one of my best friends. There was also a campaign called development through cooperation.

Did you take part in the campaign?

No I did not.  At that specific juncture, they were calling grade ten and above students and thus I could not participate in the campaign since I was a grade nine student at the outbreak of the revolution, I missed that. But about 10 years later, in the summer of 1985, we were forced to go and build houses/shelters for the reallocated communities. I was then assigned in the north-west part of the country, the current Benishangul state.

What inspired you to study civil engineering?

It is very difficult to accurately point out why I was inspired to study civil engineering. What I knew for sure was my being academically successful in any field of study. My dad was a business man. Often he was encouraging me to focus fully on my education.  Although my dad was very intelligent, he was not able to pursue further his education. Therefore, he wanted me to have a successful professional career than involving in business sector. I was working hard to fulfill my family's expectation. My father was always proud to tell and show my grades to his friends. Being the elder son in the family, my father had a habit of taking me to different places, such as  churches, market places, celebrating Gena at Janmeda, anniversary celebrations of Emperor Haileselassie, etc.

While crisscrossing the capital, I developed  the habit of recording street and business/shop names, bus numbers with destinations and  so on.  When I got home, I used to sketch them in order using rough scale so as not to miss the location when I traveled alone next time. That was a kind of surveying concept which probably encouraged me to pursue my study in the area of civil engineering. This being the case, I pursued my undergraduate studies in Civil Engineering from 1978 to 1982 and was recruited to serve as a graduate assistant in the Civil Engineering Department immediately after graduation. 

How long did you serve as a graduate assistant?

At that specific juncture, outstanding students were retained in the institute.  For that reason, I was retained to be a graduate assistance at Addis Ababa Institute of Technology. After a year, I was promoted from the rank of graduate assistant to the rank of assistant lecturer. At that time, we were very dedicated in our academic duty and after working more than two years with the rank of assistant lecturer; one was expected to produce well organized teaching material. Having produced a comprehensive teaching material in the subject of Strength of Materials and after my performance was assessed by the senior staff’s, I was promoted to the rank of lecturer earlier than going abroad to do my M.Sc. Degree in Construction Engineering, at the University of Leeds, UK.  After  a successful completion of my M.Sc. degree, I spent another  year doing research on concrete construction which was the base for my M.Phil. degree. Then, I came back to Ethiopia, finished my research and went back to England with a view to defending my thesis and had another post graduate research degree, Master of Philosophy in Civil Engineering.

When I returned home from UK, I turned out to be a full-fledged lecturer. I started teaching senior level courses such as construction management and quantity surveying to 5th year students and construction materials and building construction to 3rd year students. In fact, I served for only four years with a BSc and was relatively young   when I  went abroad. Some of the students I taught at that time have  become influential in many sectors. For instance, some of them became successful contractors, consultants, academicians, civil servants, business people and the like   here and abroad.

 The current Prime Minster, Haile Mariam Desalegne, and some more cabinet ministers were students of my class. Though I was young then, I still remember that PM Haile Mariam Desalegne was an outstanding student in the courses that I taught in his class. After returning from UK, I was assigned to serve as an Assistant Dean, School of Graduate studies and served in the post for two and half years until I left for a PhD study.  

Tell me about your major involvement in the AAU?

After returning from Germany with a Dr.-Ing. Degree, I was reinstated in my academic engagement including teaching, research and community services. I served as Associate Dean and then later Dean of the Faculty for a total of eight years. During these times, I served as chairman and member of various committees in the Civil Engineering Department, in the Faculty and AAU wide committees. The major involvement include Department Graduate Committee member (1997-1999), Department Examinations Review Committee member (1977-2000) and responsible for the overall activities in the Construction Materials laboratory of the Civil Engineering Department (1997-2001).

Likewise, the other involvement also included member and chairman faculty research and publications committee (2001-2005), member council of graduate studies (2001-2005), member of Addis Ababa University senate, Editorial Board member of ZEDE Journal of Engineers and Architects, and signed a number of Memorandum of Understanding with local and international institutions on behalf of the Faculty Technology (2001-2005) and chairman, AAU Restructuring: Construction and Property Management Task Force and the like.

Besides being a member and fellow of Ethiopian Civil Engineers  Association, I am also a founding member and Fellow of Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, Board member of Ethiopian Academy of Sciences, President of American Concrete Institute Ethiopia Chapter, Board member of Ethiopian Quality and Award Organization.

What challenges did you pass through as student?

At the time when I was a student, our interest was to be a good student. We were working hard with the intention of achieving the intended target. We were dedicated to our education. If truth be told, I did not pass through any major challenge both in Ethiopia and abroad. I had faced no academic and financial problem in my life. I enjoyed my stay in the United Kingdom. My stay in the UK further  fueled my passion for the field of civil engineering. To your surprise, we took a course in bridge design during our undergraduate study at the time when there was almost no modern bridge in Addis Ababa. After I left to the United Kingdom, I was able to see fascinating bridges, buildings, stadiums and so forth. Little by little, I realized that they are all being the product of civil engineering. After that, I came back to Ethiopia, worked as a lecturer and assistant dean and at last left for Germany to do my PhD studies in 1991.

What was your next move?

I was appointed as an assistant dean of School of Graduate Studies at a young age with fresh MSc degree. I was living with my parents and started building my private home with the intention of getting more freedom. Then after, I got married and began living under the same roof with my wife, Aynalem Debebe.  Like my contemporaries, I had so many opportunities to stay in Europe or elsewhere. Many of my  colleagues went abroad for good. I stayed in German for over five years. In fact I spent my time in Germany with my wife and our first son was born in Germany.  By the way, I have two sons, Brook and Samuel. Brook is currently studying Civil Engineering and Samuel is  due to take high school leaving certificate exam this year.

It was not even a year after my return from Germany that I was appointed again as an associate dean of the engineering faculty. I worked there for three years. Later on I was elected Dean of the faculty and served in my capacity as a Dean between 2001-2005. I was responsible for all academic programs of the institution apart from getting involved in teaching, doing research and other assignments. I was also heading Infrastructure Development Unit of the university. That was the beginning to build more university nationwide. At that point, the Addis Ababa University was diversifying its MSc and PhD programs and we were to enroll many more students and build numerous buildings in many campuses of the university. I was responsible for design coordination, construction supervision and contract administration of the infrastructure development of the university and later became Director of the Infrastructure Development unit. That was the time when many of the new buildings were initiated at various campuses of Addis Ababa University.

Academically I have supervised over 30 undergraduate final year projects which deal  mainly with design of concrete structures and materials. What is more, I have supervised over 200 MSc theses on research topics related to construction management and construction materials to students of Addis Ababa University, Bahirdar University and Hawassa University. I have also widely published over 40 articles in reputable journals.  I hope I have groomed several young people and promoted engineering excellence and professional ethics in my areas of interest. I am happy to see many of my students doing their PhD at this point in time.  Some of them who obtained there PhD degree are now assuming important positions working in Europe and USA in various capacities. Whenever I travel to Africa, Europe, USA and other parts of the world, I come across many of my former students. I have also partaken in various international and local conferences and received a number of awards.  

Tell me about the awards.

I am a recipient of a Senor Fulbright Scholarship award between 1st August 2005 and 30 June 2006 and spent my sabbatical leave affiliated to the University of Maryland, Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, USA. What is more, I was awarded a travel grant from Fulbright Councils for International Exchange of Scholars, under the occasional Lecturer program to Florida International University, Miami; Michigan State University and University of South Florida, Tampa.  I was also awarded a three month each research leave, by the German Academic exchange service, DAAD, at the University of Stuttgart in the summers of 2000, 2004 and 2007.

I am happy to have two awards from Addis Ababa University. I was honored for Distinguished Service to the University and the University Community, Addis Ababa University, February 7, 2010. And I was also recognized for Excellence in Academic Leadership, Teaching, Research and Community Services at AAIT, Addis Ababa University, May 2015. I think such positive recognitions would encourage others to serve their institutions with more dedications.  In addition I received 2015 American Concrete Institute Chapter Activities Award for the tireless and enthusiastic dedication in support of the ACI Ethiopia Chapter, January 2015.

What is the happiest moment in your life, if any?

In addition to teaching, doing research and publishing my articles make me happy. Besides, when my students graduate or complete their studies  successfully defending their research work, I turn out to be very happy.  Also  when I finish drafting a book I get infinitely happy. So far I have authored two text books and a laboratory manual which  are used my students of engineering in all Ethiopian universities. Together with my colleagues from Tanzania and Botswana, I have also published a text book which is used as an important reference material in some African Universities.

At some point, being a person born in Addis Alem, I sought  to do something to the local community. After that, I began checking whether there is good elementary school or kindergarten in the town. There was  a public elementary school but  no kindergarten. Consequently, I used my little financial and technical resources to lease a land from the Government and build a kindergarten and elementary school. I spent my time and personal resource to build the school and run the teaching service to the community. We charge extremely fair amount of money to partially cover the cost.

At this moment in time, I have about ten students whose tuition fee I fully cover. In Addis Alem, my school is now the only one that gives nursery, kindergarten and preparatory school private education opportunities to the local community children. I have now close to180 students from nursery to grade 4.I have created job opportunities for about 18 employees. I am really very happy in this regard and expect to see these students becoming future engineers, pilots, medical professionals, teachers, business people, modern farmer, etc.  Together with Engineers without Boarders Maryland, I was instrumental in designing and constructing a pedestrian bridge; youth center and model market place for the residents of Addisalem, West Shewa, since 2010. Over all, next to my academic engagements, giving service to the community makes me more than happier.

Does Ethiopia possess building code?

Yes, it does. When we get ourselves involved in a certain building construction, we need to have some kind of building code   as per the building construction code of Ethiopia.  Building codes are not rules and regulations by themselves. They are condominium of facts. If you do not follow these codes, mistakes can be made and destruction may follow. Therefore, we have to do things according to the different rules and  regulations of our country’s building code. Otherwise, it should be difficult to achieve the intended target. In fact, having building code by itself is not enough. Enforcement of code is also very important. If we do not enforce it as it should be, we cannot achieve the desired goals,for the  construction industry encompasses several components.

What  causes  building collapses? 

To begin with, the construction industry encompasses clients, consultants, contractors, local authorities, finances and users. The client is the owner.  The consultant is the professional body  that understands the interest of the client and interprets it in the form of sketch. A contractor is the one who realizes the desire of the client by  translating the design made by the consultant into reality. Moreover, we need to have local authority like sub cities as they are the one who give construction permit. We also have financiers in view of the fact that we have to get loan from  banks and insurance companies. Therefore, they are all major stakeholders.  Also we do not have to forget  end users.  In the absence of a healthy and professional link between the above stakeholders, we will in one way or another  fall in trouble. Clients sometimes, without having the necessary professional competence, claim to be contractors and do things on their own. They keep changing the design made by the professionals as they wish. In this way, it will be very difficult to have good construction practices.

Good consultants understand the interest of the specific clients and create something for the benefits of the society harnessing their creativity. However, there are also professionals who simply copy and paste designs and do not have creative capacity. As a result of such malpractices, repetitive building collapses have been witnessed in different parts of the country.  Coming to contractors again, there are ethical contractors who spend their time and money for the success of a certain project. On the contrary, there are others who make use of cheap materials for they do not care about the quality of the construction. According to many preliminary studies, we have numerous defective buildings which may collapse sometime in the future. For instance, there are buildings in Addis where construction permits  are given to a certain number of floors while construction is made two or more floors over the permit without considering the foundation carrying capacity. There are also buildings done using wrong design principles. The quality of construction materials is also another important factor to consider. That is why we see buildings collapse in Addis Ababa. The aforesaid fact is the problem of the client, the consultant, the community, the contractor, local authorities and even financers.  Unless they work in harmony for the benefit of the society, we will definitely miss the intended target.  This being the case, recently, a three-storey building  hadcollapsed in Addis Ababa. Unfortunately, one G+3 building in Addis is heavily damaged and will soon collapse . Apart from Addis, building and other infrastructure collapses are manifested in Hawassa, Wollaita and Gondar and other parts of the country. 

What should be done to get to the bottom of the problem?

To the best of my knowledge, professionals associations should focus on  these kind of issues. I do want them to come out and discuss such concerns in a professional manner. Some of us are used to teaching our students about similar problems and mitigation majors and boldly presenting our findings in workshops. But the media people do not necessarily report things as they should be. The problem related to the health and safety construction industry is one of the other disasters in this country. Many people are dying and some of them are losing their body parts particularly those working in different construction sites. This is actually owing to the backwardness of the construction methods. In our country, there is building code but due to wrong designs, wrong construction, wrong supervision, wrong mishandling by all parties, we will have a serious problem in the future unless coordinated care is taken sooner.

What is your take on a variety of glass being used for building?

It is crystal clear that glass is one of the important building construction materials if we make use of it properly.  There are different types of glasses namely reflecting glasses; normal glasses, transparent glasses and so forth.  One has to choose the right one for the right purpose. In Europe, they have different climatic conditions. But the material they use is properly investigated and studied to fit in the various climatic conditions and other factors like impact resistance, radiation, sound insulation, etc. We cannot simply import building materials used in other countries without checking the compatibility with the specific Ethiopian conditions. Most of our country’s problem, I feel, is using everything they see elsewhere straightaway without localizing it.

I know in some places it is becoming very difficult to drive vehicles owing to the reflection.  I personally came across a situation in Addis where I could not see even three meters  far due to glass reflection from the building in front of me. This incident will certainly be a cause for a serious road accident. Moreover, it is very difficult to resist the heat as there is no proper ventilation in the rooms. The windows are not open-able and the air conditioning system has not been well studied.  As far as I am concerned, clients should allocate enough amount of money so as to build quality buildings.


By Addisalem Mulat

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