Research project a purpose and a calling says winner of national competition

“Winning this competition is an affirmation that I didn’t make a mistake – it is a nice pat on the back,” says Thabani Mtsi, Matie civil engineering student who won the SAICE National IP Showdown held on 7 March this year. The competition, hosted by the South African Institution of Civil Engineering since 2013, selects the best undergraduate project amongst final-year civil engineering students from the top six universities in South Africa. Thabani was selected by a panel of judges for his topic: Mobility as a Service (MaaS) Model for the Stellenbosch Student Population.

What is the mistake Thabani mentions in his quote, you may ask? Well, he was a promising young rugby star who had to choose between a possible rugby career and his academic studies. In 2013 he played U18 SA Schools Rugby and was also selected as part of the 2014 intake at the Western Province Rugby Institute.

“Rugby never totally fulfilled me. I did not feel I was at the right place and decided to hang up my boots. Consequently, I had to take a lot of flack from some people who were very disappointed in me. I was also unsure about my academic capabilities and took a leap of faith when I decided to leave rugby. Winning this competition shows me that I have made the right decision,” he says.

“Competition at the SAICE’s National Showdown, with the theme Pushing the Boundaries, was tough,” says Prof Johann Andersen, Thabani’s project leader. “Thabani competed against the top students from the Universities of the Witwatersrand, Pretoria, Cape Town, KwaZulu-Natal and Johannesburg. The main objective of the event was to create a platform for the participants to showcase their excellent research skills, whilst competing on a national level. Participants had to show an in-depth understanding of their research project and adequate communication skills. It was also an opportunity to expose them to key players in industry. The panel of judges comprised three civil engineers who are leaders and champions in industry, and two non-engineers who are professionals.”

Thabani’s topic investigated the readiness of the Stellenbosch student population for mobility as a service. He kicked off his presentation at the Showdown with this punchy introduction: “One of the first conversations my supervisor and I had was about the first purchase I was going to make with my first pay cheque? I gave him the answer that any other future black millionaire would give him: ‘I’m going to buy a car, sir’. Ever since I’ve embarked on my research I have since been challenged and I come today to challenge YOU. I’m here to challenge the way you look at public transport, commuting, and most importantly, I’m here to influence and change the way you look at safe and reliable mobility –not as car ownership but as a service that you can use from point A to B, granting you the benefits of car ownership without you actually owning a car. So, by the end of this presentation I will be expecting everyone to be submitting their car keys in the yellow box situated on the left-hand side of the entrance.”

He continued: “I want to you to imagine a world where just from the tap of your finger you’d be able to get access to a safe, accessible and convenient mobility service that speaks to YOUR needs. Where you can get access to a bicycle, bus, taxi, Uber and even a private car anytime, anywhere, customised for you. What you’re imagining now, and that warm feeling in your heart, is Mobility as a service/MaaS. Maas is the integration of various forms of transport services into a single mobility service accessible on demand.”

Some of the tough aspects of his project are to change people’s perceptions. One is to convince some people that it is not necessary to buy a car just to own a status symbol, but to use a mobility service instead. The other aspect at the other pole of the spectrum is to convince some people that they do not have to be afraid to jump into a taxi. “The beauty of the topic is that I am working with people’s attitudes. It extends beyond the technical and the scientific and inlcudes social dynamics and socio-economics. It opens people’s minds to using various transport modes,” he adds.

Prof Andersen praises his student: “Thabani’s presentation at the Showdown was excellent and well rounded. He was confident, passionate about his topic and delivered it with a lot of conviction and eloquence. He challenged the audience and responded to the tough questions posed by the panel and the audience in a very convincing manner.”

Thabani concludes: “In my final-year project I did a survey to test models and to develop a cost model. This year, I am continuing with this topic in my postgraduate studies as to me it is not just a research project, but a purpose and a calling.”

Do read Thabani Mtsi’s winning presentation. Click here:


Thabani Mtsi, with his co-supervisors for his master’s degree, Mrs Megan Bruwer and Prof Johann Andersen.