Q&A with Denise Johnson on Africa, Autonomy, Automation and the Workforce of the Future

March 13, 2020

Caterpillar’s connection to Africa expands more than 100 years. We have 13 dealers there covering 52 countries and a presence in 144 cities, plus more than 15,000 employees combined between Caterpillar and our dealers. It’s a key market and growth opportunity for Caterpillar and the customers we serve. 

See what Group President Denise Johnson had to say after a recent visit there where she represented Caterpillar at Investing in African Mining INDABA, met with our African dealers and had a special trip to visit a school. 

What makes you so excited about Africa? 

There are many reasons to be optimistic about Africa. Here are a few things that get me excited… … the people of Africa are incredible; they are committed to the growth necessary to positively change the lives of millions of people on the continent. Africa has five of the top 10 fastest growing global economies as well as the fastest growing middle class in the world. And, as economies and middle classes grow, so does investment which has mostly been towards the development of infrastructure and access to significant mineral reserves. 

There is also an emerging digital eco-system with the fastest growing mobile phone market and a significant share of the total regional GDP coming from the mobile economy. Africa will leapfrog traditional technologies directly to connected systems driven by the more than 200 million youth population – the youngest in the world.  

Tell us more about Mining INDABA – why did you go?

I went to Mining INDABA to meet our customers and dealers where they live and work. I was also able to join a discussion about the Workforce of the Future and what it is going to take to educate the workforce now and the youth of Africa for the future. I was also able to participate in Indaba’s Automation Hour, specific to our leadership in automation and autonomy.  INDABA is a unique opportunity to meet with customers, community thought leaders, suppliers and others about business growth in Africa – I am pleased that we were there to be part of it all!

Speaking of automation and autonomy, why is that so important?

First and foremost, is safety: 35,000 people are injured or killed every year in the mining industry. The deployment of automation and autonomy has the opportunity to significantly impact this. There are also significant productivity gains. 

As companies drive for efficiency, they are looking at their operations in the same way we look at our factories – managing process conformance and efficient flow. Autonomous trucks run 24/7, with no breaks, in any weather -think about a large truck fleet – 100 trucks running together as good or better than the best operator in the world.

What are some examples of key technologies that are supporting our customers there?

There are three examples that come to mind that really showcase the automation and autonomy offerings we have currently available. First is Remote Control – today we can have a skid steer loaders being operated remotely by an operator and similar systems are available for our excavators, track type tractors and number of other products. This helps our customers succeed by keeping operators out of harsh environments while maintaining the same levels of efficiency and accuracy.

Second is semi-autonomous operations. Cat GRADE Assist on our Next Generation Excavators, motor graders, track-type tractors and a number of other products helps inexperienced operators become efficient more quickly. It automates boom and bucket movements to help the operator maintain grade, avoids digging too deep, hitting overhead objects or swinging into hazardous areas.

The third example is full autonomy. Our mining equipment leads the industry in mining automation, with the world’s largest autonomous fleet of haul trucks and proven solutions for drills, dozers, underground loaders and longwall systems. It helps our customers enhance safety and productivity ... in fact some customers have experienced up to 30% improvement in productivity with our autonomous solutions. 

How will this autonomy and tech transformation change the way we work and the kind of skills that are needed? 

The change will be significant – and also very exciting! The digitalization of processes, data, and information in the mining sector will mean change for everyone – not just miners, but anyone who supports the industry. It’s going to require new kinds of technical skills with more focus on connected technologies and big data. It has the potential to create more jobs, encourage entrepreneurship among the youth, increase industrial productivity and create new markets. 

During your trip, you met with dealers and were part of a new Component Rebuild Center opening. What did you take away from those visits? 

Our dealers are really focused on services and growth in Africa. Our dealer Congo Equipment invited me to be part of their new component rebuild center in the Katanga region, focused on providing support close to where our customers operate. This is a great milestone on our growth journey to provide the best value and services to our customers in Africa.

Another highlight of your trip seemed to be your visit to the Malaika Girls School! What can you tell us about the school and talking with the students there? 

MalaikaDRC is a non-profit organization founded by Noella Coursaris Musunka. Her organization is focused on lifting up the Kalebuka community in the Democratic Republic of Congo including providing education for girls and giving the community access to clean water, literacy and agriculture. 

Noella put this school in place nearly 13 years ago and is reaching hundreds of youth with education and thousands in the community with skills like literacy and farming. She has been able to provide clean water to more than 30,000! 



Caterpillar Decatur celebrated their 65th anniversary with a birthday party, complete with cupcakes for everyone who was working in the facility. They also have plans for a month’s worth of communications to educate and continue building “yellow blood” pride into their talented workforce! Given the restrictions for gathering of groups, they are holding off on any larger event in hopes that later this summer or early fall, they may be able to host a full get-together of the entire Decatur team.

They are going to celebrate this anniversary all year long! Beginning in June, all facility communication vehicles will include pictures and historical information about how the Caterpillar Decatur facility evolved into Caterpillar’s largest manufacturing facility in the United States. Each week the communications will highlight a different decade leading up to 2020. Employees will get to participate in weekly trivia questions with a chance to win prizes.  

“Working in Decatur and knowing that for the past 65 years, this facility has been a large part of the overall Caterpillar story is very humbling. This is an amazing milestone for Decatur, and I am proud to be a part of this team,” said facility manager Tina Czerwinski.