Women engineers making waves in solar energy.

Angella Mahlanze reminisces about growing up in Zimbabwe in her home town of Marondera as a “beautiful thing”. Her father was into mechanical engineering. A meaningful platform that saw her pursuing engineering throughout her schooling and university career.

Once she finished school she initially wanted to go into the industrial sector of power generation in Zimbabwe. Through research in particular regarding power, she saw that the energy being produced was not adequate for the demand that Zimbabwe has. She understood that renewable energy technologies were the only way to move successfully into the future. Her interest in solar technology was sparked through her discovery of how easily power could be generated by producing energy from the natural resources we have around us at Chinhoyi University of Technology where she got her degree in Fuels and energy.

In a class of 12 university students, Angella was one of only four girls. Being in the minority however, never hindered her desire to learn and she found it easy to mingle and work alongside her male classmates. Perhaps due to easily interacting with boys from an early age and growing up as a bit of a tomboy, she admits. She always wanted to prove that she was capable of accomplishing what the boys could accomplish.

During her time in university Angella took a post as a part time maths teacher in a rural community. She recalls asking the children what they aspire to be when they finish school, to which most of them answered that their aspirations were to finish school and get married. This along with the hardships often faced living in rural communities brought Angella to maintain that solar installations can dramatically and positively impact the people in the communities, through exposure to something beyond their daily lives. She later became a solar installer at PV Energy where she carried out a number of installations fully kitted in her work suit, climbing up on roofs and forgetting that she was a girl for a day. She remembers the experience fondly and describes it as something that has added to her strengths.

Angella’s journey has shaped her into who she is today. Currently her passion for clean energy has now brought her to her most recent role as a Solutions Architect at Distributed Power Africa (DPA). Her involvement at DPA is in the detailed design for both domestic and commercial systems.

This entails understanding the daily energy demand of each client. Knowing what the client uses on a daily basis to produce, innovate and run their company is very important in understanding the kind of system that will best suit and fit their needs. A preliminary design is uniquely created and it is then set into a simulation to test whether the system can handle the power usage over a year, 10 years and up to 20 years. When the design meets what the client needs, that design can then be implemented.

What then is the future of solar in Africa and what are some of the costs involved? Currently the main power provider in Zimbabwe is thermal energy. It is already too constrained in its ability to generate power to meet the demands. Due to the nature of how the power is harvested, thermal energy also adds to environmental degradation by altering the geological stage of an area through mining because thereafter what has been mined is burnt, producing fumes that are harmful to the atmosphere.

In contrast, solar energy from the sun is clean. At the onset, the misunderstanding of very high initial costs caused the ordinary person to shrug off solar as unaffordable. What needs to be understood, is that solar involves harvesting a clean and perpetual supply of energy. Even the materials used to create solar such as the panels for example can be used for 25 years, and the inverters can be used for 10 years at a time. Which means you are not actively destroying the environment and you are producing continuous, cheap and clean power.

“It is also important to note,” she adds, “that the cost of solar is a combination of considering both the equipment and the expertise needed. A country like China for instance has no problem accessing silicon as well as the expertise to create the individual systems and then convert that silicon into a functional PV panel. When Africa gains the skills to manufacture and meet our own needs, we can create materials for our solar energy systems that are in turn cheaper to produce. We have the raw materials to manufacture that which is needed.

We actually have a lot of it. It’s the expertise that we lack to change the raw material into a functional item.” To date, most companies are very excited to venture into solar. The power produced from thermal energy is limited and a company investing in something that is going to be there forever, is making a smart choice. Her hopes for the future include seeing solar panels being used everywhere in Zimbabwe and Africa, in both rural and urban areas. This along with the adoption and understanding that solar is our future.

Distributed Power Africa supports the #Balanceforbetter theme for International Womens Day 2019 which is observed each year on March 8. The 2019 initiative is aimed at gender equality, a greater awareness of discrimination and a celebration of women’s achievements. DPA has an existing alliance with the Econet company Technites to roll out projects across Africa. Technite is smoothing the way for DPA through managing the skills training and recruitment of woman in the solar industry. For more on Technites click here. https://www.dpaafrica.com/solve-issues-through-technites/