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Kenya’s green at heart techie is devoted to smart villages

The Hollywood blockbuster Star Wars films predicted a smart future and an age of automation, which is the definition of our current world.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 1-2020.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

It’s these fictional stories that inspired Mercy Chelangat, an electrical engineer and the IEEE Smart Village Ambassador in East Africa, to focus on emerging technologies that are disrupting sectors, from energy and water to manufacturing, across the world.

This Women in Energy feature is brought to you by Nyamezela.

Our editor, Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl, caught up with Mercy, who is based in Kenya, to chat about what it takes to be a green engineer, an ambassador for smart villages, and the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES) Women in Power Representative for Eastern Africa.

I understand the attraction of Star Wars as it captured my mind as a young girl as well. What other media has shaped your professional thinking?

Reading the book, Be a People Person by the American author John C. Maxwell, which I keep close at hand, taught me effective leadership through effective relationships.

Then there is the television series Silicon Valley, which perfectly describes the situation for startups, their challenges faced, how they struggle to raise funds and thrive. Watching this show, I became familiar with the concept of decentralised systems and how these are essential in shaping the future. These broadcasts, films and book are some of the inputs that have shaped my professional and personal development.

Mercy, let’s chat about the positions that you currently hold.

Being a passionate humanitarian engineer, the IEEE organisation has enabled me to be knowledgeable in the power and energy sector through its PES. The organisation is the world’s largest technical professional body dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. Through my IEEE PES Women in Power Eastern Africa representation, I have built a great network that continues to inspire and mentor me in my day-to-day leadership.

I currently serve as the IEEE Smart Village Africa Fund Development Consultant where my main goal is to assist with the fundraising efforts for various projects in Africa. The creation of a basket of opportunities for our entrepreneurs is essential to our main goal of empowering many communities in rural areas facing energy poverty all over the world.

Tell us about a project that you are particularly proud of.

The completion of an IEEE Smart Village Global Development Classroom stands out for me. This project is situated in the heart of one of Kenya’s most popular tourist destinations – the Maa Trust Headquarters in Masai Mara, Kenya. Through an online delivery system, we provide rural communities with access to education services. Students can conveniently stay in and serve their communities while receiving quality education.

Through the success of these pilot projects, we put effort into raising awareness and creating excitement in schools and at universities regarding the potential of engineering. Another example is our Networking Without Borders pilot initiative, the Renewable Energy for Kids programme.

Here the aim is to spread awareness of the available renewable energy resources that can be tapped to produce power for communities. It is essential for a child to grow up knowing what power is; as it plays a key role in many aspects of the digital age.

The IEEE Smart Village is a fantastic initiative. What makes a village smart and what is the impact?

At IEEE Smart Village, we aim to power a village and empower the community. One of our goals is to provide communities with the tools needed to rise out of poverty, using energy as an entry point. Through our three pillars of energy, education, and entrepreneurship, we create downstream benefits that are in alignment with the sustainable development goals.

A village is smart when it is empowered to become self-sustained, self-reliant, transparent and accountable; has access to affordable education at all necessary levels; has access to fair trade policies, and access to markets for the goods produced. A smart village ensures security of basic amenities such as food, water, and sanitation. Through these projects, our goal is to reach at least 50 million people by 2025.

There is an energy revolution underway that the market cannot ignore. What is your advice on how the traditional utility can respond?

Indeed, there is a major disruption in the energy markets. The total urban population is nearing two thirds globally. Urbanisation is linked to increased living standards, better job opportunities, efficient transportation systems, and access to critical services like healthcare, clean water, and food. This rapid industrialisation creates pressure on environmental resources.

Cities consume more than 70% of the world’s energy, despite occupying less than 5% of the landmass. The conventional infrastructure cannot sustain the needs of this rapid growth. As such, renewable energy is key to ensuring future stability as we transition into smart cities and villages.

The energy revolution is in full swing and traditional utilities should design the main grid while considering the potential of interconnecting with mini-grids in the future.

This is because mini-grids, coupled with income generation i.e. productive uses, enhance the economic viability of expanding the main grid. By the time the main grid arrives in rural communities, the existing customers will already have substantial loads that will increase their ability to pay.

Mercy pictured with the PES Women in Power Representatives from Kenya Power and Turkey during the IEEE African Students and Young Professionals Congress, Nairobi.

How can cities and rural villages take advantage of this energy revolution?

The International Energy Agency 2019 Report highlights how Africa is on the verge of leading the world’s cleanest economic revolution by using renewable energy sources to power the massive spread of urbanisation. Cities and rural villages alike should leverage on the energy revolution where technologies aim to provide high-quality, affordable electricity, and scaled growth. For instance, the declining costs of micro-grid component technologies are favouring their application in the last mile connectivity.

Micro-grids encourage an increased uptake of energy-efficient appliances, reducing the required capacity while at the same time encouraging productive uses of electricity. Remote-controlled energy management systems and the use of smart meters are contributing to reduction of operational expenses as diagnosis can be done remotely and more accurately, increasing revenue collection. With clean and affordable electricity, cities and villages can transition into smart and sustainable communities by providing education and entrepreneurship opportunities.

Did mentors play a role in advancing your career? What is the importance of having mentors?

Mentors provide much-needed guidance throughout your career. One of my mentors is Sainab Ninalowo, the outgoing Chair for IEEE PES Women in Power, the affinity group that aims to foster a more diverse leadership by supporting the career advancement, networking, and education of women in the energy industry. Through her constant guidance and invaluable insights shared, Sainab has enabled the leader in me. Dr Robin Podmore, the co-founder of IEEE Smart Village, is another mentor who always inspires me to become the best version of myself. It is their guidance that has boosted my self-confidence.

Having someone to closely guide you, on aspects relating to your work, passions, and dreams is key for success. Mentorships are personal investments that are critical for career development. It’s important to select a mentor whose experience is identical or similar to your own, and who is personally invested in your success. Mentors should, therefore, be open and honest about their experiences so mentees can also greatly benefit from them.

What energy sector changes are needed so that the issue of gender becomes irrelevant?

Research is increasingly showing the advantages of incorporating gender considerations into the energy value chain and the power industry as a whole.

Furthermore, as energy entrepreneurs, innovators and decision-makers, females are transforming the energy industry in their various capacities and positions.

A lot more research and advocacy is needed to ensure the private sector actively recruits and retains women, and develops gender-responsive and inclusive strategies.

Women invest 90% of their income into their family’s well-being. Investing in a woman means investing in a BRIGHTER, CLEANER and GREENER future.

The IEEE Smart Village leadership team and partners in front of the
SunBlazer IV in Kenya.

How is the sector making it possible for female engineers, technicians, and energy sector entrepreneurs to hold decision-making roles in the market?

Women offer valuable perspectives on key decisions, from investment preference opportunities to the design of projects.

This quote speaks volumes: “Missing out on including women’s voices can result in poorly engineered solutions, or, at best, solutions engineered for some, not all.” – Iwona Bisaga, Engineering for Change.

Women are disproportionately represented across the economy in senior executive positions, top management leadership roles as well as policymaking and governance.

However, the sector is slowly and steadily reacting to this situation by mainstreaming gender, establishing support groups, running outreach programmes for women. Progress has been made in improving access to quality education and training; setting gender targets and quotas; developing appropriate policies and procedures in the workplace; and pursuing measures to foster a better work-life balance.

What is your wish list for the electricity supply industry for this new decade?

Electricity on its own as a commodity is barely productive but through using it as an enabler, we can work more easily towards achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals. For the industry to be profitable, there needs to be capacity development on the type of productive uses that can be taken up by small and medium-sized enterprises as well as heavy industries.

By increasing customers’ purchasing power, utilities and IPPs can then charge competitive tariffs ensuring return on investment, and creating a win-win situation for both parties.

Mercy, I’ve enjoyed our conversation. Any final words to stakeholders on what role they must play to facilitate progress in the industry?

A comprehensive national electrification strategy and implementation plan needs to be integrated by stakeholders in the efforts towards universal energy access by 2030.

Investments in the main grid, micro-grid and standalone systems in different locations in-country, depending on the power needs of customers, should be increased to ensure maximum benefit for everyone. Stakeholders should also be willing to incorporate new regulatory frameworks to support third-generation micro-grids as well as strengthen the overall resiliency and efficiency of the power systems. ESI

This Women in Energy feature is brought to you by Nyamezela.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 1-2020.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl
As the Editor of ESI Africa, my passion is on sustainability and placing African countries on the international stage. I take a keen interest in the trends shaping the power & water utility market along with the projects and local innovations making headline news. Watch my short weekly video on our YouTube channel ESIAfricaTV and speak with me on what has your attention.