Caroline Mwangi-Makenzi is the engineering team leader in renewable energy systems at African Solar Designs. Find out how she ventured into renewable energy after her training as a mechatronic engineer and why renewable energy is a niche career choice.
Question: Tell me about your journey as an engineer.
Caroline: I am a trained Mechatronic Engineer, which simply means electromechanical engineering. After graduation, I first worked with Davis & Shirtliff, who design solar and other energy solutions. I worked for 4 years in the solar department as a technical sales engineer, where my role was in the project design and management of a team of junior engineers and technicians. The job required technical know-how to design a system that would suit the customer’s requirements. I acquired all my initial training as an on-job engineer from Davis and Shirtliff. I am very grateful to my previous boss who taught me solar design from the ground up, which I had not learnt at University. I later moved to African Solar Designs where I have been working for the past two years as an engineering team leader. I lead a team of engineers in the design of renewable energy projects throughout East Africa. The job involves much larger projects than the ones I had done before and I am also involved in project implementation. We are always juggling several projects at a go.
Question: You recently won a grant with Powering Agriculture, tell me about that?
Caroline: Powering Agriculture presented an innovation challenge on how to power agriculture using renewable energy. We won the grant to pursue a project on the use of solar energy in commercial farming. I am the project manager and the project involves performing feasibility studies, designing and development of solar powered systems including minigrids. This project is large scale, spanning 60kW – 1MW. We hope that the project will be a stepping stone towards increased commercial scale use of renewable energy, so that we can increase competitveness in business, through reliability of the energy supply. We are currently working with the floriculture industry.
Question: Why Renewable Energy?
Caroline: My first interaction with renewable energy technologies was on my internship in Germany, where I developed interest in the same. Clean energy and reduction of emissions are big issues worldwide. Renewable energy has the potential to tackle these issues, while making energy affordable and reliable, as well as making business more competitive. Both small scale players, such as individual users and large-scale users, such as industry, have a role to play in terms of green energy. My work is focused is focused on industrial scale projects. I believe that industrial scale players, who are the largest energy consumers, feel the largest impact of unreliable and expensive energy. Energy costs counts for 15% of their expenditure, increasing the cost of production. Renewables are a way to reduce the cost of energy for commercial players. By involving them in green energy projects, there is also the possibility of bringing change to the system much faster through larger scale adoption as well as creating a critical mass required to influence policy. I hope to increase the reach of renewable energy through this model.
Question: What do you love about being a leader?
Caroline: The capacity to have an implement a vision, carry out ideas, and motivate people. Being able to see the change in people once you have trained them, bringing new ideas to light and seeing them through.
Question: What challenges do you face in your capacity as team leader?
Carol: My first major challenge was to get the required skilled capacity. In Kenya, we have a tendency to import both technology and man-power for engineering tasks. I have been particularly adamant about building the necessary capacity and know-how for solar energy in Africa. I have had to invest heavily in capacity building through appropriate training so that my people can develop the competencies required for the job. Another emerging issue is the lack of hands-in skills in engineering graduates in Kenya, perhaps because of the education system. These skills have to be acquired while they are on the job, which takes time. Lastly, there is no clear distinction between the role of a technician and that of an engineer. Working on renewable energy has exposed me to the differences and compliments of these skill sets. Technicians are hands-on and know the technical bits of the job. Engineers, in addition to knowing the technical parts of the job, should be able to design and supervise its implementation.
Question: You are involved in certain mentorship programs in renewable energy, tell us about them?
Caroline: I am currently a representative at the Council on Women in Energy & Environmental Leadership (CWEEL) which is a part of the Association of Energy Engineers (AEE) who support women in energy industries. In Kenya, a group of women and I formed the Women in Sustainable Energy Entrepreneurship(WISE), because we realized the shortfall of female technicians and engineers in energy. Solar professionals require both training and a licence in order to be recognized. The task at hand, currently, is to train train women and promote entrepreneurship in the energy sector, in technical, policy and economic capacities. We have currently trained 60 women through the WISE program, a mix of technicians, engineers, policy makers, public and private sector. The training is customized depending on who is being trained and what aspects are necessary for them. These women understand the technology, can use it and reach out to other women. I am a technical trainer and part of the steering committee.
Question: What would you consider success?
Caroline: I would measure success by the impact that I would have created. The capability to motivate my team to work better, the increased renewable energy capacity that I create and the growth of the industry in general, due to my efforts.
Question: What is in the future for you?
Carol: I would like to provide more solutions for the industrial sector such as encouraging more stand alone power systems, not just in wind energy but also in solar energy. Kenya is leading in East africa in terms of houeshold level renewable energy usage, but has only 1% total solar and wind energy connectivity to the national grid. I am hoping that I can be part of the team that changes the industry by getting renewables onto the grid in Kenya, which has been difficult. I would also like to put more women on the renewable energy map by providing opportunities through training and networking with other women in energy.
Question: You seem to be juggling a lot of hats, how does the support of your family tie in?
Caroline: Family support is very important. I have been blessed to have a supportive spouse who also works in the same industry. He is an important sounding board of my ideas, as well as allowing me to run free with my career. Without his support, I would not be able to do what I have done so far.
Question: Do you or have you had a mentor?
Caroline: My mentor and role model has been Jennie Fletcher who is a pioneer in the renewable energy sector. I have learnt a lot, working with her. She is very direct and blunt.
Question: Best quote?
Carol: A rising tide lifts all boats. I think of this as a challenge to myself, I target to lift the profile of female engineers, particularly in the energy sector.
Question: What you do for fun?
Carol: Spend time with my family outdoors. I love playing tennis but have not had the time recently. I also love organizing fun outdoor activities with friends once in a while.