Dr Rethabile Melamu and Sumaya Mahomed are using the green economy to ensure a cleaner future for generations to come.
By: Sbu Mkwanazi
Mitigating the effects of climate change has created many environmentally friendly industries that are benefitting the African continent.
The latest buzzwords driving the ever-relevant topic of climate change are “sustainability” and “green economy”. From companies’ annual reports, presidents’ speeches, to dreaded Zoom calls and webinars, these concepts are now part of what is termed the new normal.
Sustainability consists of fulfilling the holistic needs of current generations without compromising the needs of future generations, while ensuring a balance between economic growth, environmental care, and social wellbeing.
In terms of a green economy, it is the practice of sustainable development through the support of public and private investment to create infrastructure that ensures social and environmental sustainability.
These two pillars are not only the building blocks in ensuring that Africa’s natural resources are used to progress the continent, but they are also integral in ensuring gender equality across the renewable energy sector.
Gender equality is one of the fundamental requirements for achieving sustainable development and attaining the Millennium Development Goals as set out by the United Nations, which also includes the eradication of poverty and hunger. What this all means is that more women need to play an active role in Africa’s green economy.
Dr Rethabile Melamu, Chief Executive Officer for the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA), is a native of Lesotho who has been living in South Africa for so long that she regards herself as an honourary South African. She attained her PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town and has been in the renewable energy space for more than 13 years, with experience in African, European and American markets.
“The green economy space is still male-dominated, and this is because the feeder sectors are still mostly engineering, another field where men are dominant. As in all other science, technology, engineering and mathematics related areas, we must develop a lot more women,” she says.
“Another hindrance is that the green economy sector does not have a specific academic qualification per se. At undergraduate and masters’ level, one can study for a degree in sustainability, but it does not quite cover this vast sector. As the sector grows, so will the academic offerings, as well as the opportunities for more women,” she notes.
As CEO of SAPVIA, she advocates for an industry that is advancing the use of photovoltaic solar energy, which is obtained by converting sunlight into electricity. It is a type of renewable, inexhaustible, and non-polluting energy that can be produced in installations ranging from small generators for self-consumption to large photovoltaic plants for entire areas.
“Climate change is the main reason it is so important for me to do what I do. Our current production and consumption processes are just not sustainable and if we continue in this vein, we will compromise the ability of future generations to produce the goods they need. In South Africa, sustainability has created the renewable energy sector, where the country is trying to reduce the generation of electricity from dirty sources such as coal, to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind.”
An African solution
While loadshedding is one of the most talked-about subjects in South Africa, Eskom and the South African government are considering how renewable energy can be part of a sustainable energy solution. But the broader topic of energy is a pan-African one that is being addressed by a number of African women.
As a child, South Africa-born Sumaya Mahomed was curious and conducted experiments to learn more about how various concepts worked. She knew she would end up studying engineering but had no idea she would land in the renewable energy field.
She is currently the Uganda Country Director for Power For All, a global campaign focused on accelerating the end of energy poverty. It is a non-governmental organisation that develops campaigns build advocacy for the use of renewable energy, including highlighting various roles in the sector.
“There are enough opportunities in the green economy of South Africa, but we need more women to get involved. The green economy is wider than just renewable energy. Women and everyone else need to know that waste management, sustainable food and agriculture, water conservation, and biodiversity are all areas of the green economy.
“The sector needs journalists who understand the green economy and can write more stories to educate and inform the public, and we need marketing experts in the field to promote green economy services and products. The misconception that only engineers or scientists are needed in the sector is not helping our cause at all,” says Mahomed, who is also a director for two South African sustainability companies.
“Green Building Design Group is a sustainability consultant company and Wrap Zero provides sustainability consulting to the film sector. I care deeply about South Africa and by being part of fully black women-led companies focused on sustainability, this allows me to contribute to South Africa’s green economy,” adds the 38-year-old.
On a personal level
The only way sustainability and the green economy will be a resounding success is if large corporations, governments, and community-led organisations band together. But the most significant impact can be made by individuals and families.
“Working as a sustainability professional means I must practise what I preach, whether it is saving electricity by switching off unnecessary lights or installing a solar water heater and adopting solar panels at home. It’s a lifestyle and as a family we practise recycling, composting, and adopting renewable energy technology where we can. My family is supportive and understands that we all need to do our part if we want to combat climate change and conserve our environment,” says Mahomed.