Unlocking the power of women to fast-track South Africa’s energy transition

Like in most countries, women in South Africa are making their way into the energy field. But, for such a key and fast-changing sector, more must be done to benefit from the unique contribution women can make. Bolder implementation of existing policies, empowering girls a lot earlier and involving many more female energy managers and entrepreneurs, are some of the changes still needed.

UNIDO’s Industrial Energy Efficiency (IEE) Senior Project Manager in South Africa, Faith Mkhacwa, making a presentation about the project at the Africa Energy Indaba conference in Sandton, Johannesburg. Credit: NCPC-SA

It took Faith Mkhacwa, a Senior Project Manager in  UNIDO’s Industrial Energy Efficiency (IEE) project in South Africa, a couple of years after graduating as an electrical engineer to build the confidence needed to pursue a thriving career in South Africa’s energy field.

Apart from her passion and determination to help companies optimize their systems and their energy use, Faith also ascribes her success to mentors who looked past her gender and saw her skills, abilities and potential.

“As a young, black woman in South Africa, I faced various challenges, but I was mentored by someone who focused on my skills and attitude and who enabled me to forge ahead.”  

During her mentorship, Faith led automation projects that often entailed recommending changes to how companies managed their equipment. Sometimes, she says, her recommendations were unwelcome. “But, eventually they came to respect my technical knowledge and the value that I added. They stopped caring about the fact that I was a women and focused on what I could do.”

Faith’s story is encouraging for women who are considering a career in the energy field.

As elsewhere in the world, women in South Africa are still a minority within the industry’s workforce, especially in engineering and technical fields. Despite the urgency of the energy transition to curb climate change, women account for less than one-third of the labour force in the sustainable energy sector globally.

From a women’s rights perspective, this is problematic. It also makes no business sense. 

Women excel at managing energy in households, communities and businesses and, once they make it to the boardrooms of companies, research shows that profits and efficiency rise. Studies have also highlighted that women are more likely to care about the environment and have stronger pro-climate opinions.

More rapid change is needed

Faith Mkhacwa conducting a boiler assessment at the Rhodes Food Group in the Western Cape as part of the steam systems expert-level training. Credit: NCPC-SA

Faith is eager to see the energy sector purposefully expand its endeavours to increase the number of women participating. “It simply makes business sense,” she says. “Where women are given the roles of energy managers, energy champions, or energy engineers in companies, I have seen them drive efficiency in amazing ways, sometimes even without being given a budget. They know how to do much with little, focus on low-hanging fruit, put in place low-cost measures and still realize significant savings.”  

Even so, she emphasises, a lot more can be done. As the chair of Southern African Females in Energy Efficiency (SAFEE), a chapter of the Southern African Association for Energy Efficiency (SAEEC), dedicated to mentoring women and helping them navigate their way into the sector, she is constantly in contact with deserving women. “There are many incredibly smart women, who are just as qualified, just as passionate, and just as talented as their male counterparts,” she says, yet they find it much harder to get started in the sector.

Traditional gendered roles are partly to blame for the gradual uptake, Faith says. But the slow implementation of existing policies is also holding back progress. Some companies are still satisfied with fulfilling the gender inclusiveness quotas with hires in administrative roles only, instead of recruiting or promoting women to technical or leadership positions. It also seems that some might prefer to pay a fine rather than invest to upskill and retain women in their management teams, explains Faith.

She would also like to see women actively encouraged to take an interest in the energy sector, and the engineering fields more generally, before they reach university. “Awareness raising mostly only begins when women reach university. It needs to start way earlier. By the time a girl child goes to high school, she needs to know that she can do anything that a male counterpart is dreaming of doing.”

With all hands on deck changes are happening 

The IEE project was designed to assist companies with their climate change mitigation endeavours through CO2 emission reduction projects. The country is the world’s 14th largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions, with the energy sector responsible for the biggest share.

It was generally recognized that for South Africa to be weaned off fossil fuels and transition to a clean energy economy, all hands on deck were needed. In particular, a lot more women with diverse viewpoints, experiences and skills. 

“The IEE Project is very intentional about gender inclusiveness and one of the tools we use is our training which women are invited to attend free of charge,” explains Faith. Since 2011, of the more than 4,000 trainees who have completed the courses in Energy Management Systems and Energy Systems Optimisation offered by the project since, 48 percent were women. 

Executed by the National Cleaner Production Centre South Africa (NCPC-SA), women are involved in all aspects of the work and represent 65 percent of the IEE team. 

When the project started in 2010, there were only a handful of women sitting at the meeting tables where decisions were made or in training sessions, explains Faith.

The IEE project has helped increase the number of women participating in the national energy sector. Female energy consultants and experts are being trained and matched with companies in need of their services. The number of female entrepreneurs in the sector is also growing, a move that Faith celebrates because “they will be the ones who, in turn, will get a lot more women involved in the space,” she says. 

Female energy practitioners during a UNIDO-sponsored SAFEE breakfast at the South African Energy Efficiency Confederation Annual Conference in November 2019. Credit: NCPC-SA

A recent highlight for Faith was working with Gold Fields in both South Africa and Ghana on training and preparations for ISO 50001 certification. “Gold Fields also has a very strong focus on gender inclusiveness, which included making sure that they recruit the right women to head up the energy work in their plants in West Africa and South Africa,” explains Faith. In January this year, two of the Gold Fields mines in Ghana (Tarkwa and Damang) were ISO 50001 certified under the leadership of a female Energy Manager, something that  Faith finds very encouraging.

Overall, Faith foresees a very different future thanks to the many women like her who “just want to get things done”. The COVID-19 crisis, which is re-challenging gender equality in the workplace in so many ways, has proved this to her again. 

During the lockdown period, she stayed in touch with her network of women energy managers. Faith found they were all using the ‘down time’ to develop strategies and get ready “like never before” to go back to work and help their companies bounce back better. 

“I am hopeful that instead of women losing their jobs due to the impact of the pandemic, female energy managers and other energy professionals will seize the opportunity to make an even more meaningful contribution towards the best sustainable solution for South Africa.”