Gwakwani is a small rural village – with about 70 to 100 villagers – located in the northern part of the Limpopo province in South Africa. Over the years, the population size has gradually decreased due to socio-economic strain and challenges with infrastructure, electricity and telecommunications.
The University of Johannesburg (UJ) together with Schneider Electric South Africa, embarked on a community outreach project to alleviate the plight of the Gwakwani villagers who can be classified as the poorest of the poor making a living from subsistence farming.
In 2013, electrical and electronic engineering students led by Prof Johan Meyer, the Head of School for Electrical and Electronic Engineering within the Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment, UJ, together with industry partners began with the UJ Gwakwani Village Project with the aim to developed local solutions for local problems, with life- altering results.
“Due to the lack of an electricity supply the villagers faced the dilemma of a sustainable clean water supply,” says Prof Meyer adding that the initiative in the end provided the Gwakwani community with the basic amenities of water and electricity.
Prof Meyer points out that a phased approach was followed where the first phase of the project included the installation of a solar powered water pumping system, a mini cellphone charging station, a small security lighting system and a remote monitoring and communication system. The second phase of the project includes the installation of solar lighting in the village dwellings.
“Through this initiative 35 households were supplied with lights, enabling the children of the village, who walk 6km to the nearest primary school and 18km to the nearest high school to complete their homework at night. In a containerised crèche, with the first television set in the history of the Village, the youngest in the community are exposed to educational channels on television and the wider world has now been brought to Gwakwani. A bakery that employs nine people, produces up to 140 loaves of bread daily, upskilled villagers, and supplements their income,” says Prof Meyer.
He stresses that the Village’s water was supplied from a borehole via a diesel powered borehole pump. “Villagers travelled close to 100 km to the nearest diesel supply point. The only other source of water was the Mutale River, a high-risk malaria area this resulted in up to 25 cases of Malaria annually. UJ replaced the diesel pump with a solar powered grundfos pump. There is now unlimited supply of fresh borehole water through a tap network, food security through vegetable gardening, income generation through large crop farming and there were only five cases of malaria in the last three seasons.”
Prof Meyer points out that success of community outreach projects not only depends on the technical solution provided but also on the social and cultural acceptability of the solution and of the solution provider.
“The Project demonstrates the possibilities when academia, industry and communities use technology to improve the lives of ordinary South Africans. Building a trust relationship was essential for this project as the project work included the removal of existing infrastructure which included the diesel driven borehole pump. Through this project our students were exposed to real-life engineering projects and opportunities, to solve critical issues where they are needed most. It provided our students the opportunity to explore and connect with our wider community. We constantly expose our students to the world outside of UJ and outside their immediate surroundings by connecting them with real-life engineering projects and opportunities.”
The University’s School for Electrical and Electronic Engineering will be showcasing the design of the engineering educational Project and the economic development opportunities co-created through industry partnerships.