By Helen Grange
In 2015, at the age of 23, Rene Naidoo was project managing a solar system engineering project in Gwakwani, a rural community in Limpopo, having been instrumental in designing and implementing an off-grid photovoltaic (PV) system that can serve as a framework for any engineer delivering solar power to a rural community.
Gwakwani is described as a "forgotten village" by villagers and faces several engineering issues, including a scarcity of fresh water and inadequate means to pump it. The project she managed, involving students, lecturers and researchers from the University of Johannesburg (UJ), has since enabled the community to pump borehole water with a solar-powered pump, charge cell phones and even switch lights on.
"It was the first time I had the opportunity to do a community engagement project with a great team, and it was really successful. It is helping the Gwakwani community to this day," says the BEng (Electrical and Electronic engineering) graduate from UJ.
In recognition of this accomplishment, Rene was awarded third position for the best engineering science final year project, as well as the UJ/Samsung floating trophy for the best community engagement project in 2015. She was also profiled in the Mail & Guardian 200 Young South Africans 2015: Science & Technology.
Rene began her engineering traineeship at Eskom, after graduating in 2016, and is currently doing her Masters degree, majoring in research and development (systems engineering). "My goal is to continue with community engagement work, and to encourage people to take a more humanitarian approach to the connection between engineering and society," she says.
Born and raised in Johannesburg, Rene came from a loving household, but one that was not financially well off. "Sometimes we struggled to even buy food in our house. I learnt from these struggles, and pushed myself to do well academically," she recalls.
Rene attended high school at Edenglen High school in Edenvale, developing a strong interest in engineering when she began her extra mural activity, Formula One Schools Challenge (F1 in Schools) at the end of Grade 9. F1 in Schools is an international STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) competition for school children aged 11–16.
Rene's team challenge included the design and manufacturing of a CAD (computer aided design) car model. She was the team leader and the design engineer, and managed the team to the end of each competition. Afterwards, her team received the second best designed car award, and the award for the team with the fastest reaction times and graphic display.
"For my efforts, I received both half colours in Grade 10 and full colours in matric. This extra mural really developed me as an individual by enhancing my leadership skills, technical capabilities, people skills and my perseverance to succeed. As a result I was also put in charge of training learners in the software used to design these cars," says Rene.
While at school, Rene also designed a solution to relocate all the school's lockers to one central position within the school courtyard – as part of her technical drawing tasks. "When I began my first year at tertiary, I was called back to the school to receive an award for service to the school, and to my surprise, I found that my design was constructed soon after I matriculated," she says.
Progressing to university was always a given for Rene – "I knew from primary school that I wanted to go to university, and my parents always advised me to study and get a good job," she says. She was thrilled when she was chosen to study engineering at UJ. "The first few months were a bit difficult, as I needed to adjust to the 'varsity' way of thinking, but I got to understand the way things worked at university in terms of being timely, expectation, communication and responsibility," she says.
By her final year, Rene was streaking ahead, and after completing the Gwakwani project, she got nominated as one of the top final year students to represent UJ at the national SAIEE (SA Institute of Electrical Engineers) presentations, which led to her being chosen as one of the top 25 young South Africans in the Mail & Guardian. Shortly after this, she was given the opportunity to participate and co-ordinate a community engagement team in the African Solar Drive as part of the UJ solar car project.
"Anything is possible if you are just determined enough to achieve the goals you set out for yourself. These achievements have also taught me to think of others before oneself. If each of us in a community does our little bit, even if it's in the smallest of ways, then the biggest difference can be made to the country, and the world as a whole," she says.
One of her greatest mentors at UJ is Mrs Nicky Janse van Rensburg, engineering lecturer and her postgraduate project supervisor. "Nicky and I became friends during my community engagement project. She gave me the opportunity to partake in the African Solar Drive. She supported me throughout my final years and constantly provided me with opportunities. She is an inspiration to many female engineers, with her optimistic attitude. I aspire to have those qualities myself," says Rene.