An electrical engineer focusing on gender issues
Anne Wacera Wambugu is an electrical engineer working at the intersection of gender, energy access and sustainability. Currently a Project Manager at Strathmore University, Anne is responsible for a number of research projects on topics that cover gender mainstreaming of renewable energy technologies, the use of electrical technologies to improve health outcomes in Sub-Saharan Africa and energy data science.
Anne previously worked as an electrical engineer in the renewable energy sector with a focus on energy access. Through this work, she first became involved in issues related to quality, standardization, and the conformity assessment of electrical energy systems. These topics continue to permeate her academic work where she has taken a sociological approach to understanding the influences affecting electrical household appliances purchases.
Anne has been involved in the work of the International Electrotechnical Commission (IEC) since 2017. e-tech recently spoke to Anne to better understand the link between her work in standardization and her academic research.
Tell us about your work in energy access.
Generally my work is focused on issues related to electricity access from multiple perspectives. First, I look at grid connected systems and the criteria used by households when deciding to acquire appliances. When a home is newly connected to electricity, lighting is the first device acquired. But what happens thereafter?
I also look at the issue of electricity reliability with a focus on healthcare facilities. Connection to the grid is not sufficient if electricity access is sporadic. This has been crucial especially now with the COVID-19 pandemic. What is the impact on patients when diesel is used as a back-up to run medical equipment during a blackout?
Finally, I look at electrotechnical quality standards from the perspective of the end-user. We assume that consumers will purchase products based on the certification and quality label associated with it. However, we have found that consumers will not necessarily check for the quality label but will rather buy appliances based on recommendations from friends or what they can find at the market. This area is far less coordinated than many would like to think and requires a sociological approach.
Issues related to the environment and e-waste are also areas of interest to you.
The scope of my work as it relates to quality and standards has expanded beyond energy to encompass something that is closer to environmental issues. Ultimately, the objective is to ensure that people have quality products that are safe. Furthermore, products should last long enough to be worth the investment, which is crucial, especially for those who do not have the means. If I am going to spend a month’s worth of my salary to buy an appliance, it is unfair that it only lasts a few months. This also relates to waste which becomes a problem when products are not sufficiently durable or if parts are not available to permit repairs.
Your work also looks at issues related to gender.
When we talk about electricity access, we rarely ask ourselves about the gender component. For example, we need to ask what appliances households prioritize when they get electricity. It is generally the role of women in most communities to perform tasks such as washing clothes and cleaning utensils, both of which are done by hand. Due to this “invisible labour”, you’ll find that appliances such as washing machines or dishwashers are not viewed as necessary since that work is already being accomplished. But if these appliances enter a household, women have more time to do something else. And this is the gender component – how do we value women’s work and their time?
This brings me to the next area of my work which is training. We are training women as solar technicians to help them achieve financial independence. Their certification is an important tool to receive recognition for their expertise and it gives them more confidence. I joke that my job is to be an electrical engineer who looks at gender and social issues.
Can you tell us more about your involvement in the activities of the IEC?
I am a member of IEC TC 82, Solar photovoltaic energy systems, as well as the Systems Committee on Low Voltage Direct Current (SyC LVDC). Because I am looking at DC appliances, SyC LVDC provides me with a chance to see how we can produce DC electricity from renewable sources like solar without needing to convert it to AC and then back to DC again.
You have also participated in the IEC Young Professionals Programme.
Yes, I joined the workshop in 2018. Currently, I serve as the Young Professionals Chair in Kenya as well as the Chair of the Young Professionals and Gender Programme at the African Electrotechnical Standardization Commission (AFSEC). I believe in the importance of mentoring young people. We’ve had a few setbacks on both accounts but we are now trying to revamp the national and continental programmes. I know that I may not see the full impact of my efforts in my lifetime – I’ve made peace with that. What keeps me going is knowing that the work I do is crucial – otherwise we will have a generation that does not properly understand the importance of standardization.
How can standards support the UN SDGs?
The SDGs have created the goals but there is still a missing link which is where standards can help. In terms of energy access, renewable energy is essential since it provides clean energy and helps us to reach our climate targets. We also need to ensure that consumers have good quality products that can last a long time. By doing so we can help reduce the carbon emissions and environmental degradation by ensuring that we “pay back” carbon necessary for their production and by limiting the amount of e-waste. I definitely think that standards are at the core of achieving this.
The article was written by Natalie Mouyal and was first published here.
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