/ 23 November 2018

Women entrepreneurs make it with WRC’s support

Refilwe Lesufi
Refilwe Lesufi, owner of Prana Consulting

It has been government’s intention to get women, youth and people with disabilities into mainstream economic activities. Women form the majority of the population, yet they are the least economically active. In the past 20 years there have been targeted interventions to guarantee that young women become and remain economically active. But most interventions fall short because most women entrepreneurs don’t make it even after incubation period or training.

Refilwe Lesufi is an entrepreneur who has kept her business afloat for years. She started her company, PRANA Consulting, in 2011, and now employs seven people — five women and two men. Her initial focus was on roads and stormwater drainage, but later moved to water and sanitation. She worked with technology on sand water extraction as a way of dealing with water as a scarce resource. It is this that has also opened her interest in sanitation. She now wants to find sanitation solutions that work in our water scarce country.

In 2016 she was awarded a project to make assessment of school infrastructure, which included sanitation in the Eastern Cape. Her concern is that conventional engineering solutions are designed for places that have easy access to water.

“We need to find sustainable solutions to provide rural schools, clinics and settlements with safe and suitable sanitation solutions to improve hygiene, reduce diseases and fatalities and reduce contamination of our scarce water resources,” she said. “Most rural schools are not connected to municipal infrastructure and in most cases there are no boreholes to provide water. Instead, schools rely on water tankers to provide water.”

Lesufi says there is an urgent need to provide off-grid solutions, especially in rural areas. Connecting schools to existing municipal infrastructure would be costly and might be futile because there is already capacity pressure on existing infrastructure, which is poorly maintained and aging.

What brought Lesufi back to the Eastern Cape was the invitation from the Water Research Commission (WRC), which was running the Women in Water and Social Entrepreneurship summit. She says her relationship with the WRC continues from when she was a participant in the Women in Water Ministerial Initiative.

The WRC invited her to apply to participate in the South African delegation they took to the Reinvented Toilet Expo held in November in China.

“This was an opportunity to learn new sanitation technologies to see if they can be beneficial to the South African market,” says Lesufi. “Most importantly it would be ideal to produce them locally.”

She says about her recent trip to China: “It was informative and illustrated varied solutions for sludge treatment, with the output being energy generation, water [for drinking, industrial and irrigation purposes] and fertilizers. There were front-end solutions, for example, innovative toilets that address the separation of urine from faecal matter, and different back-end solutions for treatment of sludge.

Lesufi says she appreciates the confidence and continued support the WRC is giving her beyond mentorship. She sees that a lot of work in sanitation is done in silos, thereby not bringing the effect that is required. She sees the WRC as the centre that should continue championing women in this sector.

Mpumie Nzuza has a similar story to Lesufi’s. She owns Nzuza Project, which has been involved in a number of women-in-water incubation programmes with links to the water professionals. She is an architect who has been supporting engineers, and quantity surveyors in planning water projects.

Nzuza acknowledges the importance of the assistance she received to up-skill her and company for larger projects because there were not enough women in the profession. In the past she partnered with bigger companies such as Gibb Engineering, which helped her develop her knowledge of the sector.

“After all that training it was still difficult to identify opportunities and break into the mainstream water and sanitation sector. This is where we asked the WRC to allow us to get into information sharing sessions and meetings to identify opportunities,” Nzuza says.

“Our current involvement is to make sure that the standards that are set for sanitation in particular are relevant and compliant. There are things that deal with safety that they need to look at as designs for new sanitation infrastructure is made. This exercise led by the WRC has made me aware of products that are available and systems of accessing them, how can I utilise them in my development. They have given me a tool to trade.”

The participation of these two women — and many more that the WRC will continue to work with — should ensure the continued involvement of women to advance economic growth in their areas. Ndavhe Ramakuela