For the most vulnerable people on the planet, having hot water to wash themselves, as well as for laundry and other household uses, is an almost unimaginable luxury.

While searching for an EPICS in IEEE project that would make a significant local impact, leaders of the IEEE South Africa Section learned about Emasithandane Children’s Home. Located in Nyanga, which is a Cape Town township, the home takes in youngsters who have been abandoned or orphaned as a result of HIV/AIDS. It was in great need of many of the most basic necessities. But daily life throughout Nyanga is one of myriad struggles; it is one of the poorest and most dangerous parts of Cape Town, with considerable unemployment, crime and HIV/AIDS challenges.

The Section’s EPICS team, headed by David Oyedokun, recognized they had a dual opportunity in helping the children’s home: They could provide a desperately needed solar hot-water geyser (system), and they could demonstrate to local high school students the value of an engineering-related career through their hands-on participation in helping to design and construct much of the system. It was a classic win-win – the orphanage and its young residents would get their needed hot water, while local students, including several who lived in the home, would learn about renewable energy along with practical skills for future employment in a growing sector of South Africa’s economy.

An EPICS in IEEE grant of $9,555 funded the first phase of the project, in which five IEEE members began working with 15 Nyanga high-school students – six of them girls. Two South African NGOs, GroundWork and Earth Life Africa, helped to teach the students about renewable energy and the principles of heating water with solar power. Next, the pupils helped to conduct an energy audit of the children’s home. Then, with oversight from the IEEE members, the students built a 1kW array of solar panels from solar cells and a model 25-liter solar water geyser. A field trip to Solaire Direct Technologies, one of largest solar panel companies in the Southern Hemisphere, provided additional education as well as an enjoyable excursion.

To build the actual solar hot water system, IEEE South Africa obtained the financial support of five sponsors: Crossing Borders e.V., Stuttgart, a German-based NGO that champions educational and environmental programs; Eskom, South Africa’s power utility; Hills Solar; MLT Drives; and Solairedirect. Together, they provided close to $40,000 for a 300-liter hot water system and a 2400-watt system that was needed to provide essential electricity. Eskom’s participation also included a rebate for the use of renewable energy; in turn, the home’s managers earmarked the funds as a revenue source for maintaining the solar hot water system.

Bringing hot water to Emasithandane Children’s Home has brought hope and encouragement to everyone touched by it. The youngsters who live in the orphanage are enjoying the comfort and the health benefits of hot water, while the high-school students who took part in the project gained vital new knowledge and skills that could encourage to them to participate in South Africa’s expanding solar industry.