Sarah Mulwah of Botswana has been an environmental consultant and a marketing manager for a nature reserve where she helped track white rhinos for a conservation project.
But a six-week energy institute at UC Davis is helping her blaze a trail for a new endeavor — setting up a lending library of solar lanterns for rural schoolchildren whose families are too poor to connect to the power grid.
She is among 25 young African leaders who have been leveraging the energy expertise of UC Davis — and beyond — as part of the Mandela Washington Fellowship, the flagship of President Obama's Young African Leaders Initiative.
"I have to find a way to make it work — to make it a long-term project," said the 32-year-old.
The institute is helping empower the fellows to bring energy to sub-Saharan Africa where, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development, two out of three people lack access to electricity.
Mulwah and the other fellows — including entrepreneurs, leaders in non-governmental organizations and government employees — have gained knowledge and skills in academic and leadership sessions, gleaned insights from tours of leading facilities in the energy field and developed support networks.
She said Kurt Kornbluth, associate director of the Energy Efficiency Center at UC Davis and founding director of the Program for International Energy Technology, has taken apart a solar lantern to show her the technology and help her get the best value for her project.
On a tour of the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab and its Cyclotron Road, she saw "small projects that have a big impact" like a biomass stove, a solar lantern and a baby incubator made with the heading pad and blanket. "It was interesting to see how they've mastered technology that can quickly change the life of a child or mother," Mulwah said.
She's also benefited from the experience and inspiration of the other fellows. "A lot of fellows have taken the risk to pursue something," she said. "They're giving me that strength to not depend on a paycheck but to go forward and fulfill my dreams."
UC Davis is one of 36 universities hosting the summer programs for about 1,000 fellows selected through a competitive process from among 40,000 applicants. Serving as academic director was Professor Kate Scow of the Department of Land Air and Water Resources and director of the Russell Ranch of the Agriculture Sustainability Institute at UC Davis.
The Mandela Washington Fellowship for Young African Leaders is the flagship program of the Young African Leaders Initiative and is made possible by the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Department of State and administered by IREX, an international nonprofit.