Initiate! Innovation African style


Cyndhu Sriram and Abdur-Rahmaan Loonat participated in the Initiate! programme at European Utility Week 2018.

Smart Energy International gained their feedback on the programme, as well as their vision for Africa, powered by innovation.

This article was originally published in Smart Energy International 2-2019.  
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here .

How did you work with the EUW Initiate! Programme and what was your experience?

CS: After achieving first place at the Gen-X Theatre Africa, I was awarded the opportunity to be part of the Initiate! Programme. I was fortunate enough to attend the visit to the Aspern Smart City Research Centre. It was an invaluable experience as I learned about the progress of the project and what the current challenges are in moving forward.

I was also fortunate enough to be part of the guided tour of the city, facilitated by Robert Hammerling who is involved in the research aspect of this project. It was a great experience overall because I was able to have a glimpse of what a futuristic city would look like and how it would operate in the new energy environment. I was also able to ask questions and gain valuable insight into what qualities are measured, how residents are benefitting from this research and what provisional conclusions can be drawn from the data already collected.

I presented at the Initiate! stand on day two. The topic highlighted the transition to fair energy in South Africa and Africa.

I presented on the current energy environment and what challenges we are facing in terms of the energy revolution and especially the digitisation that comes with the revolution. The different approaches to take to ensure that the inevitable influx of consumer data remains protected, lawfully accessed and used. My presentation opened the panel discussion which was centred around a fair energy economy.

This whole experience personally widened my perspective and insight into the energy sectors around the world. I was able to build a strong network with industry professionals and European young professionals. Seeing the different startups and the overall keen sense of urgency to get consumers on board with the movement is something I felt and adopted myself. I began to understand the true depth of the inevitable change and this in turn deepened my own desire to contribute to the energy revolution in South Africa.

 AL: Programmes such as the EUW Initiate! programme give young professionals such as myself a platform to interact with the industry. From the entire experience there were three items that I was drawn to. The first was where graduates and students were given real-world challenges and were tasked with finding solutions to these challenges by interacting with the various industry players at the event.

This gave the initiates the opportunity to be innovative in finding real world solutions, as well as give the industry a glimpse into what young talent could bring to the table. The second item that got me excited was seeing and interacting with all the young start-ups that had stalls. It was great to see young professionals given the opportunity to showcase their innovation and their vision for the future of the industry. The third part of the programme that I found very informative and interesting was the visit to the Aspern Smart City Research Centre as well as a tour of the city.

Here I learned about the work and research that goes into making cities efficient and eco-friendly with regard to energy demands.

What trends are you noticing in terms of the energy sector innovation?

CS: In the past, the focus was for energy to be supplied and made accessible to all consumers – it was a straightforward need which then brought about the concepts of generation, transmission and distribution.

In accordance with that, innovation was focused on how energy could be generated or transported with minimal loss. The next driving factor for innovation was the need to harness energy from renewable sources as non-renewable sources quickly became observably finite. Now, however, the trend in energy sector innovation is that it is being driven by the need to make everything consumer-centric. Innovation is being driven by the need to provide something valuable to consumers, empower and show them the realistic benefits of participating in the new energy environment that is to come.

One of the conference’s strengths is that it fostered engagement between start-up businesses, industry professionals and government officials. The different businesses demonstrated and stressed the benefits to be gained by consumers by digitising the energy sector. Many European businesses are dealing with one central issue – how to bring consumers into the conversation and on board with the transition. The result of this question is the innovation I saw in the start-up companies. For example, using the energy usage data of household appliances for performance testing, or detecting faulty or aging appliances which are consuming more energy than necessary.

AL: Digitalisation. The fourth industrial revolution. Artificial intelligence. Internet of things. These are just some of the buzzwords describing the trends that stood out and all these have a central backbone. Data. From the collection of data from every node in the network, up to the point where data can be collected from individual appliances in a consumer’s home, to the processing of this data so that products can be personalised, and processes optimised. Making data available and using this data to better understand the sector will bring about innovation that will benefit both the consumers and producers.

Through this, the sector can also assist in ensuring the earth’s future by using this data to provide cleaner, more efficient solutions to today’s challenges.

What are your thoughts around young talent in the industry?

CS: The large number of students participating in the programme had a huge impact on me.

I was honoured to be in the presence of such accomplished young individuals. Engaging with them in and out of the conference, I learned about their different backgrounds and what their career interests were. What was common to all young professionals, regardless of their tertiary education and work experience, is that each of them was proactive. I spoke to master’s graduates entering the industry, start-up company owners and PhD pursuers, each of which had a refined idea of how to make a valuable contribution in the energy sector with their acquired skills.

My thoughts are that these young individuals are highly driven and are passionate about the changes happening in the industry.

The Initiate! Programme tapped into the pool of potential by hosting the Game Changing Impact Challenges where students were presented with real-world challenges in the industry. It was a fruitful experience as it welcomed new perspectives and possible solutions to challenges that employers were facing in the industry.

The exposure the students got will further accelerate their careers, and top European employers are also gaining new ideas and approaches from those less experienced than them. Looking forward I think there is immense young talent in the industry, and I am confident that the younger generation of skilled professionals will tackle and overcome the challenges being faced by the industry, both now and in the future.

AL: Having graduated from university less than five years ago and having the opportunity of being in Eskom’s training programme, I have seen the immense young talent that is coming into the industry. We need to use the younger graduates to take the country into the future, by encouraging them to get excited about all the potential in the industry to better the lives of the inhabitants of our beautiful continent.

It is vital to showcase all the opportunities that are arising from the fourth industrial revolution to the younger generation so that they can realise the possibility of creating unique innovative solutions to Africa’s challenges. After all, it will be this young talent that carries South Africa, and Africa, into the age of digitalisation.

How can we stimulate sector progress through innovation in an African and global context?

CS: Globalisation has been an ongoing phenomenon, moving together with technological advancements. The ability we have today to connect across time zones is an incredible advantage and should be used to its fullest potential when driving sector progress in both contexts. Africa is a continent with one of the greatest populations of youth – a powerful resource for a strong economy. I believe the challenges being faced in other countries regarding the energy revolution can be used as learning experiences for Africans. Africa is in a prime position to learn from the struggles and challenges faced by the rest of the world and develop ways to move forward in the energy revolution with fewer of the same challenges, tackling foreseeable risks strategically.

I believe more interaction needs to be had between African countries and developed countries that have moved steadily forward in the energy revolution. These interactions are already being encouraged and supported, whereby companies are sponsoring African students to study further in research areas targeted towards the energy sector at reputable tertiary institutions. These individuals are given the opportunity to study further and be exposed to other technologies in the process – thereby allowing for innovative technologies to be developed in-house, by Africans, for Africans.

Multinational conferences whereby industry professionals from different countries present on challenges in their fields also drive progress in both contexts. Networking should be done on a global basis, allowing for easier pairing of problems and solutions across continents.

AL: As the world goes into the digital age, the utility sector must follow suit and the only way to progress quickly enough in this rapidly changing environment is through innovation. Together with digitalising the industry, emphasis must be placed on ensuring our environment remains sustainable.

By developing innovative solutions, we could ensure that the industry rapidly completes its turnaround in providing eco-friendly, sustainable services to consumers. One way to fast-track this is for the industry to start looking towards the young talent. As the younger generation have grown up in this environment of digitalisation and eco-consciousness, they are the logical players to bring the sector into the future. So, in the interest of stimulating sector progress, I urge the industry to look to the young talent available for solutions and ensure the industry pipeline for the future. SEI

About the interviewees

Cyndhu Sriram is an electrical engineer, currently working for ABB South Africa as an associate design engineer for low voltage switchgear products in the Electrification Solutions division. She holds a bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from the University of the Witwatersrand, which she graduated from in 2015. Her interest in the energy sector began with an internship at the Eskom National Control Centre where she worked for two years before joining ABB South Africa.

Cyndhu participated in the Gen-X Theatre Africa where she achieved first place for presenting on practise of economic dispatch in South Africa. Through the Gen-X Theatre Africa initiative, she was afforded the opportunity to participate in the European Utility Week 2018. Her fields of interest and experience range from renewable energy systems, protection systems, data analytics in the energy industry as well as economic efficiency in generation and transmission of energy. She can be contacted via email at

Abdur-Rahmaan Loonat is an engineer-in-training at ABB South Africa. He graduated from the University of Johannesburg with a B.Eng. in electrical and electronic engineering and a BSc in Information Technology. Since graduating, he has completed a 24-month training programme at Eskom’s System Operator where he got to understand and work with South Africa’s electrical transmission grid and thereafter moved into his current role at ABB South Africa.

Abdur-Rahmaan took part in the 2018 PowerGen Gen-X Theatre Africa where he presented his undergraduate project, Telepresence through Telerobotics, attaining second position. Through this achievement he was afforded the opportunity to attend the European Utility Week 2018 in Vienna, Austria as an Initiate.