In this latest LEAN IN Equity & Sustainability instalment, we speak with Michelle Lingham, founder of the Solar Power Café in Gauteng, South Africa.
Michelle, where did you grow up, and what did you want to do when you were a little girl?
I grew up in Secunda, Mpumalanga Province, South Africa, a small but industrialised town surrounded by mines and a major petrochemical firm.
I wanted to be a housewife! I saw myself married with kids and being a good mother.
What is your role today, and why did you launch the Solar Power Café?
I run a small but dynamic company doing electrical engineering designs and solar installations on a small scale, i.e. under 300kWp. I identified the need in my father’s company, Belingh, to make engineering approachable and sell to clients in a way they understand. Breaking down technical concepts and ensuring clients make informed decisions on their projects due to a good grasp of what the solar system can do, not only based on price.
What has been your most challenging experience as a woman working in your sector?
Not being recognised as a serious businessperson and overlooked by South African banks and funding institutions for conversations around funding models for women entrepreneurs in engineering. Emails and phone calls go unanswered by heads of departments despite their public calls for us to approach them for assistance.
What is the current situation in South Africa to access electricity if off-grid?
Currently, the SA economy is crippled by ‘load shedding’ where electricity cuts are scheduled for two to six hours per day. In Gauteng, some neighbourhoods and business parks will remain without power after the scheduled load shedding due to an unrelated grid issue or cable theft. This impacts businesses negatively, which are taking steps to retrench staff or close down completely. This is alarming due to the already high unemployment rate in South Africa. The renewable energy field presents many opportunities for employment in this regard and prevents businesses from closing down as they will have their independent electricity supply.
What would it be if you had one piece of advice for young girls today?
Always read and have a hunger for knowledge, and take care of your physical and mental health.
How would you describe your purpose or passion in life?
My purpose is to know where I am going in life, and with my business, I can significantly impact many lives. This means being responsible and ethical and maintaining a high level of integrity in my dealings with all persons.
And lastly, what would you wish for our planet today if you had a magic wand?
I wish that people and large polluting corporations would respect and appreciate all our blue planet has to offer us, not consistently destroy it due to greed.