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Innovation

Energy Research Centre shines

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ROMA – THE MSc in Sustainable Energy at the National University of Lesotho (NUL)’s Energy Research Centre (ERC) is only two years old but some are already using it as a model.

The ERC had its first graduates in September 2020, yet its achievements reach far beyond many university post-graduate programmes. It was only in 2019 when the ERC received M800 000 to revamp the young programme, that had hardly run for a year.

The funding was from UK Aid under the project: Transforming Energy Access — Learning Partnership (TEA-LP) managed by the University of Cape Town (UCT). The programme has been revamped and the incumbent cohort of first-year students will do a compulsory module on Energy Entrepreneurship.

This is not all that the current students will enjoy from the TEA-LP project. At the end of every module, a major assignment will be given. For any assignment that addresses energy access, the best performer on the assignment will be awarded a whopping M10 000.

As if this was not enough, at the end of the first semester, at least two students will get M44 000 scholarships for the rest of the year. The award will be based on performance and needs assessment of the prospecting students. The ERC recognises and rewards hard work.

“This confirms our high expectations of everything done by the ERC team,” says Leslie Ashburner, Project Manager, TEA-LP, South Africa.

Second-year research students are not forgotten, not in this programme. Two of the second-year students are recipients of the Southern African Solar Thermal Training & Demonstration Initiative (SOLTRAIN) research grants.

The grants are worth EUR2 100 (about M37 674) for research on the potential analysis of the use of solar thermal energy for the health sector and EUR700 (about M12 558) for analysis of the possibilities of using solar thermal energy in the brewing industry in Lesotho.

The primary aim of the financial support is to stimulate research work by students on solar thermal topics in order to build up knowledge and capacity in the SOLTRAIN partner countries.

These will further enhance cooperation on solar thermal issues between the NUL and SOLTRAIN. The MSc in Sustainable Energy has only had its first graduates this year. The success of the programme has exceeded all expectations, even for the most optimistic.

International energy stakeholders were able to attend during dissertation oral defence of the graduating students … thanks to Covid-19 as these were done online. It was during these presentations that one student caught the attention of a giant Belgian wind power developer, in the name of Hirundo.

Hirundo has since asked ERC to engage its students, under paid work, more like consultancy work, to assess the prospects of selling wind power to Southern African Power Pool (SAPP) — a regional market for trading electricity.

“We were really impressed by the organisation of the event, great time keeping and quality of the presentations” said Hirundo participants.

Well, the success of the ERC is largely due to its dedicated and motivated staff. Earlier this year, we reported that they were the pioneers of the lifeline tariff.

If you have forgotten what a lifeline tariff is, this is the policy that allows electricity consumers to buy the first 30 electricity units of the month at almost 75 cents. This was done to help the poorest of the poor to afford electricity.

The ERC has taken its work further to develop what is called a Pioneer Developer Refund Scheme for the utility company. Ever heard a household saying it owns an electricity transformer because it was the first to bring electricity to the village?

That household is called a Pioneer Developer. And rightfully, it must be compensated for bringing the electricity to the village at high costs. This problem has persisted since the inception of the electricity utility company. But now the ERC has come to the rescue and, soon, people fighting over the ownership of a transformer will be a thing of the past.

Due to the myriad of projects the ERC is both involved in and pursuing, it is the only unit on campus with a dedicated Project Manager. The ERC believes in its products hence it has acquired the services of one of its graduates to be the Project Manager, Matsoso Mothala.

“I honestly don’t know any other university department being so successful,” says Niklas Hayek, Development Consultant — Energy, Education & Climate Change, Germany.

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Innovation

Cladding ‘stones’ made with plastic

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ROMA – LINTLE Mafa, a Chemistry Technician at the National University of Lesotho (NUL), has developed some luxury lightweight cladding that looks like natural stones.

“The cladding “stones” are made from a variety of materials including plastic, cement-like materials and foam,” Mafa said.

They are lightweight and low-cost but strong and easy to handle.

Mafa is calling investors who are willing to provide space and or funding to help take this product to the market.

When he came to the NUL as a technician in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Mafa didn’t know what to expect.

He had no clue some of the most exciting moments would be in his dealings with Chemical Technology students.

He had always loved to be hands-on. That is why he is best known off-duty as a carpenter who produces elegant furniture.

But somewhere in 2010, he made contact with one lecturer who was teaching Plastic Science and Engineering at the NUL.

“Because I was required to assist his students in the labs, I enrolled for two courses” he said.

First, he went for a Plastic Technology course in Cape Town.

Before then, he was mostly dealing with chemistry but all of a sudden, a whole new world was opening in front of him.

The university would later send him to yet another Plastic and Composites Molding course in Johannesburg.

From these two experiences, he felt empowered to assist Professor Timothy Thamae’s students in a variety of research projects.

But then, his partnership with the lecturer did not end with helping students.

“We experimented with all kinds of things in a small room we used to call TIG.”

Mafa said he particularly fell in love with application of plastics in the Art and Science of Wall Covering, especially in the use of cladding materials.

As a person who produces furniture, the area of interior design has always appealed to him. Specifically, cladding captured his imagination.

So on his own, he started improving his skills and experiments in that area. His ability to chisel wood for making furniture came handy when he now had to make cladding stones.

He didn’t just want to make another cladding stone. He went for elegance.

The problem with modern interior cladding is that it is still tied to stones, ceramics, cement and so on.

Those things have one thing in common. They are heavy! He went for something different – lightweight cladding.

“You won’t believe it but about 95 percent volume of my cladding “stones” is lightweight foam,” he revealed.

Well, foam is a material similar to that used in foam packs—those white plastic plates used for carrying foods at events.

However, unlike foam packs, this particular foam is not only light but it is also strong and stiff (rigid).

Stiff means it is hard to bend. The “stones” are then coated with a hard cement-like material to protect and give them a desired shape.

All this process uses silicone technology.

This technology makes it possible for him to copy and reproduce natural or artificial stones into “stones” that look similar but are made of different materials.

Another good thing about this cladding is colour and texture. Since texture is provided by moulding rather than machining, there are no limits to the kind of texture you can provide on this material.

For instance, he made it possible for these materials to look like curved natural stones. However, he could have made them to have any texture of choice. Even more important is the colour.

Those who work with interior design know a thing or two about colour. The desired colour is one of the most difficult things to achieve. The problem with colour is not only in the colour itself but how that colour appears to the human eye.

Is it black or charcoal? Is it shiny or matt? Having realised that the modern trend is to move away from shininess to matt, Mafa went for matt.

“Bear in mind that this could be a matt of any colour of choice from white to black to anything in between.”

Now, Mafa is ready for a deal. If you have a space and/or funding for investment, he is ready to talk so that these products can get into the market.

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Innovation

A cultural hub for Lesotho

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ROMA – A Lesotho College of Education (LCE) graduate, Makhebe Seatlana, has developed a cultural modeling agency to promote the Basotho culture with modern flavour: Sotho Kids.

He says his agency is made of over 150 models so far, which is not only a space for cultural development, but a hub for development of talents he never thought possible.

“We have music artists, beauty queens, poets and dancers,” Seatlana said.

It has become evident to almost every Mosotho that their culture is being eroded at an alarming rate and if we don’t do anything about it now, sooner or later we will raise a generation of children who don’t know who they are.

Coming from a humble background at Mazenod where he attended the Mazenod Primary and High Schools and later LCE, his father was the breadwinner raising them with the little he got as a factory worker at Ha-Thetsane.

“Like many students, I couldn’t enjoy any Manpower stipend since I had to help my father. Life was hard,” he said.

Failure was not an option because that would be the end of his future.

After graduating at the LCE, he got hit really hard by the worst monster of our time –unemployment – and started job hunting.

He worked at the Thetsane factories, went to Mpumalanga to look for a job where the whole teacher jumped from welding to being a waiter and later coming back home to work at ‘lifato-fato’ (community cash/food for work projects for peasants).

“Life was hard,” he said with a deep sigh.

Tough times create tough people. A diamond is just a lump of coal that stuck to its job.

When he thought that was the end of it all, he applied for his career job and passed the interviews but failed to secure it. You know the politics.

He nearly went mad. What had he done wrong? In 2019, he started something with his sister.

“I don’t even know what I was doing,” he said.

“I only realised that our people are too focused on other peoples’ cultures and not proud of their own. I had to do something to bestow the rapidly eroding culture of Basotho.”

That’s when he coined the name “Sotho Kids.”

Was it for money? No! It was for passion and inner drive for the love of Lesotho.

“I wanted to do a Sesotho thing for Basotho of Lesotho for the 18-25-year-olds.”

He realised the suffix Sotho appearing in each of the words seSotho, BaSotho and LeSotho, hence the name Sotho Kids.

His idea turned out not to be just a cultural agency, but a hub for development of talents he never knew existed.

“We have artists, beauty queens, poets and dancers.”

At 27, he is a manager of one of the humblest and beloved artists of our time, Omali Themba and Mothula Tšepe, Crazy T and many others under the brand. You book them through him.

The young diamond had a vision to see his modeling agency grow to greater heights in three years, but to his surprise, within eight months of its inception, the brand had grown tremendously.

You probably might have seen them walk the aisles of Pioneer Mall and the streets of Maseru. What a beautiful scene!

He says the biggest problem of young people his age is lack of desire to work hard. They put money ahead of everything.

“When you work on building the brand you have to put money aside.”

That is why he volunteered at the big events like Moshoeshoe’s Day and the Bantu FC.

In the talent industry, we all don’t know our worth until someone recognises and rewards it.

“One day I got a call from Basotho Arts and Cultural Festival. They wanted to use my pictures to make advertisement posters at a M3 000 cost,” he said.

“I jumped high since it was a lot for me. Later on they called requesting a quotation for Sotho Kids to perform at their event.”

Seatlana sent a M5 000 worth of a quote. Guess what happened?

They said “that’s not your worth young man” and signed him a M50 000 cheque.

His models humbled him by agreeing not to get paid but to invest the money into cameras and equipment.

Sotho Kids has performed for Econet Scaftin, at the Opening Ceremony for Team Draw Region 5 Games and Umhlanga Reed Dance in Eswatini where they met with King Mswati III.

Seatlana believes he is achieving the biggest target he set for Sotho Kids, to see his models earn a salary.

He doesn’t want the same hunger that hit him to replicate itself.

His message to the youth is: “Use your brains. Work hard to achieve your dreams. Don’t put money ahead of everything.”

“Youth don’t support each other man. Collaborate, don’t compete.”

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Innovation

Mabele lumela!

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ROMA – The National University of Lesotho (NUL) Innovation Hub business, Bohlale, just got M500 000 funding.

“This funding was given to us by the Southern Africa Network for Biosciences (SANBio),” said ’Matokelo Nthejane who is leading the business.

Bohlale makes and sells a host of sorghum and wheat products including sorghum biscuits, muesli, rusks and many more.

It has also created jobs for ten women from around the Roma valley. A few years ago, two good things that would lay the foundation for this massive funding happened.

SANBio, which is a Southern African organisation providing funding in biosciences, made a call for proposals. Dr Pulane Nkhabutlane, a NUL expert in foods, applied and won.

She was developing food products based on sorghum. Back home, Metropolitan Lesotho was making a similar move.

It gave the NUL Innovation Hub a whopping M1 million to sponsor selected entrepreneurship projects. Dr Nkhabutlane’s sorghum products also got funded. These two funds made a difference.

“I had just completed my degree in Consumer Sciences when I got a call from Dr Nkhabutlabe,” Nthejane said.

“She wanted to work with me in the development of sorghum food products.”

She said she picked the offer almost immediately and that was it.

As they developed food products and tested the market, they experienced ups and downs like any business but they were growing.

Then something like lightning struck. It was Covid-19.

“The resulting lock-downs and restrictions in movements were too much for our business,” Nthejane said.

“Not only did we have a lot of our raw materials get spoiled, we later lost many of our customers. Some of them never came back.”

Just when they were scratching their heads, something was brewing well beyond the borders of the Mountain Kingdom. SANBio was planning another round of funding.

This time, it wanted to assist businesses that were hit hard by Covid-19 to recover. Having succeeded in the first trial, Dr Nkhabutlane and the team made another bet.

They submitted an application and got half a million maloti funding. Once again, SANBio had found them worthy of another funding among the many businesses that applied.

Needless to say, it was a shot in the arm — a much needed relief. Here are the possible reasons SANBio keeps pumping money into the Roma Valley.

“We have hired exclusively young women,” Nthejane said.

Before the funding, they had hired five ladies from around the Roma valley. Now the number has doubled to ten.

That is no small number in a country where job creation is a tough nut to crack. Youth and women are at the receiving end of the unemployment crisis.

“What we are happy about is that we don’t only hire women, all of them are from around the university.”

Another reason could be that their sorghum products line-up is unique. Sorghum products such as rusks and biscuits are rare, not only in Lesotho but around the world.

But sorghum is a superfood, a kind of product best known for its health properties including good nutrition, high fibre and absence of gluten.
Sorghum plants are also known to be good in resisting droughts which are now a common thing in Lesotho.

“More importantly, we buy our sorghum and other ingredients from local farmers,” she said.

Specifically, they might have received the second round of funding from the same body on the basis of their resilience.

If it’s difficult to be a business anywhere at all, it is super-difficult to be a business in Lesotho where it looks as if everything is designed to make you fail.

However, the conducive environment created by the NUL Innovation Hub has made it possible for businesses to survive all kinds of challenges that normally drive an average business to the ground.

That resilience cannot go unnoticed by funders who want to create a difference. The money has already been put to good use.

“We have already increased our equipment and the output of the products we sell,” she said.

More employees have been hired. More sensory tests have been made.

“We have even been assisted by the Lesotho military at the Makoanyane Barracks in the sensory analysis of the biscuits.”

She said the University of Pretoria Laboratories have also tested a variety of their food products and some of the results obtained have just been presented in an academic conference in Finland last month.

Maybe it’s time to repeat Basotho’s famous slogan, “mabele lumela!”

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