Fortune Zindi, from Zimbabwe, is a May 2014 graduate of the African Leadership Academy (ALA), a leadership training school in South Africa. He is the recipient of a scholarship from ALA funded by Brilliant Earth.
“Final exams are around the corner. You have to make use of daylight.”
These words routinely capped my principal’s assembly speeches towards the end of the school year at my boarding school in Zimbabwe. Although the country experienced electricity blackouts throughout the year, they were more frequent during this time due to the rainstorms that interfered with the electricity grid. In the event of lightning, the dilapidated power transformers in the area would often blow out.
I could not study very much during the day as I had other commitments, so I disregarded the principal’s advice. I resorted to using one of my most valuable gadgets at that time: a hand-held flashlight that my mother had bought for me. I would use it to study at night, and when the batteries ran out I bought a candle.
“But where is the revenue from all those diamonds going to? Can it not finance our energy requirements?” I would ask myself these questions in the dark. They were and still are on many Zimbabweans’ lips, and continue to be a frequent topic of conversation.
Although power cuts were not an everyday occurrence, I felt frustrated whenever they happened. My boarding school acquired a high-power generator that was able to light up the entire campus. However, sometimes it was difficult for the school to buy the fuel needed to run the generator. So I was back to my flashlight or the candle. It was during those times that my eyes suffered from using the dim light of a candle that I felt determined to make the best of the situation. I told myself that I was not going to fail my exams because of power cuts. I also thought about other students in worse conditions in other parts of the country, students who did not attend a good school like mine or have a supply of candles.
I was fortunate that that the electricity blackouts didn’t affect my grades. After doing well on my senior year exams, I chose to pursue the next phase of my education in South Africa. I was offered admission to the African Leadership Academy (ALA), a two-year entrepreneurial leadership school that trains students to help solve some of Africa’s toughest challenges.
As I studied in South Africa, I found myself thinking more deeply about Zimbabwe’s economic difficulties, especially its electricity issues. I thought of how electricity shortages changed cooking from an enjoyable activity in the kitchen on an electric stove to a laborious outdoor experience, using firewood. I also thought about the many ways in which electricity shortages harm Zimbabwe’s economy. Internet cafes and gaming centers quite often have nothing with which to power their devices. Barber shops close down. Butchers get warm refrigerators. At my boarding school in Zimbabwe, I myself had considered opening a business that would sell ice cream to students. But I had decided not to proceed with the idea partly because I knew I could not count on a steady supply of electricity.
My most important realization at ALA was that I could make a difference. I had once assumed that Zimbabwe’s energy problems would need to be solved by people other than me. Those people would need the scientific skills to create incredible new technologies. They would need to be senior business leaders with many years of experience. But ALA made me see things differently. I realized that I could learn many of the business and entrepreneurship skills I needed. I also came to see that even if I studied economics or business rather than engineering, I could work with people with technical skills and we could address the problem together.
I recall presenting my thesis towards the end of my final year at ALA and my academic advisor asking me, “If you were to go back to Zimbabwe right now, what problem would you address?”
I didn’t take too long to answer, “The electricity shortage.”
“And how would you go about it?” she followed up.
“Well, I am sure one of the major problems is that our chief electricity producing plants in Zimbabwe are using old and inefficient technologies that can no longer meet rising energy demands. We need to find ways of improving the existing plants – new equipment, strategies and so on.”
This reply was good enough to satisfy my advisor. But I know I do not have all the answers either. Although I have come to believe I can help solve Zimbabwe’s electricity shortage, I recognize that I have much to learn, too.
About two months later, I joined Skidmore College here in the United States. During my four years here, I hope to take courses and engage in conversations that will put me in a better position to help address electricity shortages back home. Already, many aspects of Skidmore’s energy usage fascinate me. I have been here since the beginning of the summer and have never experienced a power cut. Skidmore has replaced older electric transformers with more efficient ones. A large part, about 36 percent, of the school now uses renewable and eco-friendly sources of energy for heating, cooling, and cooking. Offices, restrooms and classrooms use occupancy-sensor technology that ensures energy is only used when needed.
Africa should borrow some of these ideas and make them suitable to her current infrastructure. But I think Africa also needs help. And that is why I support President’s Obama’s new Power Africa initiative, a program by the U.S. Agency for International Development to help electrify the continent.
What does my interest in meeting Africa’s energy needs have to do with Brilliant Earth or responsible jewelry? Brilliant Earth provided the funding to pay for my second year at ALA, where I began to think more seriously about solving Zimbabwe’s power challenges. But there are other connections too. It is possible that resources such as diamonds could provide the revenue needed for Africa to invest in her power needs. And maybe someday I will help bring reliable electricity to impoverished diamond mining communities so that children do not need candles or flashlights to study at night and so that, like me, they can have a chance to reach for their dreams.