During high school, Prosper Nyovanie ’13 had to alter his daily and nightly schedules to accommodate the frequent power outages that swept cities across Zimbabwe.
“[Power] would go almost every day—it was almost predictable,” Nyovanie recalls. “I’d come back from school at 5 p.m., have dinner, then just go to sleep because the electricity wouldn’t be there. And then I’d wake up at 2 a.m. and start studying…because by then you’d usually have electricity.”
At the time, Nyovanie knew he wanted to study engineering, and upon coming to MIT as an undergraduate, he majored in mechanical engineering. He discovered a new area of interest, however, when he took 15.031J Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies, which introduced him to questions of how energy is produced, distributed, and consumed. He went on to minor in energy studies.
Now as a graduate student and fellow in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, Nyovanie is on a mission to learn the management skills and engineering knowledge he needs to power off-grid communities around the world through his startup, Voya Sol. The company develops solar electric systems that can be scaled to users’ needs.
Nyovanie was originally drawn to MIT for its learning-by-doing engineering focus. “I thought engineering was a great way to take all these cool scientific discoveries and technologies and apply them to global problems,” he says. “One of the things that excited me a lot about MIT was the hands-on approach to solving problems. I was super excited about UROP [the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program]. That program made MIT stick out from all the other universities.”
As a mechanical engineering major, Nyovanie took part in a UROP for 2.5 years in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity with Professor Martin Culpepper. But his experience in 15.031J made him realize his interests were broader than just research and included the intersection of technology and business.
“One big thing that I liked about the class was that it introduced this other complexity that I hadn’t paid that much attention to before, because when you’re in the engineering side, you’re really focused on making technology, using science to come up with awesome inventions,” Nyovanie says. “But there are considerations that you need to think about when you’re implementing [such inventions]. You need to think about markets, how policies are structured.”
The class inspired Nyovanie to become a fellow in the LGO program, where he will earn an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management and a master’s in mechanical engineering. He is also a fellow of the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.
When Nyovanie prepared for his fellowship interview while at home in Zimbabwe, he faced another electricity interruption: A transformer blew and would take time to repair, leaving him without power before his interview.
“I had to act quickly,” Nyovanie says. “I went and bought a petrol generator just for the interview….The generator provided power for my laptop and for the WiFi.” He recalls being surrounded by multiple solar lanterns that provided enough light for the video interview.
While Nyovanie’s determination in high school and quick thinking before graduate school enabled him to work around power supply issues, he realizes that luxury doesn’t extend to all those facing similar situations.
“I had enough money to actually go buy a petrol generator. Some of these communities in off-grid areas don’t have the resources they need to be able to get power,” Nyovanie says.
Before co-founding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo, Nyovanie worked at SunEdison, a renewable energy company, for three years. During most of that time, Nyovanie worked as a process engineer and analyst through the Renewable Energy Leadership Development Rotational Program. As part of the program, Nyovanie rotated between different roles at the company around the world.
During his last rotation, Nyovanie worked as a project engineer and oversaw the development of rural minigrids in Tanzania. “That’s where I got firsthand exposure to working with people who don’t have access to electricity and working to develop a solution for them,” Nyovanie says. When SunEdison went bankrupt, Nyovanie wanted to stay involved in developing electricity solutions for off-grid communities. So, he stayed in talks with rural electricity providers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria before eventually founding Voya Sol with Jo.
Voya Sol develops scalable solar home systems that are different from existing solar home system technologies. “A lot of them are fixed,” Nyovanie says. “So if you buy one, and need an additional light, then you have to go buy another whole new system….The scalable system would take away some of that risk and allow the customer to build their own system so that they buy a system that fits their budget.” By giving users the opportunity to scale up or scale down their wattage to meet their energy needs, Nyovanie hopes that the solar electric systems will help power off-grid communities across the world.
Nyovanie and his co-founder are currently both full-time graduate students in dual degree programs. But to them, graduate school didn’t necessarily mean an interruption to their company’s operations; it meant new opportunities for learning, mentorship, and team-building. Over this past spring break, Nyovanie and Jo traveled to Zimbabwe to perform prototype testing for their solar electric system, and they plan to conduct a second trip soon.
“We’re looking into ways we can aggregate people’s energy demands,” Nyovanie says. “Interconnected systems can bring in additional savings for customers.” In the future, Nyovanie hopes to expand the distribution of scalable solar electric systems through Voya Sol to off-grid communities worldwide. Voya Sol’s ultimate vision is to enable off-grid communities to build their own electricity grids, by allowing individual customers to not only scale their own systems, but also interconnect their systems with their neighbors’. “In other words, Voya Sol’s goal is to enable a completely build-your-own, bottom-up electricity grid,” Nyovanie says.
During his time as a graduate student at MIT, Nyovanie has found friendship and support among his fellow students.
“The best thing about being at MIT is that people are working on all these cool, different things that they’re passionate about,” Nyovanie says. “I think there’s a lot of clarity that you can get just by going outside of your circle and talking to people.”
Back home in Zimbabwe, Nyovanie’s family cheers him on.
“Even though [my parents] never went to college, they were very supportive and encouraged me to push myself, to do better, and to do well in school, and to apply to the best programs that I could find,” Nyovanie says.
This article appears in the Autumn 2018 issue of Energy Futures.
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