The importance of energy access – from someone who grew up without it

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People join Odyssey for many reasons but two of the most common are 1) a desire to actively work toward a zero-carbon future 2) to solve the energy access crisis that impacts billions of people around the world. For some Odyssians (as we call ourselves) the second reason is especially meaningful as they grew up without electricity in their own homes. These employees bring special insight and passion to our work. This interview highlights one such employee, Stewart Mangezi, and his journey from a rural area of Zimbabwe to becoming a data analyst at Odyssey.

Tell us about your background.

I was born in Zimbabwe in a city called Masvingo in 1997. Unfortunately, my parents passed away before I turned two, so I went to live with my grandmother in a more rural area. Even though I didn't have the chance to grow up with my parents, I had a happy childhood full of cousins and friends. My grandmother was a wonderful woman who took good care of me - I was younger than all my cousins, the true baby of the entire family. Around the time I was a toddler, the community put together a volunteer preschool. The church opened its building, and community members would volunteer so the local children could attend free of charge. During the day, I would go to school and do chores in the afternoon, primarily caring for the cattle and goats. Then we would have dinner and maybe have time for a few stories. As there was no electricity, when the sun went down, it was time to sleep until the sun came up again the next morning. 

What was it like to grow up without electricity?

My uncle thought I was exceptionally witty, and when I turned seven, he convinced my grandmother to let me move to a town, Marondera, with him so I could attend school. It wasn't until then that I even realized that I had been living “without” something; that’s when I started to notice a difference. 

Growing up, we used firewood to cook and keep warm, so we spent lots of time in smoky kitchens preparing food or trying to stay warm in the winter. Once I moved to town, I had lighting, which meant I could do homework after six pm. Compared to where I grew up, we could buy fresh meat at the grocery store. Back home where I grew up, when we had meat, we salted it and hung it over the rafters in our kitchen to dry. In town, I could go to the clinic to get vaccines and medicines when needed, as the pharmacies had refrigeration to keep the vaccines at the right temperature year-round. In the rural area where I grew up, there were specific dates to get vaccines since they could not be stored locally. As more time passed, I saw how growing up with access to electricity gave me opportunities that my friends and cousins who stayed in the more rural areas did not have. Of course, there are other factors like better schools, infrastructure, and access to more resources, but electricity availability made a huge difference. 

As more time passed, I saw how growing up with access to electricity gave me opportunities that my friends and cousins who stayed in the more rural areas did not have.

What was your path to working at Odyssey? What does your role look like today?

As a high school student, I was admitted into the US Student Achievers Program, an academic program supported by the US embassy, whose aim is to prepare high-achieving Zimbabwean  youth from low-income backgrounds to gain access to tertiary institutions that have funding opportunities. The program encouraged me to think about what I wanted to do in my career, and that is when I first became passionate about energy access and decided to dedicate my career to it. I went to college in Ghana, studied electrical engineering, and then got a master's in electrical engineering in Rwanda. While doing my master's, a professor and mentor, Dr. Barry Rawn, encouraged me to apply for an internship at Odyssey. My aspirations aligned with Odyssey so much that I continued to full-time employment after completing my internship.

I  am an analyst, which means I work with large data sets to find trends, stories, and meaning. Ultimately my goal is to help our customers better serve their customers so that more people can access renewable energy. 

What impact do you hope Odyssey will have?

I hope that Odyssey will continue to help communities get access to energy through our work. Working directly with developers, financiers, and equipment suppliers, we can make the whole process more affordable so more people can access electricity. We have already helped communities, health centers, and schools to gain access, and I hope we can continue scaling to reach the 600M who still live without it. This would have a huge impact on communities - think about it, right now, these communities go to sleep at 7 pm and can’t do much until the sun comes up in the morning. Imagine having three extra hours a day to improve yourself and study. Now imagine that aggregated over all the people who don’t have that opportunity today. There is so much potential waiting for the opportunities many take for granted. 

What is your favorite thing about working at Odyssey?

I love working with such a diverse team. I learn something new and interesting every day. We have a tradition of sharing recipes and having cookoffs. One colleague who is based in Germany shared a recipe that my girlfriend and I made that turned out great. The global team keeps things interesting.

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