One Woman’s Journey into a World of Solar
Vuyolwethu Matiwane is staking out a space for women in Africa's renewable energy sector.
Sakhile Dube, bird story agency
From the rural Eastern Cape in South Africa, Vuyolwethu Matiwane’s journey into the world of renewable energy began with her family’s use of a small solar PV panel, a battery, and a glimmer of hope.
Today, as a technical project development manager, Matiwane is not only helping shape South Africa’s energy landscape by illuminating lives and empowering futures, she is also breaking ground in a sector where she is regularly both the only Black woman and youngest person in the room.
Matiwane, fondly known as Vuyo, said her work is driven by her passion to make a change after experiencing what it is like to grow up in a rural area without services.
“I grew up in a village with no electricity. Our first experience with electricity was when my dad brought home that solar panel. On good days, it meant we could watch TV and charge our cell phones. It was a revelation.”
That early encounter with renewable energy ignited a passion that has guided not just her career but her vision to ensure energy for all.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else, it’s like I was born for this,” she shared.
She started when the industry was still in its infancy, coming into the field right after university.
“It was tough. I struggled with imposter syndrome, but those challenges were opportunities in disguise. They pushed me to learn more, gain confidence, and open up to new experiences,” she explained.
Her future journey crystallised during her university years. Starting with a diploma in electrical engineering from the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, she upgraded to a technical electrical engineering degree from the University of South Africa. In August 2023 she was awarded a Master’s degree in wind energy, from the Technical University of Denmark.
Today, Matiwane is at the forefront of South Africa’s renewable energy revolution. As a Technical Project Development Manager at BTE Renewables, she is responsible for overseeing every aspect of project development, from site identification and land acquisition to licensing and technical requirements. Her work isn’t just about keeping the lights on; it’s about transforming communities and creating positive social and economic impacts.
“Every project is major to me. Beyond electricity generation, we support local businesses, invest in infrastructure, and uplift women in the communities where our projects are located. It’s about making a lasting difference,” Matiwane explained.
Meanwhile, the South African renewable energy landscape is evolving rapidly. Matiwane spoke passionately about the 2022 removal of the 100MW licensing cap – a move aimed at tackling load-shedding and one that has opened the doors to more renewable energy capacity, investment, and job creation. She also highlighted the role of emerging technologies like battery energy storage and green hydrogen solutions in diversifying the energy mix.
But South Africa’s potential goes beyond its borders.
“We are leading the way in Africa. Our Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program (REIPPPP) has set the standard for the continent. We have the natural resources and the expertise to drive the energy transition,” Matiwane stated.
Matiwane stressed that collaboration is crucial in making this happen. Organisations like the South African Wind Energy Association (SAWEA) and the South African Photovoltaic Industry Association (SAPVIA) bring together stakeholders from government, developers, lenders, and more to look beyond South Africa.
Matiwane also emphasised the need for greater diversity in the industry.
“We need more women. I want to mentor and inspire young girls to pursue STEM careers and be part of this transformation,” she said.
Her vision for the future remains deeply rooted in her personal experiences.
“Rural electrification is close to my heart. I want every child to experience the joy of lights turning on in their home. It’s life-changing,” Matiwane disclosed.
She advised young, aspiring South African women to make a difference in the field
“You belong in every room you find yourself in. Believe in yourself and speak with conviction,” she shared.
Admiration of Matiwane’s resilience and dedication is inevitable. As an active member in a number of technical working groups, she has become an essential force in bringing together industry stakeholders in the renewable energy space, according to Zayd Vawda, Renewable Energy Leader at WSP and SAPVIA Chairperson of the Grid Access Technical Working Group.
“Her professionalism has always shone through as she switches between her 9-5 job and her industry entrusted role to represent and assist other IPPs,” Vawda explained.
According to Tshepo Tshivhasa, Grid Manager at EDF Renewables and Deputy Chair of the SAWEA Technical Working Group, it is important that young women see a fellow woman succeed in the industry.
“Young women like Vuyo should continue being true to who they are and never be afraid to show your their confidence, skills, knowledge, experience and energy in this male-dominated industry,” she shared.
“Vuyo has been instrumental in the grid working group, not only adding technical value but sharing information and communicating with the wider industry… she needs to just keep doing what she is doing. Being excellent technically, and being herself in all situations,” Chanda Nxumalo, Managing Director at Harmattan Renewables and a member of SAWEA Grid Access Technical Working Group said.
At this year’s Windaba Conference – an African-owned and managed conference for wind energy stakeholders, Matiwane was awarded the ‘Watt-A-Women’ industry award, recognising her as a remarkable female leader and a trailblazer in the renewable energy sector. That is a fitting tribute to a woman who started her journey when a small solar panel lit up her home, her future and quite possibly, the future of South Africa.
bird story agency