Refilwe Lesufi. MD of Prana Consulting which has been operating since 2011 and is 100% women-owned and a Level 1 BBBEE Civil Engineering consulting firm.
How did you decide on the name Prana?
Prana is a Sanskrit word, and which means life force. In yoga breath and life are often referred to as the Prana. So, I decided on the name Prana because I realized that a lot of infrastructure projects were quite technical and that removed the life that’s supposed to be breathed into the communities we serve. So, whatever we do as Prana Consulting and Prana Water and Sanitation, we go over and beyond the technical delivery of our projects, we put elements of new life and a fresh breath of sustainability into what we do.
Why did you choose the sanitation industry?
South Africa is a water-scarce country. One can’t think of water without considering sanitation because they are intertwined. The water that is treated from wastewater treatment plants goes back into our rivers, which then get treated and go back into our taps. So, it’s a continuous cycle.
Without a sanitation infrastructure that is functional, we contribute towards polluting our water resources. The country’s infrastructure is ageing, most have reached capacity and are not well maintained. Urbanization patterns have put pressure on an already battling network. The current infrastructure is struggling to accommodate the increase in demand. For me sanitation as a focus area was important.
Our technology offers a wastewater treatment solution that does not connect to the existing and bigger water cycle. You can flush and treat your sewer in your backyard. The treated water can be reused for flushing or for irrigation. We can provide flushing toilet facilities to communities in areas which previously did not have flushing toilets or relied on dry sanitation or chemical toilets. With our next generation sanitation innovations, PRANA Water and Sanitation provides safe and dignified sanitation solutions, thus contributing immensely towards the upliftment and restoration of dignity for our people.
Can you touch on being a leader and woman in the sanitation industry? For example, what has been the best part of being in this industry?
As a woman, the best part has been some exposure to participate in an industry which is historically dominated by males. I was able to identify the current opportunities through the Women in Water program. The programme was a great initiative which was supposed to be a springboard for women to break into the water sector. Unfortunately, not much came out of it. The programme promised allocation of work to firms that incubate women-led companies. The cohort of women was supposed to gain exposure and experience in the delivery of the project by participating in big meaningful projects, but none of the promised project allocations materialized. Despite its lack of delivery, I gained invaluable networking opportunities through the program. I got the opportunity to start working with the WRC and I attended Reinvited Toilet conference in Beijing, which is what led to the development of our current projects. Prana Water and Sanitation are currently installing wastewater treatment plants for various clients and for the WRC through the SASTEP programme. Our wastewater treatment plants are manufactured in newly established factory in Midrand. Our factory has created new employment opportunities for members of our communities.
And the worst part of being in this industry?
There are about 3 main barriers to entry for women in sanitation.
- Access to market
a. Private Clients have evergreen contracts with firms they have historically worked with.
b. There are a limited number of procurement opportunities whilst the demand from new entrants and incumbents is high. Most well-established firms are not willing to collaborate with smaller firms to help them build capacity.
c. Most public sector bids in sanitation require the potential bidder to have extensive experience in Civil Construction which our technologies do not need. It is difficult to bid for work in the public sector without relevant experience.
- Access to funding
a. Access to financial resources through financial institutions is difficult due to the institution’s requirements. Although an applicant might have a good product or service that requires funding, the lending institution will often request off-take agreements, but prospective clients are sometimes not able to commit because they want to see and test the product first. As a small firm trying secure finance without a credit rating, collateral, as well as lack of funding experience leads to a reluctance by funders to support female-led companies.
- Networking and relationship management.
a. Over and above business commitment and responsibilities, as women we have other responsibilities such as caring for our families and other social economic responsibilities. Being a mother is a privilege for me and I try to honour the responsibilities that come with this calling. I must juggle all these roles while trying to forge ahead in an environment and industry that is not kind to women.
Can you tell us a little bit about your wastewater treatment solution?
The Aquonic is a modular Wastewater Treatment Plant that turns blackwater and greywater into pathogen-free reusable water for toilet flushing and irrigation. It is suitable for the treatment of blackwater and greywater from septic tanks, urinals, showers and sinks. It is an ideal solution to retrofit an existing septic tank to improve overflow water quality output. It turns the wastewater into reusable water for toilet flushing and irrigation utilizing biological and electrochemical processes. The Aquonic is scalable & expandable whilst having a small footprint thus it is suitable for both new applications and existing system upgrades, above & underground Installations. It cost efficient as it requires minimal civil works, a short project life cycle, lower Capex/ Opex and low energy consumption. The Aquonic has few moving components, low operational costs and its spares are readily available locally thus low maintenance costs.
Our treatment plants are manufactured in Midrand, South Africa. We can establish a temporary manufacturing plant near the installation site if there are enough for a project. This will enable us to reduce the transportation costs for the wastewater treatment plants.
Even though it’s still in the testing stage, can you tell us a little bit about the SHE device?
Menstrual Health and Hygiene (MHH) is a neglected sanitation topic and menstrual waste disposal is particularly absent in many shared and public facilities. Landfills are growing with increased urbanization and access to disposable products. When it comes to menstruation women need to come up with solutions that meet their needs because only women can fully appreciate what those needs are. The S.H.E. is a sterile, sanitary pad disposal unit engineered to provide dignity and privacy, waste reduction and safe hygiene. There’s currently a lot of talk about access to sanitary pads for young women. This is something that we are also very passionate about, however, not enough is said about the disposal of the waste generated by menstrual products. Back in 2009, I started collecting menstrual pads to donate to girls in the Cosmo City area together with a group of other businesswomen.
Over time I started to consider the volumes generated by menstrual waste products, how they are being discarded, and their impact on the environmental. The S.H.E is one of the solutions we are looking into in an attempt to reduce volumes at landfills. It’s an attempt to save airspace and elongate the life span of our landfills. Constructing new landfills can be costly and we have a challenge with land availability. So, if we are to look at sustainability and saving the environment, making sure that we deal with our waste on site is a good starting point.
Do you have any advice for young and older women who would like to be in the industry?
Women have always been the custodians of water as well. If you think about the rural areas, it’s the young girls and women who go to the river to secure the family’s water demand. They know how to protect, manage, and ration water to ensure that everyone’s water needs are met. There are many opportunities in the sector. You need to have the drive, tenacity, and resilience because this industry is male dominated with many barriers to entry. As Prana we are fortunate to have found a few companies and mentors who were willing to collaborate and share their experience and networks. We are hopeful that more companies and Client bodies will be able assist smaller businesses establish themselves.
Research and technology are some of the best ways to gain entrance into this industry. So, if you are still in high school and primary school, choose STEM subjects and excel in them. The subjects are the keys to the doors that will allow you access into the world of engineering and technology. They will enable you to solve the planet’s challenges and contribute towards achieving some of the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Companies such as Prana are charting through these less travelled paths, and we are willing to share the knowledge we have acquired with others.
What would you like to see for Prana in the future?
What I would like to see for PRANA in the future is becoming the leading sanitation solutions provider in Africa. Not one size fits all in the sanitation solutions and not one product on its own can solve sanitation challenges thus we aim to develop and integrate various product to create solutions for various users. I would like to see us scaling up our local manufacturing plant and improving the technology in our facility. Through continuous research and development we will be able to provide efficient and cost-effective solutions and product for our clients leading to increased market share. We aim to introduce our solutions to various markets in the SADAC region including Botswana, Namibia, Swaziland, Lesotho and Zimbabwe. It is said an African woman is the face of poverty. Research has shown that when women earn an income the money tends to have a far reaching and meaningful impact on family and society. So, our goal is to assist on the development of our communities through empowerment of women. Operation and maintenance of the units is a crucial component of the successful rollout of the technologies we are testing and commercialising. We aim to assist entrepreneurs establish local businesses within the communities where our wastewater treatment plants are installed. They will be trained on the operations and maintenance of the wastewater treatment plants. These entrepreneurial businesses will not only ensure that that the wastewater treatment plants work efficiently throughout their design life span, but will also ignite local economies by providing opportunities for local people to establish sustainable businesses. We aim to contribute towards the creation of a skills pool of engineers and technologists and technicians who can participate in the water sector.