As trains ground to a halt in South Africa due to loadshedding and cable theft, forcing rail commuters to rely on taxis, students from Soshanguve Technical High School decided to come up with a solution and developed a solar powered train locomotive. It has photovoltaic panels fitted to the roof, moves along an 18-metre test track and can reach speeds of up to 30km an hour. Acting principal of the school, Tladi Mashiane, told BizNews the University of Pretoria had offered to help the school with its innovation drive, while pupils Ronnie Masindi, Princess Nkwana and Lethabo Nkadimeng that we spoke to were surprised by the huge amount of publicity their experiment attracted. The pupils were invited to display their solar train at the Sasol Innovation Expo. – Linda van Tilburg
Excerpts from the interview with the University of Pretoria’s Tladi Mashiane,and pupils Ronnie Masindi, Princess Nkwana and Lethabo Nkadimeng
Building programmes beside the academic curriculum to encourage students to innovate – Acting Principal
Soshanguve Technical High School specialises in automotives. It was given this status by the Department of Education in Gauteng; the department supports us. As a school we have a vision and mission to equip learners in engineering skills so that they can compete globally. We are building programmes beside the academic one. We have an extra-curricular programme, where we introduce innovation, where the learners come up with a project to show their skills and talent. As the principal and manager of the school, we give them space. We provide them with all the necessary support and they showcase what they are capable of. Last year we gave them this innovation. We came up with a problem to see what they can contribute to our country. The main challenge then, was the issue of transport in the country. Most of the trains were just dumped because of the issue of loadshedding and cable theft. That is why came up with this challenge and they took it upon themselves to find a solution to solve this problem.
Our family members struggle to get to work and some have become unemployed due to lack of trains – Ronnie Masindi (learner)
Usually, it is the norm in our culture that our elders, our parents, our brothers and sisters use electric trains to go to work and return home. Recently they stopped doing that because of the inflation rate of taxis. The taxi fees are high and some could not go to work and became unemployed because they could not afford taxi fees. So, we decided as a group of 19 learners, to look at the problems people have in South Africa and agreed, ‘why don’t we create a solar-powered train using solar as the main source of energy’. That is what prompted us to build a solar train.
It was a difficult process. We started with a literary review, researching different articles as we did not know anything about solar panels; we did not know anything about trains. We went to industries like Transnet to get more experience and exposure on how trains and locomotives are built. This was started in September last year (2021) and it took us more than a year. It was a difficult journey for us.
Women are not exposed to engineering – Princess Nkwane (pupil)
It is not unusual for women or girls to be interested in engineering but they are not exposed enough to engineering. With technology that is growing – this is the fourth industrial revolution, where everything is changing – women are more interested in engineering. It fascinates me. Going out and working with men, it makes me think that I am capable of doing what a man can do and can even do it better than them.
I’m doing electrical engineering and what inspired me to take electrical engineering is that while I was in Grade 9 we were doing calculations in natural sciences; we had to do experiments and it fascinated me that I could produce those results and was able to fix the electricity. I thought I could be up there and make light for everybody. That is what fascinated and inspired me.
Plans to turn the solar train as a model the government could adopt – Lethabo Nkadimeng (pupil)
We are working to turn the solar train into something that has a real impact and is of value to society. We rate the possibility of turning it into a national project above 50%. We did not think it would have this kind of exposure – it was like finally reaching the top of the mountain where you see that beautiful view. [The reaction to the solar train] was something we did not expect at all, but we all appreciate it very much.
University of Pretoria offered to help Soshanguve High School, but they need more help – Tladi Mashiane
We are waiting for other opportunities from universities. We were called by the University of Pretoria who want to come and help us. So far, we did all this alone, but now because of the exposure, I think that more people are interested and I think we will do even better if they can support us. If we can join hands and get the support of other institutions financially and with their skills, we can really make a contribution.
Sasol heard about our solar train when I was presenting it at a workshop and expressed their interest. They called us to bring it to the Sasol Solar Exhibition. At that exhibition, our train got exposure and Sasol wants to get involved. We are negotiating with them and we hope they will also become involved.