Powering female engineering students

IN THE THICK OF THINGS—Mary in the line of duty

Misconception that engineering is a domain for male students is changing in Malawi thanks largely to the gospel of gender equality which has seen more female students pursuing this course in public and private tertiary institutions.

However, lack of school fees, motivation and incentives to aid learning remain stumbling blocks to many learners—even more with female learners.

For instance, when tuition fees were raised from K450,000 to K550,000 per semester in the 2016/17 academic year in University of Malawi constituent colleges such as The Polytechnic, some learners were affected.


Mary Mnewa was among them. Her dream of finishing her bachelor’s degree in Electrical and Electronics Engineering at The Polytechnic that academic year, 2017, appeared hazy.

“This was worrisome to us students and parents as we did not expect or budget for that. My mother passed away when I was in Standard Eight. I was staying with my brother who was working. Initially, they were not struggling to pay fees as school fees were at first K250,000,” Mnewa says.

Another student who sailed through a rough tide of academic times was Bertha Kamgunda, a 22-year-old fifth-year student at the Malawi University of Science and Technology (Must) pursuing an honours degree in Metallurgy and Materials Engineering.


“I never really thought I would ever finish my studies at Must considering my financial status. My father is a primary school teacher and my mother is unemployed. We also do a bit of farming activities but still, the money my parents get is not enough to afford the whole fees at Must.

“To avoid stressing myself too much, I was just praying hoping that God would someday solve this puzzle in my life. I was really seeing my life through a small narrow bridge which I never really thought I would ever cross,” Kamgunda recalls.

She explains the connection between her course and the internship opportunity at Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom). Over six learners from Must have benefited from the scholarship.

“Top three female students from both third year and fourth year in the 2017-2018 academic year were selected, making a total of six. And I was one of the top-three from third year. All of us who were selected are materials engineers. At Must there is no electrical engineering but our programme, Metallurgy and Materials Engineering, was chosen because it somehow relates to electrical in the sense that for any electrical equipment to work perfectly, it requires that the materials used in making it be suitable for its function.

“Therefore, knowledge of materials engineering is required in electrical. As material engineers, we are responsible for ensuring that the equipment used is in perfect condition for its intended purpose by analysing its makeup, testing the materials and recommending the right materials,” she says.

The two girls are among many female engineering students whose dreams of becoming engineers face setbacks chief of them being lack of school fees.

In some instances, students such as Grace Ghambi, now a fifth-year Electrical and Electronics Engineering degree student at The Polytechnic, used to struggle in class due to lack of motivation and mentorship to go on and on for five years in a class dominated by males.

Ghambi admitted that in the early years in college, her grades were not good enough. She did not just have the motivation to study harder.

However, all that changed in 2017 when Escom Limited introduced a university scholarship programme to outstanding female engineering students such as Kamgunda and Mnewa.

Escom pays schools fees for such engineering students based on performance in a particular academic year.

The scholarship has since benefited 21 learners from The Polytechnic and Must, including those that are still in school.

The deserving students are those studying engineering and must have attained a good grade of a strong credit and above in that particular year when the scholarship opportunity is offered. A student from any year of study qualifies.

Those whose grades decline in the subsequent year, know that they would lose out the opportunity of having their fees sponsored by Escom. Results? Those who taste the sweet fruit that is this scholarship, including Ghambi, have worked harder in class because they do not want to lose out on the opportunity.

Ghambi earned the scholarship while in her third year in 2018 alongside seven other girls from The Polytechnic.

Before she earned the scholarship, she used to struggle to score good grades, especially in first-year.

“When I heard that the scholarship was offered to those with good grades, I doubled my efforts so as to qualify. I made it and I think I deserved it because in the first year, my average grade was 58 percent but when I earned the scholarship, it was 69 percent which was a big improvement,” Ghambi reminisces.

The scholarship, as Ghambi, Kamgunda and Mnewa discovered, is not only about Escom paying school fees. The Corporation also offers internship and mentorship programmes which go a long way in motivating the female learners.

“I did not know that the scholarship had many benefits. It helps in monitoring the student’s progress to understand better about engineering. We also visit secondary schools alongside Madam [Elube Chienda, Escom’s Gender and Social Assessment Manager] to give motivation talks to girls. So, this scholarship is not just about us but also about us helping other girls,” she says.

FOCUSED—Kamgunda doing electricity maintenance works

For Grace, a fifth-born in a family of six, her ambition to study all the way and attain a doctor of philosophy degree in engineering is on track.

“During the graduate internship programme, I worked in various departments at Escom and learnt a lot especially about things we are yet to learn in class. An opportunity to work for Escom would not just be about the job itself but also contributing to the provision of electricity to rural people. The scholarship has really benefited me a lot and eased my parents’ burden of paying my school fees,” Ghambi says.

Kamgunda and Mnewa see light at the end of the tunnel in their academic pursuits because they no longer have to stress about school fees.

Mnewa earned the scholarship while in her fifth year just when the government had raised school fees from K450,000 to K550,000 per semester.

“It was during this time when the scholarship came in. So this was like a breakthrough to both me and my parents, as we no longer had to worry about how to raise the K550,000 for my school fees,” she says .

“I met the condition set for this scholarship, which is that you should have a minimum average grade of a credit, 60 percent, in other ways, at The Polytechnic. The scholarship is given only to Electrical and Electronics Engineering female students who get an average grade of either a credit or distinction. By then, I was the only final-year Electrical and Electronics engineering student who met that condition, apart from other five students who were in there fourth-year, third-year and second-year.”

The scholarship opened more windows of opportunities for Mnewa.

She is now working as a graduate trainee at Escom, having so far served in several technical sections, including her current role —National Control Centre as an Assistant Control Engineer (System Operations).

“The scholarship boosted my thinking capacity. It made me have more confidence in myself as I knew that some people out there trusted me and know that I am capable. I, therefore, had to put more trust in myself that ‘I can do it’.

“At the same time, I gave myself a challenge to prove to my sponsors that the scholarship was not in vain, but rather it was given to the right person and it has brought great impact in that person. This made me start working extra hard because I wanted to graduate with a good grade,” she says.

“The scholarship was not only about school fees, but also internship at Escom during holidays. This improved my practical knowledge and it made me graduate not only with theoretical knowledge, but also practical knowledge. This also made it easy for me when I later got employed by ESCOM as a graduate trainee, because I no longer had to struggle in the different sections.”

Even more grateful is Kamgunda who at one point dreaded the thought of dropping out of school due to lack of fees.

“This scholarship is really a great relief for both me and the whole family. I was really going through a difficult time before this scholarship. I never really thought I would ever finish my studies at Must considering my financial status,” Kamgunda says.

“And what raised my happiness most was the fact that we will have the opportunity to be working at Escom during the holidays for us to be getting a little something that we can use when we get back to school since Escom will only be giving us tuition fees.”

Must Communications Manager, James Mphande, said the scholarship has helped many intelligent female students who might have dropped out of school due to lack of school fees.

“Most of these needy students are the only hope of their families in terms of transforming the socio-economic status. By supporting them, Escom is not only helping them academically but changing the fortunes of their current and future families,” Mphande says.

He notes that students who are weighed down by worries over lack of school fees, clothes and groceries, struggle to focus in class.

“So with such scholarships, they tend to have less worry thereby enabling them to concentrate in class and realise their academic goals.

“Must is mostly into sciences so the scholarship coming from an institution that is also in the same industry, is an extra motivation to the students to work for their benefactors hence a huge motivation for engineering related programmes,” he says.

Mphande is also grateful that Escom sponsors girls’ camps for secondary schools learners’ to appreciate life at the Thyolo university.

At the institution level, Escom’s university scholarship programme is in tandem with its Social and Gender Inclusion and Anti-Sexual Discrimination policy.

The policy, among other objectives, seeks to “offer scholarships and internships to best female performing students in engineering tertiary institutions…implement various programmes with secondary schools in order to promote the participation of girls in science, technology, engineering and mathematics courses.”

Chienda said the scholarship has empowered many hard working female learners who earn good grades.

“…the Social & Gender Inclusion Policy and Anti-Sexual Harassment Policy is a huge milestone making Escom the pioneer in the energy and private sector. Introduction of the Scholarship Award to the best performing female engineering students at tertiary level is also another first from Escom. Students on scholarship offered internship and mentorship during vacation and some recruited pipeline building initiatives like Bring your Daughter to Work, mentoring and career talks in secondary schools,” Chienda said.

Additionally, Escom’s Integrated Strategic Plan (ISP, 2013-2017) carried strategies for promoting women in the Corporation, including through aspiring for an equal representation of men and women in the workforce by 2017; and promoting scholarship and internship opportunities for female engineering students, amongst others.

At the launch of the scholarship programme in Blantyre in 2017, Escom presented a cheque valued at K2.1 to The Polytechnic to cater for fees of the initial six beneficiaries at the college.

Speaking during the launch in 2017, The Polytechnic Principal, Professor Grant Kululanga, hailed Escom for the initiative saying the composition of female engineers in Malawi is less than one percent.

“Female engineers in Malawi are very scarce. We need to encourage and support them so we can increase the numbers,” Kululanga then said.

The scholarship programme is in line with Malawi’s Gender Equality Act whose objective is to address inequalities between men and women in many aspects of life.

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