Growing up, she always wanted to be set apart from the rest.
“I am the first and only girl in my family which alone creates expectations around me, setting an example for my brothers. I decided to take interest in an area where not a lot of girls are present,” said Mwangala Maunga, a multi award-winning young scientist, innovator, climate and child rights advocate from Lusaka, Zambia.
From a young age, Mwangala was a book worm, with her readings focused on science and technology. After pondering becoming a medical doctor or an astronaut, she found herself thriving in all of the STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics).
Clean water for all
Driven by the passion to find lasting solutions to the prevailing waterborne diseases rocking most African countries, Mwangala, at just 12 years old, came up with an innovative idea to produce a water purifier entirely powered by solar energy. Her idea is one that supports the world's move to more sustainable energy, which in turn plays a key role in helping both developing and developed countries in achieving many of the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, according to the World Bank Group.
She built the water purifier prototype with a combination of wooden and metal sheet enclosures, black paint for insulation, heat absorbent black trays, reflective materials, sheets of glass, glue and catch troughs.
“It is easy to use, as one just needs to put water in it and place it in the sun. However, as science develops, so does my idea,” she said.
During our interview, Mwangala, who is now 16, said she believes her water purifier idea is divine and could not have been timelier, as its conception was closely followed by the declaration of a cholera outbreak in Zambia in 2017. Cholera is a sometimes fatal infection of the intestines, often caused by drinking contaminated water. Mwangala explains that, “The main reason I developed the water filter was because I wanted to provide clean and safe water in the simplest way possible, as opposed to a complicated water purification system.”
According to Mwangala, she nursed the idea for the solar water filter while she was in Grade 5, however, she only actualized it when she was in Grade 8.
“I remember sitting in a science class and drawing the draft in my exercise book," she said. "When I showed my friend and asked if she thinks it could actually work, her answer was negative as she said it won’t go anywhere.” A few years down the line, it is evident that Mwangala pressed on with her idea.
Using her voice
In an effort to widen the scope of her impact in the lives of other young girls across Zambia, she founded the Girl Power Platform, an organization that exists to create STEM opportunities for girls especially in rural communities in Zambia.
“I live in the capital city which exposes me to more of these opportunities. What about girls that live in remote areas? I love to see girls thrive because I know for a fact that they have limitless potential,” Mwangala said.
Through her organization and her innovation, Mwangala has been able to address and inspire over 600 girls in her school through STEM and climate advocacy activities.
Considering the fact that Mwangala spends most of her time in school, she reveals she has not had ample time for community outreach. However, she plans to take this on as soon as she completes secondary school this year. “Now that I am graduating, it will allow me to have more outreach time to girls in remote areas,” she said.
As she leaves high school this year, her immediate goal is to “complete a book I am working on titled, 'This Far,' which practically highlights the major events of my life; where I started from and all leading to this point.”
She also plans to engage in mass production of the water filters by early 2023 as the water purifier prototype has gone through the necessary scientific tests and is now at the patenting stage.
Her college ambitions are to pursue development studies and engineering. “I intend to reach out to more underprivileged girls in communities and inspire them with my story and educate them on climate change and how they can contribute to making our planet a better place," she said.
Mwangala reveals that she comes from a family that values education and academic achievements. Because she is able to access more opportunities, she says, “I am poised to use my voice at every opportunity to educate younger girls, with support from my parents and siblings who have been real cheerleaders in my journey.”
Powered by the sun
Her efforts have been crowned with several recognitions, including the Best Inventor in the Science and Tech category at the DStv Africa MultiChoice - Cartoon Network Powerpuff Girls’ Awards; the 2019 youngest recipient of the Brenda Muntemba Award as an "Emerging Young African Leader" at the PUSH WOMEN AWARDS; the youngest and only Zambian speaker at the 2020 virtual International Youth Day which featured the youngest Deputy Minister of Information and Technology in Namibia, Hon. Emma Theofelus; and the Youngest STEM Change Maker Award at the 2021 Genius Education Zambia Awards.
Mwangala believes her success is determined by her “ability to do what she loves doing to her heart’s content.” Using her gifts to the best of her abilities, she is willing to continue to challenge the status quo in STEM by harnessing the power within her in practical ways to bring about positive change in her community and inspire other young girls towards sustainable development.
Given that about 418 million people still lack access to even a basic level of drinking water in Africa, access to clean water continues to be a permeating development issue. As access to clean, affordable, and safe drinking water is both a fundamental human right recognized by the United Nations and Goal 6 of the United Nations, Sustainable Development Goals, environmental and health benefits are both captured in Mwangala’s water purifier innovation.
She has also demonstrated that solar energy remains crucial not only in providing the world with an opportunity to cut down on its carbon footprint, but also to confront the numerous impediments to sustainable economic growth worsened by climate change.