Collaboration between the sciences and the social sciences can only lead to the improvement of sustainable and renewable energy, the effects of climate change on the environment, food security and the alleviation of poverty. 
In this case, engineers as scientists are solving technical challenges contributing to social benefits.
This message was shared at the webinar Conversation 3: The Sciences in Service of Society hosted by Nelson Mandela University’s Engagement and Transformation Portfolio – Hubs of Convergence.  The School of Engineering’s Professor Russell Phillips, Karl du Preez and lab intern Kabelo Mpurwana as well as guesthouse owner at Riemvasmaak, Elisa Namases, were the presenters.  
Riemvasmaak in the Northern Cape is about 20 km east of the Namibian border and has the highest solar energy in the country with temperatures reaching 50 degrees Celsius in summer.  The arid desert landscape receives less than 50mm of rainfall annually.  
This is where, for a number of years, Mandela University’s School of Engineering has performed solar and wind energy research, benefiting a small farm, a guesthouse and the community, as well as many students who not only learnt by doing the practical work but also realised their value to the community. 
The project started with Prof Phillips’s passion for de-urbanisation as a solution to not only the effects of climate change, but also alleviating poverty. “I firmly believe that people should live outside the cities, de-urbanise and for that, they need energy, connectivity and effective ways to run small farms.  This means spending time with communities to find out what their needs are and discuss the best possible solutions with short term initiatives.  We take our knowledge for granted, but how do we as engineers contribute to job creation and agriculture as a business, which is at the forefront of this project?” he says.
The Riemvasmaak project is run by the School of Engineering’s Advanced Mechatronic Technology Centre (AMTC) and is funded by merSETA (the Manufacturing, Engineering and Related Services SETA).  The AMTC has been in existence for the past 18 years and is currently involved with drone projects and short courses, the marine engineering degree and the Stem in Action schools science project, among others.
Initially, the Namases family used a petrol pump to get water from the river for household use on their family farm and often had to carry the water a long distance.  From there, the idea was born to run a solar pump to save them money and to have a sustainable energy source.  
Since the first project -  setting up a solar pump - the farm has grown to boast a viable guesthouse and an extensive vegetable garden, from melons to beetroot and carrots, which not only supplies the Namases family, but also the elderly nearby.  
In 2020, the first live research site was established on the farm, feeding research data to the University and the guesthouse. Owner Ms Elisa Namases, who grew up on the farm, signed a formal Memorandum of Understanding with the University.  A second set of solar panels was installed as well as two wind turbines to assist in supplying electricity to the guesthouse and to pump water.  
“They know the best solutions and we can listen to them.  I am, for example, working on a kit for a solar pump for communities to build their own water pump.  We as engineers, have to venture out of our silos to solve pressing societal issues and add value.  My greatest takeaway from this, my biggest project, is the satisfaction of building something that changes someone’s life.  Although the extreme heat was challenging, it was satisfying to see an idea become a reality.  We can start at home with small projects making a big difference, Kabelo said.
“I will never forget our emotions when the first water was pumped out of the river.  This research project also grows our students.  The project demanded hard physical labour for days, which we as staff and students performed together both in our labs and on site.  Kabelo worked through lockdown on this project,” said Mr Du Preez. 
“It is difficult to involve academics in these projects as we all have a fulltime workload as lecturers and projects need funding.  One has to build on your relationship with funders, then funding is more easily available for sustainable projects.  In this case, it is a viable system which has been running for a number of years.   
Hubs of Convergence’s Dr Bruce Damons mentioned the advantage of tapping into Ms Namases’ indigenous knowledge, shown on a short video. For example, she knows exactly what will grow in the arid conditions, yet fertile soil. The knowledge exchange for researchers and students is extremely valuable and similar projects should also be looked for in the Eastern Cape.
Dr Ossie Franks from the Strategic Resource Mobilisation and Advancement Office, encouraged suggestions for the future including to involve other departments, for example, the University’s Agriculture department to assist the farm and expose students to the environment.
Prof Phillips mentioned a doctoral project in the Engineering School, also working on a solar-powered agricultural vehicle doing weeding, picking and other functions on a small-scale farm. 
More people should be informed of the reciprocal benefits for society, staff and students that research can play and the University’s Hubs of Convergence emphasise this work in service of society.  The importance of knowledge sharing and application through various mediums was also emphasised to extend the impact of the engagement and research, and to further sow seeds for further inter and transdisciplinary collaboration with multiple communities (stakeholders).