Irish engineer helps power up Tanzania and Zanzibar

27 Sep 2013

Engineer Orla Burke. Image via ESB International website

Since 2011, Irish engineer Orla Burke has been working on projects to improve electrical power supplies in Tanzania and Zanzibar. She spoke to Claire O’Connell about the challenges and immediate rewards of delivering more power to communities.

Power cuts. If they are short and at home, they can be a bit of a nuisance. But if they are extended or frequent, and if they are affecting an entire region, it’s quite a different story.

When Burke first arrived in Tanzania in 2011 and travelled across to Zanzibar just off the coast, power cuts were not out of the ordinary. But today a new interconnector between mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar has improved power security vastly, and Burke played a key role in managing its construction. 

Move to Africa

After she studied electrical engineering and completed a master’s degree at University College Cork, Burke started her job with ESB International (ESBI) in 2007. Four years later, she moved to Tanzania to work with ESBI on energy projects under the Millennium Challenge Corporation, which was was set up by the US government to reduce poverty and promote economic growth. 

Through the initiative, Tanzania received funding to improve infrastructure, including a number of energy developments administered through the Millennium Challenge Account–Tanzania (MCA-T) Energy Project. 

But where does ESBI fit in? “In 2008, there was an international competitive tender and ESBI was appointed as the consultant and construction supervisor for the energy projects in Tanzania,” explains Burke. “Those projects include a hydro-power plant study, rehabilitation and extension of substations and also the new interconnector between mainland Tanzania and Zanzibar.”

And when the call came for an engineer to help manage the projects, she jumped at the chance to be involved: “One of the reason I joined ESBI was the word ‘international’ in its title – I love to travel.” 

Making a more powerful connection

One of Burke’s main tasks was to help manage and oversee the construction of an interconnector between Tanzania and Zanzibar. There was a connection there already, but it was no longer up the job, she recalls. “The previous interconnector had been there for 35 years and they had some problems with it – a few of years ago there was a fault in the cable and it meant a three-month power outage in Zanzibar.”

The demand in Zanzibar was now outstripping the capacity of the old interconnector, so the new one was designed to more than double the megawatts to improve the security of supply. But linking the two regions involved quite a bit of co-ordination – not least physically installing a 37km-long submarine cable, as well as works on substations and overhead lines.

Still, it all paid off when the interconnector was energised earlier this year, and it was celebrated at an event attended by about 15,000 people, recalls Burke. “The president of Zanzibar and other high-level dignitaries were there – people were genuinely excited,” she says. 

And walking around Zanzibar now Burke can see for herself the difference it is making. “When I started going there first there were always power shortages, but now when I travel there I know there is no power shortage,” she says. “I have got friends and colleagues living in Zanzibar and they tell me how economically important it is to have power there – as well as day-to-day life, a constant supply of electricity is essential for the tourist industry.”

Sensitivities and rewards

The electrification project involved working with local people and contractors from various countries, and Burke quickly had to become attuned to the different cultural sensitivities, as well as the technical challenges. “Early on in the project it was very important to develop your communication skills,” she says. “But there has also been a lot of reward in hearing positive feedback, which people are quick to give.”

In addition, she can see the trickle-down effects of more secure power being delivered in the other rural electrification projects in Tanzania, too. “When you go and visit it’s amazing – within a week or two of getting power to a village you have people setting up hairdressers and video stores,” she says. “Those things couldn’t have happened before and this where you see the direct, immediate impact.”

Opening career options

The ESBI-managed projects are finishing up now and Burke is preparing for the close-out period and planning her return to Ireland in early 2014. “I have been very lucky to have this opportunity and I love working out here, it’s a great industry to be working in and see the benefits of investment on a day-to-day basis,” she says. “I would be very open to doing another post internationally, it is so interesting to get to work in another part of the world.”

And while her engineering degree has been something of a passport for working abroad, she also recommends it to students as a useful training for opening up career options.  

“The skill set that you acquire when you do a degree in engineering is highly sought after and very transferrable across industry,” she says. “Those problem-solving skills allow you to go down any career path.”

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Dr Claire O’Connell is a scientist-turned-writer with a PhD in cell biology and a master’s in science communication