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Lighting the world: MIT graduate student invents scalable solar

It’s tough to be competitive within the global marketplace when your company languishes for large spans of time off the power grid, but it’s a problem that people in many developing nations face. In his native Zimbabwe, Prosper Nyovanie says that life was continually lived in work-around mode as frequent electricity outages plagued the country. Realizing how crippling this was to Zimbabwe’s economic culture, Nyovanie set about looking for a solution. He found it in a scalable solar electric system that expands with demand.

Nyovanie, who majored in mechanical engineering as an MIT undergraduate, discovered his calling when he took the course Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies, which explored the production, distribution, and consumption of energy. The experience inspired him to minor in energy studies and eventually led to the birth of Voya Sol, the company he cofounded to enable individuals to build their own solar energy micro-grids from the bottom-up.

As an undergraduate, Nyovanie took on a UROP with Martin Culpepper in the Laboratory for Manufacturing and Productivity and realized that the success of his ideas were rooted at the intersection of business and technology. In a recent interview with MIT News he recalled, “One big thing that I liked about the class was that it introduced this other complexity that I hadn’t paid that much attention to before, because when you’re in the engineering side, you’re really focused on making technology, using science to come up with awesome inventions. But there are considerations that you need to think about when you’re implementing [such inventions]. You need to think about markets, how policies are structured.”

Now a graduate student and fellow in MIT’s Leaders for Global Operations (LGO) program, Nyovanie is building that pivotal combination of skills. Through the LGO program, he will earn an MBA from MIT Sloan and a master’s in mechanical engineering. He is also a fellow in the Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship at MIT.

Global fieldwork in key markets

Before cofounding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo, Nyovanie worked at renewable energy company SunEdison as a process engineer and analyst through the Renewable Energy Leadership Development Rotational Program. He rotated between different roles at the company around the world, including a stint as a project engineer overseeing the development of rural mini-grids in Tanzania. When SunEdison declared bankruptcy, Nyovanie continued his discussions with rural electricity providers in Zimbabwe, Kenya, and Nigeria before eventually founding Voya Sol with Stanford University graduate student Caroline Jo.

Nyovanie believes that their scalable, personalized solar solution is the first of its kind. If all goes according to plan, they will provide customers with all the components necessary to independently assemble a solar energy system that can power their own homes, connect to their neighbors’ systems, or even build out a community grid. The first country to test the product? Zimbabwe, of course.