Nira-Hanke-Louw, YWP-ZA chairperson and water sector manager for the EWSETA

Water&Sanitation Africa magazine interviews Nora Hanke-Louw, Young Water Professionals South Africa (YWP-ZA) chairperson and water sector manager at the Energy and Water Sector Education and Training Authority (EWSETA):

  1. What are your current professional activities?

My current job is water sector manager for the EWSETA. This is a national body which falls under the Department of Higher Education and Training. It promotes skills development in the water sector, focusing on technical skills. As a result, I work closely with Technical and Vocational, Education and Training (TVET) colleges.

My role as water sector manager requires me to foster and maintain partnerships and manage stakeholder engagement activities around the country. This speaks perfectly to my extroverted character and I love being able to meet so many inspiring people every day.

  1. As a ten-year-old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

For the longest time, I wanted to become a movie director. My mom had worked at a film studio for a while and I loved the atmosphere, the creativity, and the end product – who doesn’t love movies?

My mom even bought me a camera, so my friends and I recreated the most memorable moments from Titanic (don’t judge, it was huge then). It is still one of the most hilarious pieces of “art” I have seen to this day, especially because we needed a boy to play Leonardo DiCaprio’s part and so we drew a well-meaning but skew moustache on one of my friends faces.

  1. What has your journey as a water sector professional been like to date?

It all started in 2011 when fellow YWP members Shanna (Nienaber) and Inga (Jacobs-Mata) came to Stellenbosch University, where I was studying at the time and desperately looking for a MA thesis topic. While some of my classmates had it all figured out and knew from the beginning what their area of specialisation would be, it took me a little longer to get there. It then took me another two years to actually finish my thesis but I got to live in Dar-es-Salaam for my research and travelled all over East Africa which was an amazing adventure.

Of course, there comes a point where you can no longer afford to live the student’s vagabond life. I got super lucky and at the first YWP meeting in the Western Cape I ever attended, I met Dominique who said that her boss is looking for someone and just like that, two weeks later, I started my job as part-time administrator at the NEPAD Southern African Network for Water Centres of Excellence (SANWATCE). I eventually became a full-time project manager for different projects in the network; one of which was for the EWSETA and that’s how I jumped to the EWSETA where I am today.

  1. What personal strengths have assisted you in your career trajectory?

Seeing opportunities and going for them. This comes along with a complete willingness to make a fool of myself because nobody is good at anything they do the first time around. To illustrate this: the first time I spoke in front of a big crowd was at the 2013 YWP Regional Conference in Stellenbosch where I had to give a speech and my mobile phone rang (loudly) in the middle of my speech. I had never attended a conference at this point, had pretty much no idea what I was doing and my knees where rubber.

But hey, you know what happened when my phone rang and I forgot to thank somebody on the Committee? Nothing. I mean, I sometimes get nightmares about it but otherwise, nothing.

  1. What drives you day-to-day?

I guess, I like to think that my job and my activities have a meaning beyond their immediate output; that we are contributing to a better world for all.

  1. What was the biggest hurdle you had to overcome in your career to date?

There were many small hurdles which probably add up but overall the jump from being an administrator to becoming a content developer. I think many social scientists first get stuck with event organisation and fairly menial administrative ‘to do’ lists. It takes a while to know what you can contribute in terms of content and I am glad that I managed to bridge that gap.

  1. How do you balance work-personal commitments?

I have the gift of being able to fall asleep early, pretty much at the same time every night. This coincides with an inability to concentrate on anything after around 19:00. I can get really cranky if I’m not in bed early. On the up side, I am pretty sure this has saved me from becoming the party queen I was always secretly destined to be. In all seriousness though, I just can’t work late and that’s that.

  1. Now that you are working, what tip would you give your ten-year old self?

Honestly, I don’t think I have changed that much and so I would say: Keep doing whatcha doin’ (except in German because my ten-year-old self did not understand a word of English).

  1. What inspires you about the water sector?

I love the people who work in the sector. I love the fact that most are in it not because of the money but because they believe in their work. I love that there are opportunities for young people who commit themselves. I love that it’s multidisciplinary and transboundary by nature.

  1. What are the main challenges for implementing water and sanitation for all?

I don’t think there is on answer to this question because it depends on so many factors: urban vs rural, which country, etc. However, from where I’m sitting, skilled people are the key to humanity overcoming any challenge. By ‘skilled’ I mean having technical skills but also the softer skills: teamwork, community awareness, attitude, and so on.

  1. How are women’s experiences in the water sector different from men’s?

I don’t think all women’s experiences are different than all men’s and I don’t think the water sector is unique. What I do know from personal experience is that some men in the sector are considered ‘creepy’ and women tell each other to beware. Those inappropriate and unsolicited sexual advances are in fact common but nobody really says anything other than in private. Women seem to feel so disempowered that almost no cases of harassment are filed. I think that if all women in the water sector would write down their experiences, we’d be in for a shock. And I think that most men in the sector do not experience this personally to the same degree.

  1. How do women need to be supported in the water sector?

A wish list: full recognition that women and men are equal in terms of technical expertise and leadership; support for whistle-blowers and a culture of non-negotiable personal boundaries; wide-spread training on harassment policies and what constitutes harassment; a safe space for women to share how they manage career and the expectations of motherhood, and financial training – key to sustainable family planning.

  1. What role has YWP played in your life to date?

Well, YWP introduced me to the water sector in the first place (Shanna and Inga’s university tour), I got my first job through YWP (my encounter with Dominique), and I am pretty sure I am a national manager today because of the skills I acquired through YWP. I also made some amazing friends who helped me settle in South Africa. So yeah, I would say not a big but a huge role.

  1. How is YWP helping increase the women’s share in the water sector?

I think YWP is an extremely safe space for young women to fail, to see other women do their thing and learn from that. To bring in new ideas and not be shot down. To manage a group of people who support you. Obviously not all women in the water sector came through the YWP ranks but many have because I think it is a net for young women to enter the sector and get a shot at leadership which the wider sector might not entrust to young women.