ANU primed me to become a change-maker

Afnan Hanan (BEc, BEng ‘14)
01 Nov 2022

My name is Afnan Hanan, I studied a Bachelor of Engineering and Economics double degree at The Australian National University (ANU). Since graduating, I've become an entrepreneur in the space of energy access and founded Okra Solar; a start-up providing affordable electricity to rural households across countries in Southeast Asia.  

A lot of people want to become entrepreneurs because it sounds glamourous, in a way. But in reality, there are days where you're working 24/7 and haven't slept, you're getting nowhere, or you just feel like everything is going to burst into flames. And it's challenging.

But it's a challenge I felt prepared to navigate, thanks to my experiences at university. A fond memory that I have of being at ANU, is of needing to submit a paper for examination. I was studying in the engineering lab, and it was nearing 5am. I went to get a drink from the vending machine and the next thing I know, my peers were streaming through the doors. I had been asleep with like a bottle of PowerAde in my hand, which I hadn't even drunk. As soon as I woke up, they helped me race to the boxes where you check-in your papers and I got my paper submitted, just in time.  

That's one example of what life as an ANU student can be - it's also what it's like running a business or being an entrepreneur. There are periods where it's really, really challenging but you need to step up and do what it takes to get through it. And with each other's support, my friends and I got through it completely fine.

This is just one way in which ANU primed me to become a change-maker in the world. It is where I developed the work ethic, passion and connections needed to solve big-picture problems; knowledge I now use to push innovative solutions into the world.

I remember studying the Vice-Chancellors course, Unravelling Complexities, while I was at ANU. It was a multidisciplinary course with students, from psychology to engineering, coming together to solve some of the world's biggest challenges. What I learnt in this course has always stuck with me: there is no single ultimate truth or "right" answer, but there is always room for going forward and every step forward is a step worth taking.

It taught me that if you understand what your problem is and have the conviction to solve it, that you should just fully go for it. This mindset, combined with a willingness to ask and act of advice, has been key to Okra Solar's success. 

For example, whenever I have a big idea or complex decision to make, I find two other people that are either smarter or more expert than myself and talk it through with them. Often, it is people in the ANU community that fulfil this important role. The professors at ANU, on many occasions, gave me their time so that I could bounce ideas off them and figure out which way I should go forward; both in terms of my coursework and in strategically aligning the various ideas I had. Their passionate feedback and advice truly helped shape me, and Okra Solar.

Okra Solar has received many accolades, including Best IoT Startup at the 2019 Australian IoT Awards, and TechCrunch 2019 IoT Startup of the Year. I was even named alongside Damian Veling, my co-founder at Okra Solar, in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia 2021 List.

And in 2021, I won the ANU Young Alumnus of the Year award. Winning the award meant a lot to me; to be recognised by the institution and people who helped shape me was something I never expected. But I really don't think my achievements are just me - it's the team that I've put around me too, many of who are also ANU graduates.

Together, we are working on something that is exciting and important. Bringing electricity to people who don't have power means they can access necessities such as lighting, refrigeration and the internet. They can study online, and access opportunities associated with being connected to the global economy.  

The experience and the mentorship I received at ANU is what allowed me to finally spread my wings and fly outside of Canberra, into the great big world. It's exciting being able to contribute to solving global problems - imagine how many more people will be able to do that when they're connected to electricity, the internet and the democratisation of opportunities that comes with it.  

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