Let there be light…

After a waiting a month for solar equipment to clear the port after being shipped from India, followed by a rather busy couple of days to sort out the allocation of solar equipment to the three villages in Lindi & Mtwara, I returned to southern Tanzania along with my boss and colleague to see what progress the solar engineers had been making (see previous blog for the background on the Barefoot Solar project).

Traditional meets technology

In the first village, Nitekela, the engineers took us to see some of the 35 homes (out of 55) that they’d been busy installing solar power into.  We visited the brick built house of a teacher where Amina and Mariam showed us their handiwork before moving onto the more traditionally built mud houses with thatched roofs.  All had a solar panel on the roof, wired into a control panel and battery, which then powered three lights and a phone charger.

Solar engineer Mariam with one of her daughters

The solar engineers themselves were very proud of their handiwork (and rightly so).  Their standing in the village has changed and they are starting to be respected for their expertise.  These are very patriarchal communities so these little steps are important.

Chekeleni turns out to greet us (with workshop in the background)

At the second village, Chekeleni the following day, the most exciting experience for me was driving into the village and seeing house after house with a solar panel on its roof.  The two solar engineers had been busy and installed just about every one of the 69 households.

We were shown the newly built workshop ready to be kitted out for the solar engineers.  In fact it seemed the whole hamlet had turned out too.

Engineer Arafa shows off her handiwork

After a tour of the workshop, we met with the Village Energy Committee and village leaders together with other community members.  There were about 12 of us crammed into this little room and then about six deep going out the door.  There were lots of positive comments about the difference having solar is making, some questions about practicalities and several requests for the rest of the hamlet to get solar as well (only half of the households signed up at the start).

Then we got to see some of the solar installations.  Again many of the houses were traditionally constructed of mud bricks with thatched roofs.  They are pretty dark inside so it was possible to see in daylight the difference having solar power makes.  None of the traditional houses have ceilings.  The inside walls are about 6 feet high and it’s just empty space above.

It was fascinating seeing this mix of technology and traditional architecture together.  All the householders proudly showed us around and explained about the difference having solar power was making.  Normally they would go to someone who had made a business of charging phones using solar panels.  Now some of them were charging their neighbours (at a reduced price) to do the same.  Their children were able to study in good quality light (no more eye straining to the dim light of a kerosene lantern).  In fact no more kerosene – meaning less risk of fire from a naked flame and potentially better health for all the family from not having to breathe in the noxious fumes.  Also, families could see what they were eating in the evenings (as it gets dark at around 6:30pm all year round).

Checking themselves out

I had fun with the children.  They all want to have their photos taken and then adpot a very serious pose for the camera.  However, they get so animated when you show them the picture and they pick themselves out.  That is the best photo of all.

In the final hamlet, Mjimwema, the equipment was still in storage and nothing had been installed.  The Village Chairman called everyone together and most of the community showed up.

The whole community turns out in Mjimwema

The elder men of the village started first asking questions and complaining that the installations hadn’t started.  We were told that the Village Energy Committee was waiting for householders to pay their cash deposit toward the equipment (which is what they promised to do before the women went for their training in India).

We suggested that it may be worth starting the installations for those members of the community that had paid and that would then act as an incentive for others to pay.  Whilst we were talking one elderly women handed over money for her contribution.

Solar engineers, Esha and Fatima

Also, there seemed to be a lot of skepticism that the women would be able to carry out the installations.  Tensions between the women engineers and the energy committee were evident and we discovered that the women weren’t even part of the committee (in both other villages they are an integral part).  We recommended that the women join the committee and reassured the community of their expertise.  The community agreed that they would bring the equipment from the local prison where it was being stored and the engineers could get started with their installations.

Sometimes a little outside intervention makes a difference.


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