Dates of Trip: December 2009
Our first overseas trip was to the city of Mbale, Uganda where many of the homes are without electricity.
Below is a complete summary of the trip written by our fearless traveler and solar expert, Brian Clark.
The two week workshop in eastern Uganda went extremely well. After the very long flight from the US via Dubai I was picked up by friends of Dr. Moses Musaazi, a prominent engineer in Uganda and the founder of Technology for Tomorrow, Ltd. After a one night stay with almost 20 children and young adults of a local dance troupe in their modest home in the capital of Kampala, I was picked up by Caleb Wakhungu, the director of the Mount Elgon Self-Help Community Project, with whom I would be working closely with for the duration of my trip.
We spent most of the day searching for supplies for the solar panels in the busy streets of Kampala. It would have been easy to bring all of the supplies with me, but if I taught them a technique with materials that they could not get, how could they replicate this? After many hours on the streets and with the supplies we needed, we refueled and headed for Mbale. This would be the last city on our way to the un-electrified town of Bumbo (pictured), a small town at the foothills of Mt. Elgon on the border with Kenya and the location for our workshop.
The next day we secured the rest of the supplies we needed from Mbale, which involved a several hour drive each way. Although it is only about 30 miles away with the public transportation available, the trip can easily take 3 hours one way in a crowded van that makes frequent stops. Paying special attention to the prices paid to determine later how to cost the finished panels, we strapped the last of the supplies to the top of the van and headed back to Bumbo to begin the formal workshop.
In attendance were 3 representatives of the Mt. Elgon Non Government Organization (NGO), Caleb, Jeremiah and Andrew. Also attending was a representative for Dr. Moses Musaazi, Vincent (although after a family emergency he left for Kampala and his spot was taken by another associate of Dr. Musaazi’s named Brian). On December 3rd, a Thursday, we dove right into the workshop and spent the next week covering the solar basics and building solar panels.
We built two 70 watt panels for charging standard 12 volt deep cycle batteries, one panel for directly charging a cell phone (which every Ugandan seems to have at least one of) and one panel to directly charge up to four AA batteries. By Wednesday afternoon we began preparing the price list for the inevitable questions that would come at us the next day regarding cost. While it is sure that both 70 watt panels will be put to good use, I learned that the average Ugandan wouldn’t need that much power. The NGO and I developed a plan to work with Dr. Musaazi’s organization to size a small residential system for a few extremely efficient LEDs and a little extra power for some cell phone charging. This system would need no more than a 25 watt panel; therefore, much emphasis was placed on determining system sizes and then cutting the solar cells and customizing the solar panels to match the individual customer’s needs.
The solar launch was humbling to say the least. I would estimate that 200 or more people showed up, despite the rain. People young and old from all over the region showed up to see the official launch of the solar project from the NGO, with many speeches, much cheering and, of course, song and dance. We gave a simple display of the power of the solar panels, running a DC water pump for everyone to see. For many hours people heard the past, present and the bright future of the Mt. Elgon Self Help Community Project from many speakers. There was certainly excitement in the air as people would look at and touch the newly built solar panels, commenting on how professional they looked – unable to hide their surprise that these panels were built right in their community!
Between my closing speech in front of everyone, which was translated into Lugasi (the local dialect), and the solar demonstration I gave at the end of the day I became a bit of a celebrity in the town. The last day I was in town I was walking alone to soak up everything one last time and was stopped multiple times on the street by the locals. They wanted to thank me with a handshake for my work and for coming all the way to their small town to bring light. If ever I needed validation for my work, it came from these interactions. I only wish I had taken more pictures of the people whose lives will forever be changed once they receive their first solar panel. The panels that will be built by the NGO can be done for about 1/3 of the price of the ones available in the cities, but even more importantly, they can be customized to suit the needs of the Ugandans in the community. They only pay for the power that they will use, and then they still get this power for 1/3 of the cost.
Electricity has truly become affordable for the first time ever in the small off-grid communities on the Ugandan/Kenyan border! I have promised to return within 2 years to track their progress and spread the technology to other parts of their country, so that they will have partners to work with and help spread light to all of Uganda. I could not have selected a better organization to work with than the Mt. Elgon Self Help Community Project and have made many solid friendships that I will continue to nurture for years to come.