Blog

Solar Energy: The Catalyst to Escaping Poverty (Ben’s Concluding Thoughts)

As a CWS Fellowship Leader two summers ago, I asked my teams to consider both sides of a question pitting access to clean water against access to electricity. Which resource provides the most benefit? Which should come first? As you might expect, the arguments heavily favored the clean water side. The group eventually began considering the benefits of electricity, but fifteen minutes later, the consensus remained the same. Yet, at the same time, it became apparent that a community simply can’t break the bonds of poverty in today’s complex world without gaining access to electricity. If given electricity, villagers improve productivity in their everyday work and studies through better tools and lighting, health through refrigeration and cleaner fuel, and opportunities to create new businesses. Solar electricity could easily be the best solution to the electrification problem of a continent with scarce grid infrastructure, untrustworthy governments, and nearly perpetual sunlight. Leaving Ghana after a successful pilot run exactly one year to the day after the finals of the Social Enterprise Competition, I am confident that solar electricity is the easiest, simplest, and cheapest way to bring electricity to the masses in rural Ghana and other parts of West Africa. The InnovaSun model leverages the strengths of solar electrification with the proven success of the CWS Water Business model, resulting in tremendous potential that could give tens of thousands of Africans newfound access to electricity.

For having such little access to cameras, the people of Wambong sure know how to pose for a photo.

When planning our pitch for the competition, Mark and I found some promising evidence that there would be an immediate demand for electricity. Many villagers already own phones and travel over an hour away to pay about 25 cents to charge them. We estimated there would be about one phone for every two households. Arriving in Ghana, we soon found that our estimates needed some work. If you’ve read Mark’s previous posts or any of my InnovaSun blog, you’re already aware of the unanticipated level of demand that awaited us in Wambong. After giving each household a shiny new rechargeable lantern, the demand for the center became sky-high. From early on, we were pleasantly surprised to hear villagers discussing future usages of electricity as well. One household already owned a TV, and planned to hook it up to watch important football matches with the village. During Opening Night, the village plugged in a giant amplified sound system and a backlight. Since we left, the women have also begun charging customers to charge small radios. Many more panels are needed before we can meet the high demand, but the women running the center easily learned how to ration the available electricity and they clearly understand the importance of saving for expansion.

In addition to the high demand, solar equipment is easy to find locally and is relatively cheap. The solar revolution is just beginning in Africa, and there are many businesses selling the necessary equipment in Accra and offering tremendous support in case their customers encounter any mishaps. We put together the entire system, including building its protective structure, for under $2500. The technology, while new and complex, fits together easily, making it easy to teach even to people without a Western education. Best of all, the system just works. Frequent adjustments aren’t necessary, and batteries maintain power for use at night and during storms, so a system built the right way will function no different than your everyday wall outlet. The social enterprise aspect also works well with villagers’ existing way of life. They now travel less far for electricity, pay only ten cents to charge their phones, and own a safe light source which also has health benefits and saves on fuel costs. All of these payments go to the women who run the center who have demonstrated they already know how to run a successful business.

Soaking up the sun.

Soaking up the sun.

As we move forward with additional InnovaSun pilots, our primary focus will be on finding the right item to distribute to each household. Our chosen lantern takes an entire day to charge, and to make things worse, many of them barely hold a charge for more than a couple of hours. Only four rechargeable lanterns were available in Tamale, and each suffer from unfortunate consequences, such as cost, longevity, brightness, efficiency, and bulkiness. Should we expand our search to Accra, or even neighboring Togo? Do we import our own lanterns, distribute a different item, switch to a rechargeable battery model, or perhaps not distribute anything at all? We’ll also make changes with the structure. Besides adding a front counter-like window and mounting the panels on the roof, we’ll also consider the necessity of building something as large as a house. Mark and I will be closely following CWS’s progress monitoring and expanding InnovaSun from our homes in New York and Texas, and can’t wait to see the results of future pilots.

Our primary goal was to create a sustainable business model to sell cheap solar electricity to rural Ghanaians, and we believe we’ve done just that. At the same time, we’ve empowered women in a male-dominated society and allowed our project to be easily adopted into a fellowship program model for future expansion. The InnovaSun pilot program was more successful than either Mark or I could have hoped. The project left us with interesting stories about our interactions with the chief, elders, and other villagers. We experienced life as an expat in Tamale, if only for three weeks. And most vividly, we’re left with lasting memories detailing the excitement of an entire village during the Opening Night festivities. All of this wouldn’t have been possible without help from the CWS staff, and most importantly, Shak, Kate, and Brianan. Now, an idea that began on paper fifteen months ago has finally become a reality, and one thousand people in Wambong now have access to electricity. As CWS continues to grow InnovaSun, that number will soon be multiplied many times over.

-Ben

http://innovasun.files.wordpress.com/2013/11/img_8068.jpg

Thank you, Wambong!

Season Changeover Stimulates Water Business Sales

Customers!

Happy customers on their way home from buying water from Amina and Massamata’s water business in Galinzegu!

The rains “are finished” as Ghanaians would say, which means CWS water treatment centers are back in business! In the rainy season, which lasts from June- October in the Northern Region of Ghana, CWS communities collect rainwater. Rainwater is plentifully and freely available in these months, so community members opt for free drinking water instead of paying the $.05 to fill their 20 L containers at the water treatment center.

200 L drums

Rainwater collected in 200 L yellow drums in the village of Gidanturi. While this water is safe for using for household chores, it is easily contaminated. People need to open the lid and dip a scooping bucket in to fetch the water. Contamination alert!

Now that the rains have stopped, the only available clean water source in CWS communities is for people to buy water from the centers. The only other water available for drinking would be stored rainwater in 200 L blue drums or clay pots (not safe for drinking), stored rainwater in cement rainwater catchment tanks (not safe for drinking), stored rainwater in hand dug wells (not safe for drinking) or dugout/stream water (definitely not safe for drinking).

While the answer seems obvious (they should go to the center!), it’s not that simple. The entrepreneurs have not been regularly treating water and the community members have not been regularly buying water. So this limbo period is always an adjustment for CWS communities. As CWS Assistant Project Manager Shak put it, ” It’s no longer raining. So this is just our biggest challenge for the next month, getting people used to buying water again. ”

Local well unsafe!

A “local well” in Kabache/Kasawuripe. This is the water the entrepreneurs have been treating in this community. It is not groundwater and is easily contaminated with human and animal waste… aka do not drink!

Behavior change isn’t easy. And that’s what CWS is focusing on in transitioning from the rainy to the dry season. Changing the entrepreneurs’ behavior so they incorporate water treatment and selling water into their daily routines and changing the consumers’ behavior, so they get used to coming to buy water.

Wahab monitoring

CWS Field staffer Wahab making household surveying look easy.

In most communities, this transition is seamless. For example, in Kpanayili where the entrepreneurs now use a metal polytank stand to move the center from the various water sources throughout the year, their water business is operating with high sales! Field staffer Wahab is in charge of the monitoring and evaluation for Kpanayili. He reported on November 20, 2013, “It was such a happy day, seeing Kpanayili’s center up and running after the rains.” Last year, community members took their sweet time transitioning back to using the center and this year, they haven’t missed a beat.

But in other communities, the transition has not been so seamless. For example, in Nyamaliga, the community relies solely on rainwater throughout the rainy season because their dugout path gets muddy and slippery. I along with the other staff can vouch for this as we’ve all taken a tumble trying to get to the dugout. Sana and Sofou who run the center refuse to treat water until the community members help them weed the path to the water treatment center, which means a few weeks of people not having access to clean drinking water. This baffles the CWS field staff because if the path is dry then the entrepreneurs should be able to access the dugout! CWS Project Manager Peter reported this week that the path was clear so there should be no delay in water treatment… as for that one we’ll have to report back next week.

Rainwater catchment tank

Rainwater catchment tank — CWS staff Amin and myself recently tested rainwater catchment tanks in Sakpalua, Djelo and Kpenchila. Almost every tank tested positive for total coliform and a few tested positive for e-coli. These tanks are hard to clean and the organizations that set them up do not return for testing or monitoring. We advise communities not to drink from them.

In Tohinaayili, the community decided to move their center to the town center during the rainy season to treat rainwater. This is Tohinaayili’s first transition from the rainy to the dry season, as CWS implemented here in the Winter of 2012-2013. While their polytank is not empty yet, the entrepreneurs have been lackadaisical to move it back to the dugout. The CWS field staff has seen this type of transition before and found that it takes a few seasons to get the hang of it.

Finally, the path to Gbateni was flooded all rainy season. The CWS staff had not been there since May! On November 20, 2013, CWS field staffers Amin and Peter were finally able to get there. They arrived at the center and it was empty, community members did not have clean water in their storage containers. The entrepreneurs were also not home so they could not figure out what was wrong. The staff will have to get back ASAP. Buhijaa and Chanaayili, villages that are also inaccessible to CWS staff during the rainy season, were up and running the entire season! Chanaayili even sent a message to Gidanturi mid rainy season requesting that CWS staff send aquatabs (chlorine tablets) with someone who was able to make it across the flooded road.

Amin to Gbateni

Amin trudges through the flooded path to Gbateni mid-rainy season.
metal pt stand

Shout out to the metal polytank stand which several communities are now using to move their water treatment centers from different water sources throughout the seasons

These seasonal transitions are a challenge for CWS every year. Each community adapts to the changing of seasons at a different pace. But the cool thing about CWS is that the field staff is with these entrepreneurs and communities throughout the process! The staff shows the entrepreneurs how to rally assemblymen, chiefs and queen mothers to get the communities back on track or even modifies the CWS technology (like the moveable metal polytank stands) so that these water businesses will be sustainable without staff help in the future!

-Brianán