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Chani’s Opening Night in Pictures

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The solar center in Chani on opening night. Even the sheep were excited!

On Wednesday April 23rd, 2014, the 4th CWS solar center opened for business in Chani! As you may have read on the blog, opening night was pushed back a few days because of a faulty inverter. While the setback was a disappointment, the opening was still a big success. The CWS full time Ghana staff along with my family (who was visiting from the US and Ireland) made it to the big event. Muneera and Salamatu, the CWS solar and water entrepreneurs, were very enthusiastic about the opening. Salamatu (famous for Salamatu’s story) said she was excited for the opportunity to run another business that would improve the lives of Chani community members.

Here are more pictures from the night. Photo credit goes to my aunt Tara Canellas visiting Ghana from Ft. Lauderdale, Florida!

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TJ’s taxi got a flat tire en route to Chani but the CWS team worked together and within 15 minutes, we were all back on the road!
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Wahab showing me around the solar center!
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Some Chani kiddos!
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Ailis Kiernan (my mom) entertaining the Chani kids before the center opened for business
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CWS Field Representative Wahab helping Salamatu with battery sales inside the center. It was hot in there!
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CWS Field Rep Eric helps a woman put in “fresh” Burro batteries in to the lantern
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A woman shines her Burro lantern on her walk home.
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The center ceiling is so high that even CWS Field Rep Shak can stand inside!
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Some Chani kids checking out the solar center action
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Muneera and Salamatu smile after the opening. Every household came to get batteries! They were so excited to get the business started. We are so proud of them!
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Me, Muneera, Salamatu, Shak, Eric and Wahab cheesing outside the solar center after the opening!
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My fam gets in for a pic with Muneera, Salamatu, Shak and Wahab. Success!!!

Looking back while moving forward! (Mark’s concluding thoughts)

As the product of a Catholic Jesuit institution (Go BC!) the value of reflection has been dutifully engrained in me, so I’d like to take this opportunity to share some thoughts on the experience and what it meant to me.

One of my favorite teachers once told me that life is 90% preparation and 10% opportunity. If you would have told me a few years ago that I would be building solar businesses in rural West Africa I might have laughed at you, but thanks to CWS, my teammate Ben, and some great mentors – a concept that was once beyond my wildest dreams is now my reality and years of interest and passion and “preparation” were finally given an opportunity.

The decision over a year ago to look into Solar Energy was exciting and surprisingly easy. Countries across Africa, including Ghana, are besieged by almost constant sunlight and Solar Power has been noted in several publications including the New York Times as the best option in bringing power to regions in Africa considered “Off the Grid”.  What was missing was a sustainable method of introducing solar to these regions.Image

Ben and I realized a gap in the “market” and all the pieces were already in place to fill it. Using the best components of the Water Program we began to adapt what had been done in the past to meet the unique demands of power. Once we had a clear vision, things began to fall in place. Ghana was surprisingly ready for solar technology with a number of distributors to choose from. Members of the community were already familiar with the concept and already had appliances that would benefit from a charging station.

Obviously we hit some bumps along the way but were able to overcome them to create a great finished product. Something that is already paying dividends – Our engineers Salima and Chang-Chang are already earning almost 4 times their monthly salary.

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As a young 20-something trying to make it in New York City – this project was the perfect reminder of what my own passions are. We are all looking for fulfillment in life and part of finding that is dignified work. Working on something I believed it and took pride in, and that had intrinsic and extrinsic value was incredibly rewarding. And what’s even better is I believed I helped provided dignified work to the women of Wambong as well. Hopefully bringing them some added fulfillment and joy.

My work in Africa started over 5 years ago doing community development work in Kenya. From that first experience I’ve been hooked, looking for additional opportunities to get involved and trying to formulate a career around international development.  In 2012 I had the pleasure of being a Community Water Solutions Fellow and was immersed in the culture of Ghana while learning the value of social enterprise and local entrepreneurship. Now, with the creation and launch of InnovaSun I’m confident that international development will always be a part of my story and part of me. The sense of pride that I’ve felt these past few weeks is rejuvenating and after this I really feel like I can do anything.

Now, InnovaSun is planning additional pilots over the course of the next six months, tweaking various components of the program to find a full proof formula for delivering solar electricity to rural communities. Will we switch the lanterns that are distributed? Will we adjust the business model to rent out charged appliances? Will we sell charged batteries? All excited possibilities that could eventually become the norm. It’s humbling to imagine the growth of the program, and to think of the potential impact across the region. I’m so grateful to have been a part of this experience and to continue to be a part of growth and innovation in Ghana. Who knows where this will end up, but I’m excited to find out!

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Finally, in honor of the upcoming Thanksgiving holiday – I wanted to take this opportunity to give thanks to all of those who supported Ben and me during this process.

To Kate Clopeck and the CWS Board – thank you for your guidance and mentorship. Our pilot would have looked pretty different and in the end probably much less successful had it not been for your coaching and collaboration.

To our Sponsors and those that helped fund our grant – thank you for believing in the CWS mission and a team of two young upstarts. While I like to think Ben and I had some great ideas we know that without you we would still be at home playing with batteries.

To Shak – Your stories and antics kept us laughing day-to-day, and if it weren’t for you, we’d stillbe sitting in front of the chief nodding politely. Our success belongs as much to you as it does to anyone.

To Salima and Chang-Chang – Your perseverance in serving your community and your desire to learn were an inspiration to me and taught me some much needed strength and humility.

To Brianan and the CWS Staff – Thank you for welcoming us into your homes and your communities. Your unwavering support and hospitality helped us through some pretty stressful days, and reminded this New Yorker the meaning of “community”.

To our friends and family – Thanks for encouraging us (read: putting up with us) through this long and daunting process, for listening to us rattle on and on about wires, for reading all our blog posts, for sometimes pretending to be interested even when you weren’t and for just being there start to finish. If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.

“This is not the end, this is not even the beginning of the end, but it is perhaps the end of the beginning” – Winston Churchill

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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

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Thank you, Wambong!

Only the Beginning

As successful and exciting as Opening Night proved to be, it was just the beginning for Wambong.

One of the things that differentiates Community Water Solutions and InnovaSun from other NGOs is their commitment to the communities they work with. Most organizations come and go, but consistent and regular monitoring is a cornerstone of our program, and for good reason. A lot can happen after you implement a new program; faulty equipment, low adoption, even just general confusion.

So as you can imagine Ben and I were anxious to get back to Wambong and see for ourselves how things were going. While everything until that point had gone smoothly we were bound to hit a roadblock at some point, and as we pulled up to Wambong, it looked as if that day had come. Nothing was charging! That is to say, lots of stuff was plugged in but the system was effectively turned off….uh oh. We checked all the connections, restarted some of the equipment and still the system would just turn on for about a minute and then turn off again – something Chang Chang and Salima noted had been going on since the opening. After testing all of our bases it was clear there was little to no-juice in the batteries. We concluded that we must have used all of the electricity during the Opening Night celebration. Operating several light bulbs, charging cell phones and setting up a surround sound system has its consequences.

We realized we were going to need to be a little more careful in rationing our electricity – limiting the number of lanterns and cell phones that can charge each day. Although the situation isn’t ideal, it’s the best we can do considering how big the community is. The Solar panels can only generate so much electricity each day, and in all our planning we didn’t anticipate needing to share that electricity between 1000 people. We told the women to close the charging center for the day to allow the batteries to recharge and that they could open the following day using our rationing guidelines (13 lanterns and 20 cell phones per day).

Untitled1You can imagine our surprise the next day when we pulled up to the solar center and it was closed again! As we began to investigate we saw that there were plenty of things plugged in, and even more electronics waiting to be charged, but once again the system was turning on for a few seconds and then turning off. Using some engineering logic – it became clear that electricity was not getting to the batteries so we began working backwards piece by piece to determine where the flow of electricity was getting stopped. Finally we discovered that electricity wasn’t getting through the Charge Controller – the piece that protects batteries from overcharging and potentially exploding. We began to fiddle with the wires to determine if it was a problem with the connection or the piece itself and thankfully we realized that the wires had come loose. Every moment is a learning experience, and we used the opportunity to coach the women in charge on how to troubleshoot. The power of monitoring!

Untitled2As soon as the system was hooked up properly, everything turned on and began charging away. Success! This was the fix we were looking for all along and we were hopeful that there wouldn’t be any more problems. With that we let the women get to work and began visiting households in the community. Over the next few days we were able to visit approximately 25 households to see how they were adjusting to the new solar center. Monitoring the households became even more valuable because we were able to dispel rumors that the center wasn’t working, letting families know that we had fixed all of the problems. We got to see where people were keeping their lanterns (most families had already installed a nail to hang it from) and ask about how many cell phones were in the home. People’s excitement around the center was obvious, and while there were still some kinks around the lanterns (some were defective and didn’t hold their charge for very long) most people were just so happy to have lights, and a place to charge their cell phones.

So while the opening of the solar center was really just the beginning, our last few days Untitled3there were only the start of the middle. We continued to check on the center which was generating electricity no problem. We talked to people in the community about phones and lanterns, and left knowing that things were in good hands. Monitoring is always important because it gave us the opportunity to both troubleshoot and learn from our own choices about maybe what lanterns to use in the future or to see how families were using the electricity.

We created some evaluation sheets so that Shak and Brianan can continue to monitor once we are gone. With monitoring underway it was time to say goodbye, but I think that is best served in my final post. Check back to hear my concluding thoughts on my time in Ghana!

Mark

 

Aint no party like a Solar Center party, cause a solar center party has ELECTRICITY!

With the women trained and the solar equipment in place, it was almost time to open our Solar Center. Before the big opening party could take place, we just needed to distribute the rechargeable lanterns to all of the households and add some finishing touches to the façade of our solar center.

When we had first arrived in the community we asked the village elders to provide us with a list of households in the village so we could have an exact count for lantern distribution. Each household is basically a small compound with about 6 or 7 separate huts all in an enclosed wall. Compounds consist of a man, his wives, and their children, and sometimes their elderly parents. We had been planning on approximately 60 households based on Ben’s water implementation in Wambong three year ago, so we decided to be prudent and order 75 lanterns for the village. When we finally received the new household list we realized that Wambong had grown to over 120 households, more than double what we had planned for. Luckily, when we went to pick up our shipment of lanterns the store had more than enough in stock. We were definitely relieved to know that we would have enough lanterns for everyone and excited and humbled by the idea that we would be providing access to electricity for over 1000 people.

Distributing lanterns was exhilarating. The town assemblyman had already gathered a large group in the town center in anticipation of our arrival and when we pulled up in our taxi they started making announcements via the Mosque loud speaker which is usually used to broadcast prayers. Before long we were surrounded by people and we felt

Sprucing up the Solar Center with the InnovaSun Logo!
Sprucing up the Solar Center with the InnovaSun Logo!

confident that we had representatives from all the households present. We took the opportunity to speak to the community at large about the solar center and how it important it was that the community work together to keep it safe. We discussed prices for charging, and taught them how to take care of the lanterns. Once we were confident that the community understood the importance of the center we began listing off household names and handing out lamps. The look of excitement and gratitude on people’s faces when they received their lantern had me grinning from ear to ear and just got me all the more excited for the opening party that night. Once all the lanterns were passed out, we returned our attention to the solar center and gave it a face-lift. Ben and I used what little artistic ability we had between us to give the building a paint job that Picasso would have been proud of.

With everything set and ready to go we headed back to the CWS office to catch a breather before the opening that night. We had decided to break from the CWS tradition of having an Opening “Day” and traded it for the first ever Opening “Night” hoping that the addition of lanterns and electricity to the village would make for a lively and well-lit party. So we set off around 6:30 with no idea what to expect, fingers crossed and holding our breath in anticipation.

Mark and Ben getting support from the CWS team in front of the Solar Panels
Mark and Ben getting support from the CWS team in front of the Solar Panels

We were anxious but quickly put at ease thanks to the support and company of the full CWS team including Brianan, Peter, Amin, Wahab, Eric, and of course Shak as they decided to come out and partake in InnovaSun’s first ever launch party.

As we pulled into the village we were mesmerized, the whole village had a soft glow to it, or as one our translators suggested, “the village is blinking!” From the center of every household a soft light was floating up into the pitch-black sky, we knew something was working. We headed toward the town center and made our way to the Solar Center, connecting several power strips to allow for mass charging, hitting the on switch, and officially declaring the center open for business! Slowly people started making their way toward the center, first in the dark, then with flashlights, and finally carrying the lanterns we had distributed that morning. What was a trickle quickly turned into a flood of people as the center was surrounded by people wanting to get a first hand look and start charging their electronics.

The solar center in action - all 48 sockets were quickly put to use.
The solar center in action – all 48 sockets were quickly put to use.

Within minutes all 48 sockets were in use and charging a combination of cell phone and lanterns. Salima and Chang Chang were rockstars, quickly connecting all the appliances, adding up the total watts being used to make sure the system wasn’t overloaded, and most importantly keeping their cool among hoards of people – something I was struggling with.

Mark and Ben surrounded by crowds of happy Wambong villagers!
Mark and Ben surrounded by crowds of happy Wambong villagers!

More and more people continued to materialize each face more excited than the last. Some were holding lanterns and some just basking in the glow of their neighbors. I felt elated and totally overwhelmed, trying to make sure the center was working (it was), that people were having fun (they were) and that we were getting awesome pictures (we did). The community was enthralled, asking for photos, passing around lanterns, and pushing to the front of the crowd to see the solar center in action. They even organized most of the community in the center of town for a group photo, an unheard of accomplishment that took 5 different translators to coordinate.

Group photo of the village with their new rechargeable lanterns!
Group photo of the village with their new rechargeable lanterns!

As if lights and cell phones weren’t enough it wasn’t long before a pair of massive speakers appeared and started blasting some serious club music. Don’t ask me how or why this village, which previously had no electricity, has speakers taller than I am (clocking in at 6’3) but Wambong was bumping.

Wambong boy using his new rechargeable lantern.
Wambong boy using his new rechargeable lantern.

I kept wondering if we were going to get a noise complaint from the neighbors and then quickly laughed at my own stupidity. Ben and I had been wondering this whole week how quickly people would start making the electricity their own and branching out from lanterns and phones, well once the speakers were plugged in, it wasn’t long before someone else was siphoning off electricity and had plugged in a black light above the “DJ” booth. Seriously I felt like I was in a New York nightclub.

After 3 hours of pure euphoria, we decided to start winding things down. We took a ton of photos, made sure the center was in good hands and locked up, and started to head out. The village spokesperson continued to thank us, praising God for our help. It was one of the most unbelievable nights.

Mark and Ben jumping for joy in front of the new Solar Center!
Mark and Ben jumping for joy in front of the new Solar Center!

Seeing all of our planning, preparation, and hard work pay off, seeing the joy on everyone’s face, feeling accomplished and successful, and realizing what an impact we had had on this community. Indescribable. Ben and I couldn’t sleep last night, because we were too wired (pun intended) and even this morning I’m having trouble comprehending the magnitude of the moment and what it even means to me. All I know is I can’t wait to get back to Wambong and see how it’s going. I feel like a parent after their last child has grown up and gone off to college – empty nest syndrome for sure. I’ll just have to be patient and wait till tomorrow when we begin monitoring. I’m sure there is still lots of work to do, but I’ll be enjoying this day for a long long time.

-Mark

Let there be light!

After spending four long days building the physical structure, Ben and I were thrilled to get back to the bigger picture and move on to the next phase of the project. Now that the building was finished, it was time to meet the women chosen by the village elders to run the business and begin installing the system itself.

Mark, Ben, and Shak celebrating the completed solar panel installation.
Mark, Ben, and Shak celebrating the completed solar panel installation.

First we wanted to get the actual solar panels positioned behind the center. We designed a metal frame and had a welder put together several metal poles to elevate the panels off the ground and make sure they were secure. The panels are made of glass, so we wanted to make sure there was no risk of them falling and breaking, while placing them out of reach of kids and animals. Attaching the panels felt like an SAT problem gone wrong. We had holes drilled in the metal frame for the screws to fit in, but for some reason it wasn’t lining up and we spent the better part of an hour figuring out how to attach it all. Shak suggested we work from the ground up and were able to overcome our temporary brain freeze to secure the panels and cement the metal frame into the ground.

Ben admiring our solar panels.
Ben admiring our solar panels.

The community was in awe of the high-tech equipment and we had a constant group of about fifteen people just standing around us watching the whole time. Once we finished they started to lick the wires coming from the panels to see if they were live and feeding electricity…luckily for them that’s not quite how it works or else they might have been in for quite a shock.

Once we installed the panels, we wanted to begin training the women. Upon our initial arrival in Wambong we had asked the village chief and his council of elders to select two women who were well respected within the community and would have the time and ability to ensure the success of the new solar center. Choosing to work with women in the community is a very intentional decision. Women’s empowerment is a cornerstone of Community Water Solutions’ and InnovaSun’s missions. Providing women with economic opportunities and elevating their role in society has proven to spur development all across the world. Many believe that women are the world’s most underutilized resource.

Training Salima (left) and Chang Chang (right) on the basics of the solar panel system.
Training Salima (left) and Chang Chang (right) on the basics of the solar panel system.

Still, we were nervous requesting to work with women because working with electronics and appliances is usually considered “man’s work” and we weren’t sure the community would be receptive to women running the business or even believing in their ability to do so. Luckily, the village did not hesitate to choose two exceptional women, assigning, Salima and Chang Chang to run the center.

If anyone had doubts about the women’s ability to run the center, they were immediately put to rest. They quickly picked up the intricacies of positive and negative currents, they understood the circuit pathway from panel to socket, and began asking about expanding their business and charging people for television. We also coached the women on financial planning, stressing the importance of saving in the event of anything happening to any of the (very expensive) equipment. Finally we had the women start working with a few of the materials until the battery connected to the socket. We plugged in a phone to show them that it had worked and when the picture of a charging battery popped up on the screen they both lit up and started clapping excitedly. It was so satisfying to see women with no formal education pick up something so quickly and show a strong desire to learn more.

Chang Chang connecting the wires to the power socket.
Chang Chang connecting the wires to the power socket.

The women were soon given the opportunity to show off their newfound knowledge when we began to install and wire the rest of the system in front of a crowd of curious onlookers. Shak kept joking about Ghana’s newest electricians and more than one person in the village commented on how easy the women made it look. We took a hands-off approach only giving direction and explanation while Salima and Chang Chang physically connected everything – cutting cables, striping wires, and screwing everything into place. You could tell the women were enjoying the work and I must say it felt pretty darn good to prove some of the naysayers wrong.

Salima connecting the wiring from the Solar Panels.
Salima connecting the wiring from the Solar Panels.

After wiring the panels together and feeding them it into the solar center, the women connected the charge controller, batteries, and inverter, feeding it all toward a wall socket.  Once everything was connected we hit the on switch and voila! Let there be light! Immediately all the people who had been watching us assemble everything started materializing their cell phones out of nowhere asking us to try and charge it…all in good time.

With that our new Solar Center is ready for business. Tomorrow we will be distributing lanterns to all the households in the community and throwing a party to commemorate opening day of the center! Check back soon to hear all about it.

-Mark

Welcome to Wambong!

After having set up our Solar Panel System we needed to start looking for things to charge.  With that in mind, Shak, Ben, and I took a trip to Melcom in downtown, Tamale. Melcom is a huge store with lots of furniture and appliances as well as some grocery items… imagine Target meets Ghana? We were able to find four different types of rechargeable “lamps” that we decided to test. We wanted to make sure the lanterns we ended up distributing to the community were bright, easy to charge, long lasting, and durable, and thought it would be a good idea to have options before narrowing down our selection. We came back to the CWS office and had all four lanterns and two cell phones charging at once from the electricity we’ve been collecting the past two days.

Lantern Option # 2
Lantern Option # 2
Lantern Option # 1
Lantern Option # 1
Lantern Option # 3
Lantern Option # 3Lantern Option # 4Lantern Option # 4

This morning it was go time, and Ben and I were up and out by 6:30 AM on our way to pick up Shak and make our way to Wambong. Wambong is approximately an hour and fifteen minutes away on a nicely paved road, so it’s actually not a bad trek at all. Ben was anxious to get back to “his” village and see some familiar faces from three years prior. The first day in the village is critical because they have no idea that we are coming or what we are planning, so it’s important that we have a plan to explain who we are and what we’d like to accomplish in order to get their buy-in and support. We also had to be prepared for the possibility of having our chief meeting. All major decisions in the community are made by the village chief – typically a very old man responsible for the well being of his community. In order to get the green light to start building our center we would need his approval and wanted to have our pitch ready to go.

Unfortunately, our arrival was temporarily overshadowed by a death that had just occurred that morning. The average life expectancy in Ghana is 60 for men and 62 for women; however death in the villages always seems to be a reality, with people attending funerals with some frequency. It was a sobering reminder of the challenges that people here face and the importance of development work.

After learning about the death, we offered our condolences and suggested coming back tomorrow, however the village elders were eager to meet with us and started gathering in the chief’s hut. We were going to have our chief meeting right then and there, and luckily Ben and I were prepared.  The chief meeting is always fascinating. The chief is always seated or laying on a raise platform with his elders sitting on the floor around him. Meanwhile, Ben, Shack and I are sitting on a bench across from him. We pass around a Cola nut as is customary when meeting a village chief and start go into our pitch, with Shak translating every other few sentences. We tell them we are with Community Water Solutions and because they were so successful with their water program we wanted to

Ben scoping out potential spots for the Solar Center
Ben scoping out potential spots for the Solar Center

introduce a new project to help bring Solar Electricity. Immediately the elders are on board and the chief started thanking us and God for all of our help. Their gratitude was obvious, and even when asked if they had any questions, their “question” was to keep saying thank you and to let us know that we were blessing from God. Not sure about all that, but glad that they are as excited as we are about getting started.

After a successful chief meeting we began to survey the village in preparation for construction. We needed to find a spot that was centrally located for convenience and security, a plot of land that would get plenty of sunlight at any time of day / year.  After walking around a bit we settled on the perfect spot, the vacant lot is right in the heart of the village and right next to a few other huts but, ironically, is currently being used as kind of a dump with lots of garbage collecting there. The community assured us that the space would be cleared by tomorrow so that we could “break ground”. Just another example of having to look past what’s there to see what’s possible.

Site of the future Solar Center!
Site of the future Solar Center!

We were also able to talk to members of the community to get a sense of the demand for electricity in the village.  We were told that each household has multiple cell phones and that people travel close to an hour two to three times a week to charge them, and while many households have a flashlight, they have to replace the battery every 4 to 5 days. Wheels turning, Ben and I began to realize just how significant an impact this solar center could have, not just for the women who would be running it and earning profit, but also for the entire village as they would be saving tremendous amounts of time and money having their energy needs met locally.

Energy in Ghana is a huge issue right now. The government recently announced a 36% increase in energy costs and people are already threatening to strike. It’s a pretty staggering increase considering approximately 40% of the country still doesn’t have access to electricity. We witnessed the government’s oversight first hand in Wambong. In the center of the village there is a massive pile of electrical poles that were distributed by the government to connect Wambong to the grid. The poles were delivered over 5 years ago and still haven’t been touched, forgotten by their owners, symbolizing a promise unfulfilled.

Tomorrow we begin construction so be sure to check back for pictures of our solar center!

-Mark

Arrival in Accra

After a year’s worth of planning, the InnovaSun team of Mark Moeremans and Ben Powell finally arrived in Ghana. Untitled1

Following a slight pit-stop in Dubai, the team landed on Sunday afternoon and got settled in at “Pink Hostel” in the Asylum Downs neighborhood of Accra.

As they say, there is no rest for the wicked, and these two set out right away, starting to gather some essentials like water and phone minutes, while making contact with previously identified solar companies.

With an organized game plan, the team set out on Day 2 to start visiting different solar companies and comparing systems and prices to determine which combination would be the best fit for the rural communities of Northern Ghana. Untitled2

Despite having identified three solar companies as potential partners, the team had found their match after visiting the second company – Atlas Business & Energy. Sakeena, their contact at Atlas, was extremely helpful, both before leaving the US and upon their arrival in Ghana. She proved to be interested in the work and incredibly knowledgeable about solar power. She gave great tips on implementing, and even followed up with some diagrams to guide in the construction.

After purchasing all the big ticket items including panels, batteries, and inverter, Sakeena sent an employee named Isaac with the team to Accra Square, one of the capital’s largest markets, to find all the remaining supplies like wiring, cables, and power sockets.Untitled3

Materials in hand, the team ended the day at the Accra bus station, where they purchased their tickets for Tamale. Tomorrow will be a 12+ hour travel day, bringing our leaders one step closer to the communities they will be supporting.

Check back soon to hear more as Ben and Mark begin to test their equipment!

InnovaSun Update: Turning Plans into Action

InnovasunAround this time last year, Community Water Solutions announced the kick-off of their Social Enterprise Competition at their annual benefit; an opportunity to bring new and innovative solutions to rural communities in Ghana and to expand the CWS model and brand to more than clean water.

After interactive workshops and valuable mentorship sessions, Ben Powell and Mark Moeremans decided to team up, bringing together a diverse set of skills and knowledge. And while there are a plethora of challenges and opportunities facing the people of Northern Ghana, the duo decided they could make a difference in the region’s lack of electric power, which results in poor health, limited education, decreased productivity, and traps the region’s people in poverty.

The team – also known as InnovaSun, proposed an entrepreneurial solar power business that leverages several of the ideas of CWS’s successful water business model – providing demand to a community in the form of rechargeable lanterns and charging individuals to recharge their appliances. The team went on to win the competition and the $10,000 prize as seed money to turn their idea into reality.

Since then, Ben and Mark have worked diligently to refine their project plan, test solar equipment, find local vendors in Ghana, develop contingency plans, and coordinate with the CWS ground team to ensure their success. Now with just one month before their departure, the team is finalizing their strategy and beginning to order the solar equipment that will hopefully bring electricity to a region that is almost entirely “off the grid.”

Ben and Mark will be arriving back in Ghana in late October – a year after presenting their social enterprise to a panel of judges. They will spend three weeks setting up a solar power business, training a new group of female entrepreneurs, and monitoring their progress / success in hopes of expanding their model in the future. Stay tuned to hear how their project goes, and who knows, maybe you’ll see an application for the InnovaSun project on the CWS page in the future!

Social Enterprise Winners!

The CWS team is very excited to announce the winners of the CWS Social Enterprise Competition: Innova(Sun)!

CWS Co-Founders Kate and Chuck with Ben Powell from Innova(SUN) (Not Pictured: Ben’s Teammate Mark)

The Innova(Sun) team is made up of Fellow Alumni, Ben Powell and Mark Moeremans. Despite Mark being stuck in Europe for work and having to join the pitch via teleconfernece, the Innova(Sun) team did an incredible job of presenting their idea for solar-powered electronics charging businesses that will provide CWS villages with access to electricity.

Over the next year, Mark and Ben will be working with me and my co-mentor, Chuck, to develop a plan for piloting Innova(Sun) in a CWS village. Thanks to our amazing competition sponsors, Goodwin Proctor, Wolf Greenfield, and Foley Hoag, Innova(Sun) has $10,000 of funding for their pilot!

The Social Enterprise Competition Finalists!
The Social Enterprise Competition Finalists!

The Innova(Sun) pitch wasn’t the only great presentation at the competition finals. Kelsey & Zoe from Waste-to-Wealth, and Michelle & Alex from GroundNUTrition did an amazing job pitching their social enterprise ideas! I helped to moderate the final judging session, so I know that it was extremely difficult for the judges to pick only 1 winner. As mentors, Chuck and I are so proud of how far each of these teams have come over the past 11 weeks!

Finally, I would like to thank our judges: Una Ryna, Matt Tarditi, Vanessa Green and Mike Pomianek! As Innova(Sun) works to develop their pilot plan they will be writing a series of post on the CWS Blog. Make sure to check it out if you are interested in following their progress!

-Kate