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February Monitoring Results

February was the first month that our Ghana team officially switched over to our new monitoring procedures. Below is the monthly monitoring summary for February:

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I was happy to see that our usage rate (the % of households with clean water in their safe storage container when one of our team members stopped by) was 73%. Over the past 7 years, our average has been right around 75%, so right off the bat I could see that February was a pretty typical month (we are constantly striving to get this number up, mostly through education campaigns in our partner-villages, but at the same time, we are also constantly adding new communities). Keep in mind, just because there isn’t clean water in someone’s safe storage container, does not mean that there is contaminated water in there! Usually the bucket is just empty. Some families may have just finished their water and haven’t had a chance to re-fill. However, for some it is because they aren’t frequently filling.

The “Clean Water Used” stat is calculated from the number of Aquatabs that the women reported having used each week. Each Aquatab treats 200L of water, so we just multiply the reported number by 200.

The “Clean Water Sold” stat is calculated from the number of Aquatabs that the women bought each week. This number differs from the clean water used, because the entrepreneurs don’t always buy the same number of Aquatabs they use. Some women buy in bulk one month and slowly use the tablets over time, before making another big purchase a few months later. Others may use 2 in a week but then buy 3 or 4 to replenish their pile. Each business owner works out their own system.

The “Number of Lanterns Sold” indicates how many lanterns the solar business owners have sold to members of their community. During implementation, each family receives 1 lantern for 1 GHC, and they can buy more at market-rate if they would like. The women buy the lanterns from Saha at cost and then choose to mark up the prices as much as they would like. Unfortunately, over the last couple of months our lantern supplier has increased the price of the lanterns dramatically, so the ladies haven’t been making many sales recently. Lantern sales used to be a big money maker for the solar entrepreneurs.

The “Average Solar Business Earnings”  is the total earnings (730 GHS) divided by the number of villages visited. This month, our team only made it to 7 out of the 8 businesses.  All revenue is reported in GHC.

Below is an example of the weekly data table that Wahab fills out, based on the information that our team collects in the field. You can access the actual excel files here – each week has it’s own tab, with the monthly data summarized at the end.

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There were no big issues in our communities this month. Little things like leaky polytanks sprung up here and there, but those small issues are easily solved. Some communities, like Wambong, reported slow water sales, but our team was able to work with the community and the entrepreneurs to get back on track (see the last photo below). The biggest challenge this month was getting our team back on track with their new monitoring schedule after the Winter Global Leadership Program. As I mentioned earlier we only made it to 7 solar communities in February. Since most of our solar businesses are less than a year old, each community should have been visited 3-4 times this month. After receiving the week 3 report from Wahab, I noticed this problem right away and discussed the issue with our Operations Manager, Shak, during our weekly check-in. Shak and the rest of the team then discussed their new schedules during their next staff meeting and were able to figure out how to re-arrange their weeks to make sure new communities were getting visited more frequently!

Below are some pictures from the Field from February! Stay tuned tomorrow for our March monitoring report!

-Kate

PS – remember, for monitoring reports from before 2015, visit our old site here.

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Ayi selling water in Kurugu Vohoyili
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A busy morning in Kurugu Vohoyli
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Eric noting how many Aqutabs Fulera had bought
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Eric helping Ramatu how to strengthen the connection of the cell phone charges
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The Nekpegu solar center is bumpin’!
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Fati posing with all of the charging batteries in Nekpegu
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Staff meeting selfies!
A straight-faced Salima make sales early in the morning in Wambong
After a month of low water sales in Wambong, Shak and the women met with the community chairman. Chang-Chang suggested that he make announcements at the mosque whenever she had water ready to sell, and he agreed. After the first announcement, the water center was BUSY!

 

 

Tamale Day 2 – Off to the Village!

After ringing in the New Year with an evening of fireworks and a cultural dance, the Field Reps started off 2015 with their first visits to Saha partner communities! Water Teams TJ (Kiana, Julia, Jenni and Orlando) and Wahab (Aly, Sofia and Marlena) headed out the water treatment center in Gburma.

Team TJ and Team Wahab meet with the Gburma entrepreneurs and their families - including little Ibrahim!
Team TJ and Team Wahab meet with the Gburma entrepreneurs and their families – including little Ibrahim!

Next the water teams headed over to Chani, to see their water treatment center as well! The entrepreneurs, Salamatu and Memunatu, were out at their farms, but the teams did get to meet the faces that were around that afternoon…

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Team TJ (Kiana, Jenni, Orlando and Julia) and Team Wahab (Sofia, Marlena and Aly) check out the water treatment center in Chani – 4 years and going strong! Take notes, Field Reps…

 

 

… including, of course, Salamatu’s grandkids!

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Kiana shows Chani kiddos a picture she snapped.

 

 

District Manager Wahab showed the team a solar center in action – he helped set up both the water and solar businesses here in Chani.

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Wahab shows water field reps a solar center in Chani. Wahab has been coming to this community for four years now and is “proud of the work that they do”.

 

Then it was back to Tamale to practice water purification techniques! Meanwhile, teams Amin (Sarah, Marsha and Jake) and Peter (Paul, Julia, Matt and Kristina) headed out to Wambong to see Saha’s first solar center and also check out their water treatment business as well! Salima, who runs the centers, greeted them and showed them the ropes.

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Salima makes a sale while Matt, Paul et al. look on

 

The Field Reps were able to sit down with the Chief as well. Saha’s favorited grandmother, Fati, also made an appearance.

 

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Field Reps with Mma Fati

 

 

Back in Tamale, it was time to start learning the technical details of the solar business. Field Reps spent the afternoon assembling their arrays, to trouble-shoot and to become more familiar with their set-up.

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Sarah and Kristina work with Amin to assemble a solar array during training.
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Marsha, on her way to mastering the Genset.
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Matt and Julia hook up the Genset.
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Amin, Paul and Jake hook up the battery during training.

 

We finished up the day with a presentation from the Saha District Managers about the importance of Saha’s continued support for these villages. They covered everything from scouting new villages to common problems to the importance of monitoring, so that the Field Reps would feel prepped for their fist day of household monitoring the next day.

 

 

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A long but good one!

Meet Our Entrepreneurs: Abiba From Wambong

pic-story-entrepreneurs-featured-abibaAbiba, or as she is affectionately called, Chang Chang, runs both the water and solar businesses in the village of Wambong. She is a wife, farmer, and mother of 8. Chang Chang joined the Saha Global team in June 2010 when she partnered with a team of Summer Field Reps to open her water business. After successfully running her water business for three years, Chang Chang was nominated by her community to also run Wambong’s solar business. The solar charging center opened in November of 2013 and since then, Chang Chang and her business partner, Salima, have more than tripled their annual income. These amazing women were even the first women in their village to open their own bank account!

Voices from the Field: Our First Solar Fellows!

Hey! It’s Linda, Lucas, Nick, and Sarah, the CWS Solar Fellows. After arriving to Tamale, we were surprised with a scavenger hunt around the city to get to know the locals, places, and culture on a more intimate level. During the 2 hour time frame, we ran around the market looking for things like dried hibiscus flowers, one calabash, and one piece of fabric with the U.S. flag on it. We then went around the Cultural Center trying to convince locals to dance with us to Pharell’s “Happy” while being recorded on video. Next, we needed to take a picture on the Tamale Football Stadium field. We discovered upon arrival that the Ghana vs. Sierra Leone game was in session and wondered how to cross that off the checklist. After sweet-talking the guard, he allowed us to watch the game from the field. Nick's Happy Shimmy

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Team Solar!: Linda, Lucas, Nick, and Linda at the Tamale Soccer Stadium

Yesterday, we headed out to the field for this first time this trip! We visited Sakpalua, where we monitored both the water and solar businesses, which are run by four women, including the two water entrepreneurs Lydia and Damu. Unfortunately, Damu was unable to meet with us because she was in another village attending a funeral. In particular, it was great for Nick to be back in the village that he implemented on his first Fellowship. He played mancala with the children and hung out with his friends Simeon, Zizu, and the Pastor. He also got to take a picture in front of the CWS sign with the children of Sakpalua. 

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It was the first time that any of us were able to see an implemented solar charging center and it was great to see that everything has been running smoothly. The women seemed to be in good spirits and had been doing a great job of keeping track of sales at the business. When we asked if there had been any problems at the center, they did mention a suspicious “whirring” noise coming from the Genset. After thinking about it for a few seconds, we realized that what they were talking about was the fan that keeps all of the components cool. When we explained this to the women, they were very relieved and let us know that there weren’t any other issues with the center.

After monitoring households in Sakpalua, we made the short drive to Wambong – another CWS solar village. The entrepreneurs in Wambong had been experiencing good sales as well, and the households we monitored said they enjoyed having easing and affordable access to cell phone charging. As in Sakpalua we monitored the households for water as well and were encouraged to hear so many stories of improved health for families and their children.

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After a successful first day in the field, we had the chance to learn how the components of the solar center worked and how everything should be connected. This made us all really excited for tomorrow, as it will be our first day in Yepalsi, where will be spending the next few weeks implementing a new solar charging business.

Entrepreneurs in Wambong open Rural Bank Account!

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Abiba and Salima outside of Bonzali Rural Bank with their first deposit slip! 

What an exciting day it has been at the CWS Ghana office! This morning Shak and I accompanied Abiba and Salima, water and solar center entrepreneurs from Wambong, to open their first bank account!

Since the solar center opened in October 2013, Abiba and Salima have been saving up their profits from mostly cell phone charge sales. They want to save their money in the bank to prevent theft, to acquire savings interest, to have money in the bank in case anything breaks at the solar center and in their own words, “to save for something big”.

 

 

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Abiba - bank helper Salima and Shak (top picture) — Abiba fills out bank account application with Bonzali Rural Bank employee (bottom picture)

After doing some rural banking research, Peter, Shak and I decided that Bonzali Rural Bank would be the best fit for Abiba and Salima. They have a bank branch at the University of Development Studies in Nyankpala, which is close and accessible to the women from Wambong. The bank conducts business in English and Dagbani and has employees help illiterate customers fill out deposit or withdrawal slips, which means Abiba and Salima can go to the bank on their own.

We are so proud and excited for Abiba and Salima and hope to help more entrepreneurs open bank accounts in the future!

-Brianán

Abiba:Salima passport

               Bonzali Rural Bank                                           

Cell Phone Sales Take off at Solar Center in Wambong, Entrepreneurs Discuss opening Bank Account

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Solar center entrepreneurs Salima and Abiba stand outside their business on Opening Night — October 31, 2013

Since the solar center opened in Wambong , Salima and Abiba, the solar center entrepreneurs, have charged more than 1,000 cell phones, earning more than 200 GHC (about $100) in profit. Abiba, known by friends and family as “Chang Chang”, reports cell phone sales are high. When people run out of cell phone battery, they immediately come back to charge.

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The scene inside the solar center — phones charging with the entrepreneurs sales book and payment box on the right

Even people from neighboring communities travel to Wambong to charge their cell phones. At 20 pesawas (about $.10), it’s a bargain deal! The only community in the area with electricity is Sankpala, a much larger community, about 6 miles from Wambong located on the main road to Kumasi. They charge 50 pesawas (about $.25) per cell phone charge.

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Wambong community members line up to charge their phones!
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CWS Project Manager, Peter, stands next to the solar panels — 270 watts/hour in direct sunlight!

Yesterday morning, CWS Project Manager, Peter and I monitored Wambong. We drove up to the solar center only to see customers pouring out of the InnovaSun door with Abiba seated, taking payments and rearranging cell phones. She was almost too busy to meet with us! Customers kept coming. After a half hour, sales slowed and she had time to chat. She told us that people always come with their cell phones but lantern sales have been low. Only 2 people had come to charge their lanterns in the last 10 days. The quality of the lanterns that were distributed is not great, the battery lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours. So families do not think it is worth the 10 pesawas (about $.05) and 12-hour charge time to get only 30 minutes of light. CWS is in the process of researching better quality lantern options for future pilots.

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This graph shows the percent of households visited during monitoring that were able to show the field staff at least one charged cell phone that had been charged at the solar center
Lantern use Jan 16, 2014
This graph shows the percent of households visited during monitoring that were able to show the field staff a lantern that had been charged at the solar center

 Abiba and Salima have also been talking to the CWS field staff about opening a bank account with the money they have saved so far. They will be the first CWS entrepreneurs to do so! While the center has been running smoothly, there has been some backlash from men in the community who are interested in getting a cut of the pie for themselves. In Wambong, the men are the family breadwinners, so the fact that these female entrepreneurs have been raking in the profits, seems threatening to some. CWS field staff offset initial interest from the men by informing them that the solar panels are expensive and if anything breaks, the women need to have money set aside to fix them. In the near future, CWS hopes to work with men and women who are interested in using the solar center to start businesses of their own, which will take some of this negative attention away from the entrepreneurs.

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Solar center use since November 15, 2013 — numbers should be even higher if looking at solar center use since opening night on October 31, 2013. Monitoring did not start until November 15, which is why there was a delay in data recorded.
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Abiba records phones in her sales book as people come to charge!
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Abiba hands back a fully charged cell phone to Fahina, one of her female customers!

Men own the majority of cell phones in Wambong, which makes them Abiba and Salima’s biggest customers. Most households report during monitoring that the phones in the house are owned and used by men. CWS field staff usually sees men at the solar center picking up or dropping off phones. There are a few women who own their own cell phones but female participation at the solar center could be higher. The CWS field staff is making women’s access to cell phone use a priority during household monitoring through survey questions and family dialogue.

For more information about the solar center in Wambong visit the CWS Crowdmap page: https://ghanawaters.crowdmap.com

-Brianán

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!

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