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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!

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

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

 

2013 Campus appearance updates!

We are headed out onto campuses and into the classrooms these next few months! As we continue to get things scheduled we will continue to update you on our whereabouts! Come out and learn more about fellowship program and how you can be involved!

  • Nov. 5th 9:00am Wesleyan University Environmental Resource Economics class
  • Nov.7th 11:00am Colby College Natural Resource Economics class
  • Nov. 7th 8pm Colby College Amnesty International Meeting
  • Nov. 7th 1pm Grove City College Social Entrepreneurship Class
  • Nov. 7th 4pm Grove City College Info Session at PLC 115
  • Nov. 12th 4pm Wesleyan University Info Session, Allbritton Center; Room 004
  • Nov. 14th 4pm St. Mary’s Info Session, Location TBD
  • Nov.19th 4:10pm Lehigh Univeristy Info Session, Location TBD

See that we will be at your school but can’t make the event? We’d be happy to meet for coffee! Email Sam at sreilley@communitywatersolutions.org

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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