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.
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.
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.