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!
My apologizes for the lack of blog updates recently! If you follow Community Water Solutions on Facebook and Instragram, you probably understand why the blog has been radio-silent: we have been busy, busy, busy, bringing solar power to another community! That’s right, in 3 weeks Sam, Shak, Wahab and I implemented not one, but TWO solar businesses which provide electricity to over 1,000 people. It’s been a crazy-fun learning experience! First let’s pick up where we left off in Sakpalua…
Success in Sakpalua
I think the photos in our last blog post really tell it all – opening night in Sakpalua was a big success! Lydia, Damu, Fuseina, and Saramatu were awesome. Two ladies posted-up by the sales door to collect payments and record sales while the other two ladies took batteries out of the chargers and immediately replaced them with a new set to get charging. The business completely sold out of charged batteries within the first 30 minutes! The Burro batteries must be rented out directly from their chargers because as soon as they are removed, they start to loose little bit of their charge. Since,the Genset can only charge 60 batteries at a time, the ladies could only sell those 60 batteries (20 lanterns worth) at once before waiting for another batch to charge up.
We were hopeful that another round of 60 batteries could charge quickly, so we decided to play some videos that we had taken in the community to distract customers while they were waiting. We plugged our projector into the Genset and projected the videos on the side of the solar center. It was a big hit!
Unfortunately, after 45 minutes of waiting, the next round of batteries still weren’t charged. So, the ladies closed up shop and told the remaining customers to come back in the morning. This often happens on our water business opening days as well. Since it’s the very first day of sales, it’s the only time that every single family in the community will need water or batteries all at the same time. After opening night, demand starts to spread out as different families use their lanterns more/less (or drink more/less water). The remaining customers in Sakpalua totally understood and came back the next day to rent their batteries!
After opening night, things continued to go well in Sakpalua. By the end of the first week, the ladies had charged over 60 cell phones and rented out over 140 batteries! They also started buying lanterns from us at cost (16 GHC) and selling them for 18 GHC to families both in Sakpalua and in neighboring villages. In that first week, the women had made a profit of over 50 GHC (~ 25 USD). Considering that most families in Sakpalua live on less than 2 USD/day, that’s a pretty great first week of business!
New Solar Business in Chani
After an exciting night in Sakpalua, we were up bright and early the next day to head to our next solar village, Chani for our chief meeting! Longtime CWS supporters will remember Chani from our Indiegogo video last spring – it’s a rural village about an hour outside of Tamale in the East Gonja District. Our movie-star water entrepreneur, Salamatu, and her partner Munera, have done an amazing job of running their water business, which opened in January 2011. Chani has always been a model CWS partner-community, with consistent water sales throughout the year. We knew they would be a perfect candidate for our next solar pilot![vimeo 61806019 w=500 h=281]
We arrived in Chani to learn that the chief had recently died, and so instead of a small meeting with the elders, the community wanted to have a big community-wide meeting. It was great! Sam, Wahab, and I explained the concept of the solar business and everyone was on board and excited. The village decided right away that they wanted Salamatu and Munera to run the solar business as well since they are the “most hardworking women in the community and know how to count well.” Done and done! So far all 4 of our solar communities have chosen the water women to run the solar businesses too. It’s been very interesting to see that decision made!
Building the solar charging center in Chani went very smoothly. Both men and women from the community were very helpful. Not to toot our own horns, but Sam and I both agree that this is the nicest-looking solar center that CWS has built so far!
Training the women and distributing lanterns also went off without any hiccups. After 3 years of running the water business, Salamatu and Munera are very comfortable working together. They have a very funny dynamic! Sam and I had so much fun with the children in Chani. It was really cool to see the kids that Lucy had photographed 1.5 years ago. We have been using these pictures for all of our PR materials, so those little faces have been ingrained in our memories. It was amazing to see how everyone had grown up so much!
After a very smooth implementation, we were very excited for opening night, which was scheduled for Saturday, April 19th. Unfortunately, when we rolled into the village that night, we hit our first major implementation roadblock: nothing was working! When we left Chani 4 hours earlier, the Genset was on, the sun was shining down on the solar panels, and all of the battery chargers were plugged in. When we returned, the Genset was off, the chargers were off, and the batteries were not charged. Shak, the electrician by nature and the most experienced with our solar charging stations, immediately got to work taking apart the system and investigating the problem. While he was doing that, I called up our partners at Burro, who we bought the Genset from. After about 30 minutes, we all realized that the problem was something major that would not be able to be fixed that night.
The problem with the Genset was very disappointing for a couple reasons. First and foremost, the entire village was out waiting for rent their batteries and charge their phones. Chani had been wanting access to electricity for so long and it was so hard to tell them that they would have to wait, even though it would only be a few days. People in these communities are VERY used to foreign NGOs making big promises and never following through. Even though we have worked with Chani for over 3 years, and they trust our partnership, it was still heartbreaking to pull away that night, with all of our equipment in-hand when we had promised electricity that night. The other reason this was particularly disappointing was that it was a holiday weekend, which meant that there was no way the Genet could get fixed before Sam and I had to leave for the States. In the grand scheme of things, opening night isn’t about us at all – it’s about Salamatu, Munera and the families in Chani. But, after 3 weeks of 4:45 am wakeup calls, without one day off, we were bummed to miss opening night.
The reality is, things like this happen ALL of the time when you are working in development. The fact that our other 3 previous pilot implementations had all gone smoothly is the exception, not the rule. This problem in Chani gave our team some great experience in learning how to to deal with Genset issues. If this happens during a Fellowship Program, we will be prepared! Burro, was also great to work with and proved to be very committed to getting us a working Genset. They were available to our team any time of day, despite their holiday weekend and one of their re-sellers in Tamale ended up being the guy to fix the problem. The issue ended up being a faulty inverter, which Burro replaced for us. There was nothing that our team, or the ladies in Chani had done wrong in setting up the system – it was simply a bad part.
Shak and Wahab did a great job working with Burro and communicating with Chani. The following Wednesday, opening night part 2 went off without a hitch! Every household in Chani rented batteries for their lanterns and some brought their cell phones as well. Salamatu and Munera were really excited and no one seemed upset that opening night was delayed. Brianan’s family was in town to visit her and they all got to come out for the opening – it was great to have such a big crowd there to celebrate! A BIG THANKS, again, to Next Step Living for funding the start-up cost of the solar businesses in Kurugu Vohoyili, Sakpalua, and Chani!
In 3 short weeks, Sam and I will be returning to Ghana with 46 water Fellows and our first-ever team of solar Fellows. We can’t wait to get back to Tamale and run our biggest-ever Summer Fellowship!
Sam and I have been having a blast in Sakpalua this week! I hope that you all enjoyed the video of building the solar center. Since then, the village has helped us plaster the building and install the solar panels. It looks great! Solar panels really are the energy of the future, being able to use them all around the world is fantastic for people who want to help the earth. If you don’t know much about solar energy, Click Here to learn more. We all know that fossil fuels are killing our planet and it’s great that we were able to install these panels for the villagers. We all need to do our bit to save the planet and keep our energy useable renewable. There is more info here on solar installation in certain areas, if you don’t find yours, then researching local companies can show you if they are available.
Once the solar center was all set up, we started training the women entrepreneurs. The village nominated 4 women to work at the center: Lydia & Damu – the two water entrepreneurs; and Fuseina & Saramatu – two new ladies! We were so thrilled that the elders nominated 4 women because it means that this great income-generating opportunity could be shared. Lydia and Damu are also planning to show Fuseina and Saramatu how to run the water business, so all four of them can manage both businesses together. Sam and I think that its going to work out really well!
On Wednesday, Sam, Shak and I showed the ladies how to hook up the battery to the inverter, and then the solar panels to the battery (through the Burro Genset which also has a charge controller). They caught on very quickly and were pros before we knew it!
When we returned to Sakpalua this morning, we had the ladies de-wire the whole system and put it back together again without our instruction. They nailed it!
After finishing up our training with the women, Sam, Shak and I distributed the Burro lanterns to the families in Sakpalua. These lanterns usually retail for 20 GHC (about 9 USD) but each family had the chance to “opt in” to the solar program by buying a lantern for 1 GHC. If they decided to pay 1 GHC, each family received 1 lantern to share. They can buy more at retail price from the women entrepreneurs at any time. Every family that we visited opted into the program and they were all so excited to receive a lantern!
Each lantern uses 3 rechargeable batteries that people in Sakpalua can rent from the ladies at the solar business for 10 pewas (about 5 cents) each. The batteries should last about a week, depending on how often each family uses their lantern. When the batteries lose their charge, people can return them to the solar center and get “fresh” ones for 10 peswas each. Just like Kurugu Vohoyilli and Wambong, people can also charge their cell phones at the solar center for 50 peswas each (about 23 cents). The ladies in Sakpalua decided that they wanted to charge the same price to charge a cell phone as the people in their village pay in Tamale. Fuseina noted that if people are willing to travel for over an hour to charge their phone for 50 peswas in Tamale, they should be happy to avoid the travel and same the same price in the village! We will see how sales go, but so far everyone seemed satisfied with the price when we explained it during distribution. Gotta love Fuseina’s supply-and-demand theory!
The only hiccup that we ran into today was that the roof of the solar center was leaking. Shak and I will be bringing a carpenter tomorrow morning to fix it so that we will be all ready for opening night tomorrow night! While we are fixing the roof, Sam will be going to Chani with Wahab to hold a meeting with the chief about bringing a solar business to their community. If all goes well, two new villages and over 1,000 people will gain access to solar electricity this month! A HUGE thank you to Next Step Living for supporting CWS’ expansion into solar. We could not do any of this work without you!
It has been almost 3 weeks since the solar center opened in Kurugu Vohoyili. The solar center entrepreneurs, Ayi and Fuseina, report that business is going well. Community members say the lanterns are useful for cooking, studying, working at night and make them feel safe from scorpions lurking in dark corners. The entrepreneurs say people have been coming to exchange their dead batteries for “fresh ones” and cell phone charging sales are high, especially at night.
Last week on April 2, CWS Assistant- Project Manager: Shak, and I had the privilege of visiting the solar center in Kurugu Vohoyili with the Burro team, Burro founder: Whit Alexander, Burro Country Director: Carol Brown and Business Development Manager: Caleb Darko. Burro is a bottom-up social business based out of Koforidua that markets high quality, life-improving products to low-income and rural populations. CWS has partnered with Burro to bring lanterns, gensets and solar panels to the solar center pilots.
When we arrived at the center, Fuseina was there open for business! There were 34 batteries charging but no phones just yet. Fuseina said that some people still had charge in their phones but they would come. We checked out the solar panels, which had a layer of dust and some mud splotches. The Burro team was helpful in advising Ayi and Fuseina to clean the panels every morning with a cloth and water to remove all dust in order to get the most sunlight possible. Whit also advised the women to use alcohol to remove any residue build up on the AA batteries to make them more efficient. Burro’s mantra of “Do More” shined throughout the community visit.
Shak and I visited 6 households with the Burro staff. All 6 households still had charged batteries in their lanterns. 4 out of 6 households had charged cell phones at the solar center. The 2 households without charge still had charge remaining from before the solar center opened. These households have been conserving their cell phone battery to keep fuel costs down. They used to travel several miles to Tali to charge. I predict that cell phone charging demand will rise over time as the solar center is conveniently located in the center of Kurugu Vohoyili.
Burro Founder, Whit, started asking households about what they used to do for energy prior to the solar center. Most households used kerosene, spending 5-6 GHC on kerosene every 3 days. Now they no longer use kerosene, opting for the cleaner, cheaper energy offered at the solar center! KV community member Alimatu brought out her kerosene lamp to show us what she was using before. It was striking to see the kerosene lamp and Burro lantern side by side. Alimatu asked us if she could use the Burro lantern as a night-light to fall asleep, she had been using a kerosene lamp before. We said yes and her face lit up!
It was encouraging to monitor with the Burro team and to see the fruits of our labor after the pilot. A big thank you to Whit, Carol and Caleb for coming all the way to Tamale to check out the solar center and for all of their consulting.
Sam and I arrived in Tamale on Thursday and got straight to work on our 3rd solar business pilot in the village of Sakpalua!
Sakpalua is a rural village of about 500-600 people located about an hour outside of Tamale. We first started working in this community in April 2012 when the Spring Fellows implemented a water business with Lydia and Dama, two awesome water entrepreneurs. Over the past two years, these two ladies have been working extremely hard and as a result, the water business as been a huge success! Lydia and Dama are able to solve most problems on their own and run their water business with little to no assistance from the CWS staff. Since Sakpalua is not on a main road, they will not have access to electricity anytime in the near future. They were the perfect choice for our next solar pilot!
Sam, Shak and I arrived in Sakpalua on Saturday morning for our first meeting with the chief and elders. We learned that most families in the village were using kerosene lamps for light, but many have stopped due the the high price of kerosene. These lamps are not only extremely hazardous to health, but are also horrible for the environment. However, there are limited options other than kerosene and most families have no light in their home once the sun goes down. Many people have cell phones, but must travel all the way to Tamale and pay high prices to charge them. The chief and elders were thrilled to hear about the solar-business idea and couldn’t wait to get started!
Today we started building the structure for the solar business. We used all local materials found in the village and almost 50 people came out to help build! Tomorrow we put on the roof, plaster the walls and then will bring the solar panels on Monday!