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Opening Night in Kurugu Vohoyili

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“Calm before the storm” — The solar center in Kurugu Vohoyili on opening night

The solar center is officially open in Kurugu Vohoyili! Last night, Shak, Wahab, Amin, Eric and I all went to KV to celebrate the opening. We pulled up to the solar center and there was already a queue forming next to the shop window with community members lining up, Burro lantern in hand.

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Customers line up with their Burro lanterns outside of the solar shop

Ayi and Fuseina met us at the door to the center and opened up the shop for business. It was Wahab, Amin and Eric’s first time seeing the solar business in KV and they were impressed! We immediately got to work unwrapping more power strips and plugging them in to make slots available for people to charge cell phones. There wasn’t much time. The crowd was getting rowdy outside the shop. People were demanding batteries.

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Ayi and Fuseina on opening night

Shak and I had a quick pep talk with Ayi and Fuseina. “Ok so who is going to run the window taking battery orders and handling the money? Who is going to load batteries and keep track of sales?” Fuseina took the window and Ayi grabbed the sales book. The shop window was pushed open for Fuseina to take the first customer.

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Ayi keeping track of sales
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Fuseina counting change to give to customers out her shop window

Within a few minutes, there was a problem. Everyone had come to the shop with big bills! Customers were holding 5 GHC and 10 GHC notes to purchase 10 pesewas batteries. The women did not have enough small change for these kinds of transactions. Shak and I hadn’t thought of this. We had a quick meeting with the chairman who suggested that those who have small change pay for their batteries tonight and the rest of the households will be held accountable to pay the women tomorrow. I was worried. I wanted to make sure Ayi and Fuseina actually received their money. The chairman reassured us that the women would be paid back the following day and that in the future, people would come to the center with smaller coins. That’s the plus side of doing business in a community network like Kurugu Vohoyili.

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Huseini, Fuseina, Ayi, Ibrahim,  the chairman and Shak standing with the solar panels on opening night!
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Fuseina, Huseini, Amin, Ayi, Wahab, Ibrahim, Eric, me and some children from KV standing with the solar panels

We got back to work. Ayi and Fuseina were getting overwhelmed. With the rate of sales, Ayi had too much on her plate: recording sales, handing Fuseina charged batteries and replacing batteries in to the empty slots. Shak helped Ayi with the sales book, Wahab, Eric and I handed Fuseina charged batteries and replaced the empty slots. Opening night will be their busiest night because in the future, community members can come buy batteries or bring their cell phones to charge at their leisure throughout the day. It will take time for the women to get used to the process of counting money, replacing batteries and keeping track of sales. Shak and I will continue our training with the women later this week when we go back to monitor.

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Eric helping Ayi load batteries in to the chargers

The women ran out of charged batteries, it would take a couple of hours to charge up more. There are only 15 battery chargers (4 battery slots per charger) at the center. Meaning only 60 batteries can be charged at once, giving 20 households 3 batteries each for their lanterns. This would only be a problem opening night.

Amin had been outside helping customers put batteries in to their lanterns and socializing. He came in to the shop when the women finished sales and said, “Oh, the people are happy. I saw one man just playing with his lantern trying all 4 light settings about 15 times, then he ran home to show his family. Wow!” Indeed, customers had all run home with their new solar charged, battery-powered lanterns. I peaked outside and only the chairman and some small children were left. Ayi and Fuseina let out a sigh of relief. They did it!

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Amin with Ayi and Fuseina!

What a whirlwind of a night but overall a success. We are looking forward to monitoring the solar center’s progress and talking to families to see what they think of the center and the lanterns. A big thank you to Next Step Living for funding this solar pilot, Burro for our new partnership in bringing solar gensets and lanterns to rural communities and Mark and Ben who developed the first solar pilot in Wambong. Monitoring and household survey reports to come!

Cheers,

Brianán

Meet the New Solar Center Entrepreneurs in Kurugu Vohoyili

And the solar center entrepreneurs in Kurugu Vohoyili are (drum roll please)… Ayi and Fuseina!

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The chairman told Shak and I that Ayi and Fuseina were chosen because they are the most hardworking women in Kurugu Vohoyili. Interestingly enough, Ayi and Fuseina are also the water business entrepreneurs. Now this has pros and cons to it. As we have seen in Wambong, the solar center makes much higher profits compared to the water treatment center. This will allow Ayi and Fuseina to grow their businesses and eventually open a bank account. The entrepreneurs will also be able to market the water business using the solar center. Community behavior change and priorities are different around drinking clean water vs. charging a cell phone. Cell phones are sexy. The immediate reward of being able to call a friend is much more gratifying than drinking a cup of clean water, where the health benefits are only seen over time and are hard to measure. Had the community selected two different women to run the solar center, there would be four women with business opportunities in KV rather than two. Our plan for now is to let the communities select the women for the pilots and go from there.

We were pushed back a day again because of a funeral in a nearby village. The dry season is peak funeral season in the Northern Region of Ghana. In the rainy season, the weather is unpredictable, the roads are bad and families are busy farming, which makes travel difficult. Usually when people pass away in the rainy season, they wait until the dry season to have the big family funeral.

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Today, we arrived in KV and the center was looking great, fully plastered and beautiful in the hot sun! We brought the steel poles and solar panels to mount outside the solar charging hub. Community members helped mount the panels. We faced the panels due south at 81 degrees to get the most sunlight possible throughout the year, using this Solar Angle Calculator recommended by staff at Burro. Shak was resourceful and found a protractor to bring to the welder for the poles. He got the angle just right. I was impressed! We used a compass to get the panels perfectly due south!

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Once the panels were mounted, Ayi and Fuseina came to start their first day of training. They showed up with big smiles, saying “Nawuni ni dey suhugu”, which means God answer your prayers (also used for thank you) in Dagbani. From past experience monitoring and working in Kurugu Vohoyili, I can vouch for these women and confidently say they are “on their game”. Since implementation in January 2012, their water business has flourished. There has not been one occasion where CWS field staff showed up to KV and found an empty polytank. You rock ladies!

For the solar training, we started with the basics, going over how the solar panels use light energy from the sun to generate Direct Current (DC) electricity, which is stored in the battery and then converted to Alternating Current (AC) electricity through the inverter. AC electricity or “mains” as it is referred to in Ghana is what we use to charge our appliances at home. We explained to the women how to wire the 2- 100 W panels together in a “series” connecting the positive cable of one panel to the negative cable of another panel, which builds the voltage. Then connected the negative cable of one panel to the negative charge of the battery and the positive cable of the other panel to the positive charge of the battery. The women did all the wiring and electrical taping themselves! When it was wired, we turned on the genset and voila! There was power! We plugged in a cell phone and a battery charger to make sure the equipment was working. There were oohs and ahhs from the surrounding crowd.

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Ayi connects the negative cable of one panel to the positive cable of the other
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Ayi’s hands up close, taping the cables together!
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Fuseina attaches some more cable to the positive cable of one panel to be attached to the positive charge of the battery.
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Huseini plugs in his cell phone to the power strip. Electricity!

We discussed how to calculate watt/hours and how many devices can be plugged in based on the battery level. Burro put together some useful infographics: Genset Operating Guide that helped us explain this to the women. To start, the solar center will be charging cell phones and Burro AA batteries for the lanterns. We went over using the sales book to keep track of daily cell phone and lantern sales. We gave the women two containers – one for daily earnings and the other for long term savings. We also went over prices with the chairman and the entrepreneurs and agreed upon 10 pesewas (~$.04) per battery rental and 20 pesewas (~$.08) per cell phone charge. This money will go to Ayi and Fuseina, who can use their profits to invest in their families and to replace batteries or broken parts at the solar center.

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Fuseina, the chairman and Ayi stand surrounded by children at their new community solar center!

Tomorrow,  Shak and I are going to continue training day 2 with the entrepreneurs, further discussing battery charging, watt/hours calculations and keeping track of sales. We are also going to have the women completely rewire and put together the genset on their own without our verbal guidance. We are confident they will do great! Tomorrow, we will also be approaching households with lanterns to see if they want to invest 1 GHC in a lantern to be able to rent batteries at the center. More updates to come!

-Brianán