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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
Yesterday, we arrived in Kurugu Vohoyili nice and early to finish training the women and to start approaching households with lanterns. It has been HOT in Tamale, so we wanted to beat the heat. Ayi and Fuseina were ready to start when we got to the center. As we had explained to them yesterday, they would have to wire the solar panels to the battery and set up the genset all on their own. Ayi laughed when I told her this and said, “oh we will try.” They were able to do it!
We started plugging in power strips and battery chargers in to the genset to ensure that everything was working. Shak and I gave Ayi and Fuseina a few scenarios to see if they were comfortable with all of the information. We pretended to be customers, asking how much it would cost if we charged x amount of phones or x amount of batteries and what that would look like in the sales book. We also tested the entrepreneurs on how many cell phones and batteries could be plugged in at once and had them look to the genset infographic for guidance. They got everything right! We decided to teach them how to use tally marks in groups of 5 to make it easier to keep track of sales. Ayi said they had never gone to school and asked if it was even worth it to try and teach them. Shak and I said yes! And within a few minutes they grasped the concept. Ayi and Fuseina are sharp. We completed training by practicing to insert batteries in to the chargers, opening the battery slots of the lanterns and turning the genset on and off. We decided to let the solar panels charge up all day. This morning, the women will charge the batteries to open for business tonight!
After training, Shak and I visited all 22 households in Kurugu Vohoyili asking families if they would like to participate in the lantern program for 1 GHC. Every single household joined! We briefed each family on the lanterns and the solar center. We told them that they had to pay for the batteries and to charge their cell phones so the women would have money to fix broken parts, to buy more batteries and to earn a profit for their hard work. We also discussed the health benefits of using this lantern instead of kerosene or lead acid battery powered torches. If any household loses a battery, they will have to pay the women 3 GHC to replace it. Everyone seemed excited and receptive to the system. Tonight is opening night. We will head to Kurugu Vohoyili after dark with the rest of the CWS Ghana staff. We can’t wait!
And the solar center entrepreneurs in Kurugu Vohoyili are (drum roll please)… Ayi and Fuseina!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
It has been a productive week of building in Kurugu Vohoyili. Our efforts were pushed back a day because of car trouble and a funeral in the community on Wednesday. On Thursday, Shak and I arrived around 7:30 am to get an early start on the roof. The carpenters unfortunately were not as punctual as we would have liked, so the morning was spent sitting and chatting with the elders and some of the children.
When the carpenters finally did show, they got right to work. The round zinc roof was too complicated for me, Shak or community members in Kurugu Vohoyili to construct. So the chairman called his carpenter friends in the nearby community of Tolon, who have extensive experience in the village roofing industry. Most community members live in round village huts like the one we are building but they use straw to roof the house. We decided to use a zinc roof for the solar center to keep the battery, inverter, cell phones and appliances safe and dry in case of a heavy rainstorm. Straw roofs have more seasonal maintenance compared to zinc roofs, so it made sense economically to go with zinc.
To construct the roof, the carpenters started by adding supportive beams to hold up other pieces of wood in the nailing in process. They went around in circles several times adding wood, nailing it in, taking measurements, cutting more wood, adding supportive pieces to nail in the zinc. At one point the carpenters ran out of wood, so Shak and I headed to Tolon to get more. When we got back to KV, one of the carpenters said they had just run out of nails and that we had to turn around and go back out to get more. It took us a few minutes to realize he was kidding. Shak replied, “That it a very hard joke to make Carpenter”, which ended in roars of laughter amongst the chairman, elders and even some of the small kids. The carpenters completed the wooden roof structure in 4 hours, then took another hour to nail in the zinc. It was a long day but overall a success. We left Kurugu Vohoyili with an almost complete, locally sourced and community made solar center charging shop!
Today, we returned to Kurugu Vohoyili to finish some of the wood work for the door frame, window and faceboards. We started plastering the outside of the hut with cement to make it durable in the rainy season like families do to their own houses in the community. The center is looking great! Tomorrow we will return with the solar panels, inverter, battery, cable, Burro AA batteries and Burro battery chargers to start training the women! We can’t wait to meet them! Check below for pictures detailing the building process.