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!
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.
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!
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. Maybe I could have looked for local roofing professionals (similar to roofers Roanoke) who could have started working on the roof before the carpenters arrived. That said, 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 (similar to the Metal roofing from 99Roofers that is usually installed in the US) 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. The people of the community have extensive experience in the village roofing industry. Moreover, it seemed that the residents had vast roofing knowledge like a professional from a roofing company Winston Salem might have.
That is why they must be praised! After all, not everybody can be as talented as they are! However, the most praise-worthy thing is that not only do they appear to have skills to carry out complex roofing tasks like Roof Replacement, installation or repair, but they also seem to be in sync with the growing trends in the roofing industry. This surely is praise-worthy as not many people possess this kind of skill set or knowledge base!
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.
What an exciting day it has been at the CWS Ghana office! This morning Shak and I accompanied Abiba and Salima, water and solar center entrepreneurs from Wambong, to open their first bank account!
Since the solar center opened in October 2013, Abiba and Salima have been saving up their profits from mostly cell phone charge sales. They want to save their money in the bank to prevent theft, to acquire savings interest, to have money in the bank in case anything breaks at the solar center and in their own words, “to save for something big”. They also hope that the bank will offer a free checking account that would allow them to manage their money more effectively. You can learn more about Free Checking accounts here.
After doing some rural banking research, Peter, Shak and I decided that Bonzali Rural Bank would be the best fit for Abiba and Salima. They have a bank branch at the University of Development Studies in Nyankpala, which is close and accessible to the women from Wambong. The bank conducts business in English and Dagbani and has employees help illiterate customers fill out deposit or withdrawal slips, which means Abiba and Salima can go to the bank on their own.
We are so proud and excited for Abiba and Salima and hope to help more entrepreneurs open bank accounts in the future!