Lighting the nation, one village at a time

For years, village representative Kiboko waited desperately for electricity to reach Masurura, in northeastern Tanzania.

“We had a lot of milk that spoiled because we could not store it,” he said. “If we could store it in refrigerators and supply it to other villages, we knew we could make a small industry.”

Growing up in the nearby city of Musoma, Naeem Mawji knew he was one of the lucky few with electricity. Approximately 85 per cent of Tanzanians are unconnected to the power grid, according to the World Bank. Many turn to dangerous alternatives like kerosene lamps. Respiratory diseases from toxic kerosene fumes are a leading cause of death in the country.

Mawji working with local villagers to install the support structure for a solar panel on top of the roof of the village community centre. Photo: Courtesy of Naeem Mawji

Mawji working with local villagers to install the support structure for a solar panel on top of the roof of the village community centre. COURTESY OF NAEEM MAWJI

Mawji transformed his unease with the situation into action while he was studying at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver. Having started with a small scale plan to install a few solar panels in Masurura, today the 24-year-old engineering student heads up a World Bank funded project to build a mini solar-powered electric grid in the village.

Mawji first started to think about solar energy as a solution to Tanzania's electricity woes during the Golden Jubilee Knowledge and Discovery Challenge held in 2007. Tanzania's abundant sunlight provides a safe, sustainable alternative to kerosene.

Mawji also saw electricity as a catalyst to transform Tanzania's economy. With 80 per cent of the country's workforce employed in agriculture, he knew that spreading electricity to rural areas would make a significant difference in the lives of the workers.

Masurura is a case in point. Access to electricity would also allow businesses in Masurura to stay open longer, connect people to the Internet, and facilitate entrepreneurship.

“Most of the people are farmers,” said Mawji. “With electricity, they can buy water pumps and small mills. This will dramatically increase productivity.”

Mawji with teachers and a few students outside Masurura Elementary School, one of the places that received solar panels through Mawji's efforts. Photo: Courtesy of Naeem Mawji

Mawji with teachers and a few students outside Masurura Elementary School, one of the places that received solar panels through Mawji's efforts. COURTESY OF NAEEM MAWJI

In 2008, Mawji worked with Dr Shafik Dharamsi, associate director at the UBC Centre for International Health, to turn his ideas into a workable plan. Under Dharamsi's guidance, Mawji founded Kwasha (a Kiswahili word meaning “to ignite”) as a community based project to develop solar power infrastructure in Masurura. Dr Dharamsi is full of praise for Mawji.

“Naeem is a focused, committed and tireless individual,” says Dr Dharamsi, recalling the time he worked with the young entrepreneur. “He has a clear vision, and a strong motivation to succeed without compromising ethical principles.”

In August 2009, Mawji travelled to Masurura to install solar panels in three key areas: the community centre, the medical dispensary, and a classroom at Masurura Elementary School. Word quickly got around and students of University Hill Elementary School in Vancouver raised funds for the lighting at Masurura Elementary School. Mawji raised another CAD $5 000 during his internship at Syncrude Canada Ltd.

Access to adequate electricity has raised the quality of life in Masurura. Village women no longer have to deliver their babies in pitch darkness. “The biggest problem at the medical dispensary was giving birth,” Kiboko explained. “We always had trouble at night.”

Mawji explains his solar-powered mini grid project to Anil Cabraal, Senior Energy Specialist with the World Bank, at the Bank's Lighting Rural Tanzania Competition. Photo: Courtesy of Naeem Mawji

Mawji explains his solar-powered mini grid project to Anil Cabraal, Senior Energy Specialist with the World Bank, at the Bank's Lighting Rural Tanzania Competition. COURTESY OF NAEEM MAWJI

Since then, Kiboko noted that the student pass rate at the local school was the highest ever. He attributed this success to the students' ability to study after sunset. Even the social fabric of the village has undergone a change. The community centre now has a television where people gather to watch news and sports. “We enjoyed seeing the World Cup,” said Kiboko. Then with a laugh he added that watching TV is “the new thing to do” in the village.

 

Continue reading here.