smallsolutions disseminates energy technologies such as solar lamps and energy efficient stoves to energy impoverished communities at the grassroots level in Africa. The organization has been running a pilot program in the Central Ugandan district of Lyantonde since February 2010 to improve awareness and access to affordable and appropriate energy technologies and provide impetus to the creation of a locally based sustainable market infrastructure. The program has sensitized more than 1,500 people and recruited or trained 22 resellers (80 percent women). These resellers sell technology solutions to their communities (mainly solar lamps). This revenue contributes to the sustainability of the smallsolutions model.
TEM Lab: Uganda – smallsolutions
By Reem Nassar
Shouting, screaming, sounds of police cars rushing around; this is how we started our day on the 15th of April. While working at the Makerere University Guest House, we were surrounded by Makerere students protesting against the recent tuition increase to 6 million shillings per year. From the windows of our guest house lobby, we suddenly saw huge crowds of students running as they were being chased by armored police who were throwing tear gas bombs into the crowds of protesting students.
Suddenly, a policeman standing just in front of the guest house threw a tear gas bomb at nearby students. As the chemicals filled the lobby, all of us ran as fast as possible into our rooms, already feeling the tears in our eyes and burning in our lungs. It was surprising to see that even when protests had calmed down and the majority of the students had run away, policemen kept releasing tear gas at student dormitories to scare them and prevent them from gathering up again.
The events which took place on campus are just part of the on-going protests around the Kampala area where people are protesting against the high costs of living. Opposition leaders have been arrested for organizing a walk-to-work campaign protesting against high fuel prices, which has led to more anger, protests, and riots with police aggression to control the civil unrest.
It will be interesting to see how the government will deal with all these events. As of now, Ugandans are joking about how it’s becoming a crime to walk…
By Bharath Balasubramanian
“Hello, my name is Bharath. Bharath Balasubramanian. I am vegetarian (read eat carbs and starch as I don’t like tomatoes and a lot of other nutritious vegetables). I love beer and I do not work out.” This is what I felt like announcing to the friends who were with me on the arduous trek to watch the gorillas. Stopping every five minutes for water, drinking water every ten minutes and gasping and panting and moaning in pain marked the 3 hour trek through the Bwindi Impenetrable forest that was home to 50% of the population of the rare mountain gorillas. Apart from that, I would have slipped and fell at least 15 times during the entire trek. Playing my most inspirational theme from Rocky on my iPod would not have helped. There was a time when I was contemplating giving up and going back to the cottage but I would not know how to get back on my own. Obviously, I would not have wanted to spoil it for my friends either!
Most treks end in a water fall or a lake or they have a set distance and time limit. So, you can ask the guide or passersby questions like “How far to the lake?”, “Where does this godforsaken thing end”. The problem with this trek was that the guides would not know the answer to any of these questions. There were a set of trackers who had left 3 hours before we did that morning and they would communicate to our guides regarding the gorillas’ whereabouts. We had to walk pretty much until we found them gorillas. So, it was almost like a wild goose chase, except that there were no geese but something bigger, gorillas. I even ended up asking one of our guides if we would take the same way back. If he had said yes, I would have stopped right there and called it a day.
Anyway, finally, after the three hour drama titled ForestSlump starring Bharath, we did get to see the gorillas and boy, did I forget all the pain in a snap or what?! It is only fair that I had to endure the strenuous trek in order to earn my right to see something like that. Getting to see the gorillas from a 3 feet distance was beyond priceless. <Please insert the usual MasterCard like status messages that people put on facebook and other social media. >. I did not feel this way even about the all-nighter that I had pulled for my Accounting 2 final, that I got a 29/35 on (That is an achievement according to my standards). I guess our Solar Brother David and my own teammate Isabelle have already talked about the gorillas at length in their blogs. So I won’t delve too much into that experience apart from saying that it was well worth the effort we put in. Needless to say, the trek back was a cake walk and we all felt we had just accomplished something great in our lives. Something that would make us proud and make us feel that we have checked one more item on our bucket list.
Hello, my name is Bharath. Bharath Balasubramanian. I eat a lot of vegetarian food, I love beer and I do not work out. But I just had one of the greatest experiences of my life.
By Samantha Bailey
Last weekend, while Isabelle, Dan and Bharath went south to track gorillas, Reem and I went north to Murchison Falls Park with Abigail and Bayo for a three day safari. As I carefully chose the items that would fit into my backpack for the weekend, I saw my mostly-charged Sun King lantern on my desk. Realizing that this was a perfect chance to see our client’s product in action, I tossed it in the bag.
We had chosen the lazy tourist method of buying an all-inclusive tour package from a local company, but we had also chosen the most budget friendly tour we could find, so we were prepared to be roughing it for the weekend. After an amazing experience tracking 6 of the only 9 wild rhinos in all of Uganda, our tour guides took us to the permanent campsite where we would be spending the night. I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the dark and loneliness of a starless night in the middle of a safari park. With no moon, no street lights, not even the bioluminescence of fellow creatures nearby, I was suddenly gladder for my Sun King than I thought I would be. This was no longer a casual experiment; it was a matter of surviving the walk from the tent to the outhouse in a place where only a haphazard wire separated campground from lion country.
The solar lamp worked like a champ. Inside our enormous tent, the Turbo mode (the highest setting) allowed us to search through our bags and get situated for the night while the lamp hung from a strap above us. Unfortunately, I did not secure it well, and it fell on the canvas-covered cement floor. We all gasped, but our reaction was unwarranted. As advertised by the maker of Sun King and by SEED program employees, the light kept on shining and the lamp didn’t have a crack on it.
The following day was one of over-stimulation and wonder, as we went on safari through the Murchison Falls Park and became guests in the homes of antelope, warthogs, elephants, giraffes, water buffalo, hippos, crocodiles, and one extremely lazy lion. When we reached the river crossing, we rode a boat up the river until we were within view of the falls, at which point the boat driver told us that this was our stop. As for the other 30 passengers on the boat, they had obviously paid for both directions of the boat ride. We four would need to hike to the top of the falls where our tour guides would meet us. Even though the view of the falls was breath-taking, we were not sorry to hear our guide say that the next stop would be our cabin accommodations for the night.
The cabins set deep in the rain forest seemed luxurious with hot running water and a ceiling light in our dormitory. That is, until we returned from supper at the main cabin and they had turned off our electricity. The Sun King came to our rescue again. Would it still have enough charge in it after the previous night’s use? Yes, indeed. Would it survive being dropped at least twice more as we passed it back and forth? Absolutely. The Sun King was still lighting our way to the early breakfast we took before embarking on an amazing chimpanzee trek in the forest.
If you are reading this entry and feeling frustrated that I left out all the juicy details of our safari so that I could ramble on about a solar lamp, your feelings are completely understandable. However, for me, my passion for our project grew exponentially after experiencing for such a short time the impact such a “small solution” could have. Isn’t contributing to an industry that offers customers freedom, safety and more time in the day just as exciting as roaming with wild animals?
By Isabelle Strauss
When I told one of my best friends that I was going to be spending five weeks in Uganda for an ExxonMobil-sponsored renewable energy project, her first reaction was to tell me that I absolutely had to go gorilla trekking and that she wouldn’t forgive me if I didn’t. The cost can be prohibitive, but with a generous early parental graduation gift, I was on my way to the Bwindi Impenetrable Forest (yes, the same forest David O’Connor writes about on the TEM Lab: Uganda – Solar Sister blog). Near the borders with Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Bwindi National Park is the home of approximately 350 mountain gorillas, estimated to be half of the world’s remaining population.
The day began with an introduction to our guide for the day, information on the gorillas we would be seeing, and some basicdirections on interaction with the gorillas. The Mubare gorilla family which we would be visiting is a small group of five members consisting of one dominant silverback male, two younger males, and two females. Guidelines dictate that visitors stay at least 7 meters away from the gorillas and if one should charge at you, against all natural instinct, absolutely don’t run, instead you must stay where you are and crouch down, hoping the gorilla understands this as a sign of submission and loses interest in the imminent attack. Thankfully, experience suggests that this tactic works, as no visitor has ever been harmed by a gorilla attack, or so they say.
With that, we were on our way to some challenging hiking in the forest. During this 3 hour hike up and down steep mountains towards a group of gorillas, I discovered that some parts of the forest are indeed nearly impenetrable, requiring large sticks to whack our way through the bushes, vines, thorns, you name it. Sweat-covered, bug-covered, and excited like crazy, we finally reached the Mubare gorillas, whom we learned had actually been moving away from us before they decided to rest and snack on a few yummy trees (no wonder it took us 3 hours to catch up!).
Although most of the gorillas were all the way at the top of the rainforest canopy, which means we could hear the rattling of leaves more than we could actually see any of them, this was soon to change. We discovered that the youngest of the male gorillas, named Muyambi, a 6 year old adolescent, already pretty big, was on his way down from the trees. As we eagerly approached, he landed on the ground and proceeded to walk right in my direction (just walking, not charging), reducing the 7 meter regulated distance to about 1! As if he knew that we wanted to see him up close and take as many pictures as humanly possible, he sat down right in front of us. My heart was pumping and I couldn’t believe that I was face to face with such an amazing being, a guest in his forest.
A once in a lifetime experience (unless you are one of the professional gorilla trackers who do this every day), it is difficult to put into words the extent of the impression such an encounter leaves on you. Thankfully, this is something the Ugandan government, Ugandan Wildlife Authority, and most of the surrounding communities understand, as they take great effort in preserving the habitat and autonomy of the gorilla families. I like knowing that the money I have spent there will go to mountain gorilla conservation and to preserving Ugandan wildlife. And now, thanks to friend-a-gorilla, I can also donate $1 to be facebook friends with Muyambi! (No, I am not kidding; as soon as I get the internet working properly you will see him as one of my fb friends).
By Bharath Balasubramanian
Date: Wednesday, the 30th of March.
Place: Lyantonde town, 170 km southwest of Kampala, a local restaurant.
Time: 3:15 pm local.
Background: If you follow cricket, you will get it. If you are Indian, you will get it. If you are Pakistani, you will get it. Even if you don’t have an iota of knowledge about the game but you do have an idea about the relationship between the two countries, you will still get it. Anyway, today is the day two cricketing giants are playing each other for a place in the final: a World Cup Cricket semifinal match (or game if you are from west of the Atlantic) between India and Pakistan. To restate the cliché for the umpteenth time, it doesn’t get any bigger than this!
Scene: After visiting a couple of SEED project entrepreneurs and a customer in the morning of our second day in Lyantonde, we decide to stop for lunch at the usual restaurant/hotel that had sports car and English Premier League team names instead of room numbers. I am imagining a conversation if we had stayed there: “Dan, I am in Manchester United. Where are you? Ferrari? Let’s meet outside Reem’s room, Chelsea, in 15 minutes to make dinner plans.”
By now, our client has already laid out the plan for the rest of the day. No, I will not be able to watch a single ball bowled during the game. I have been calling my dad in India every once in a while to ask him for the score. As if this isn’t enough, the restaurant is out of power. So, even though Uganda does have the game on cable, my hopes of watching a part of the game while having lunch have gone down the drain as well.
After ordering the usual vegetarian Matoke with beans and a chapathi, I reach for my phone to make another call to my dad to find out how many runs India has made when a gentleman walks inside the restaurant. I give him that “hey-you-are-Indian-so-am-I” look, the typical expression of excitement that you have when you see someone of your own kind in a place where there aren’t too many of you. Impulsively, without even thinking twice, I ask him if he knows the game score. When I can’t hear his response, I get up from my seat to walk up to him, asking him for the score.
Easily enough, he tells me the score and a brief recap of the game thus far. Then it occurs to me that we need to introduce ourselves, explain where we are from, etc. To my surprise, he is from Pakistan!! Yes, from Pakistan; a pharmacist from Pakistan who has been living in Mbarara, a neighboring village, for the last three years. This is when the concept of odds and probability seems too absurd and inane to me to believe. After exchanging the story-of-my-life-in-30-seconds (or the sports fan’s version of the Career Management Center’s 30 second commercial), we share a great conversation about the game, the tournament, and how the other teams have played.
It is time for our next meeting with one of the entrepreneurs and I must take leave. We say the usual “nice meeting you” and part ways. We wish each other good luck in the game (read “you guys are gonna go down and get beat today!!”).
Moral(s) of the story: Indians and Pakistanis do look alike; they used to be the same country after all.
You don’t need technology or cell phones to follow international games. Just look around and you can get updates from the most unexpected sources.
By Daniel Karr
Let’s talk about solar lanterns in Africa – few people in Western countries really understand their impact. In Lyantonde District, Uganda, pilot site for the SEED project, there is only an estimated 1% electrification rate. Think about that for a second: only one household out of every hundred has even sporadic access to the power grid. Everyone else is on their own. Fossil fuels are the only real means for lighting.
In recent years, as the price of oil has spiked, people in developed countries seem to have coped by complaining about how much it costs to fill their cars. We blithely bemoan the inconvenience of having to carpool—or worse—take public transportation to economize.
Developing markets have until recently had no alternatives to paying the rising price for fuel. If work is to be done after sunset,kerosene or paraffin lamps must be lit. Shops that can’t afford kerosene close early and craftspeople lose hours of productivity they can’t afford. Students whose parents sacrifice to let them study at night feel intense guilt because they can see the immediate cost to their family.
Light, which makes this basic human productivity possible, is taken for granted by billions of people worldwide. But for the rest, it’s not just a necessity; it’s the most expensive thing they buy. In Uganda, where most families live on under $3 a day, the cost of fossil fuel is actually higher than in the United States. The rising costs of fuel can burn through as much as half of a family’s disposable income. But costs aren’t the only concern. There are serious health implications. Not even counting the difficult to measure long-term eye and lung problems from the smoke, countless children die each year when kerosene lanterns burn down their homes.
It is only now, as solar panel, battery and LED technologies have dramatically improved over the past decade, that prices have dropped low enough to put solar lanterns within reach of those living off the grid in developing markets. In Uganda’s sunny climate, a day’s charge can yield as much as 14 hours of light. Some models even charge mobile phones that would otherwise have to be transported hours away to be charged at an exorbitant cost. A solar lantern with a three year service life costs about as much as most families in Uganda pay for kerosene in six months. After that initial payback period, everything else is savings.
Actual customers of the SEED program report benefits ranging from being able to reallocate savings to food, clothing and school fees, to longer business hours and exponentially increased income. So what’s so important about solar lanterns? They’re not just replacing kerosene; they’re freeing people from an unaffordable and unsustainable way of life.
By Isabelle Strauss
During the summer of 2009, I spent one night in Singapore, which was the closest I had come to crossing south of the equator – until last week. On our way to Lyantonde, the heart of the smallsolutions energy enterprise solution (SEED) program, we took a short tourism break to stop at the equator for some fun pictures and a demonstration of that age-old question about whether the water really spins in the other direction on the opposite side of the equator. Whether it was true physics, or a cool trick to get a hold of our 10,000 shillings (4USD), we had fun watching the water spin counter-clockwise on the south side, then clockwise on the north side, and then not at all right on the equatorial line.
But the reason for our travels was not to celebrate crossing the equator or to conduct physics experiments, but rather to gain valuable insight into the lives, successes, and challenges of SEED entrepreneurs in rural south-western Uganda. During our two day visit we met with five entrepreneurs, a local savings and credit cooperative organization, and two customers. Curious about the program’s progress in the field, we asked many exploratory questions about how the entrepreneurs first became involved in the SEED program, the training they received, their sales processes and customer relations, and details about their main challenges. We met some amazing people during our travels, each with their own story to tell, some which I would like to share with you.
A star entrepreneur, George Ssegawa now owns a small business specializing in all things solar, from small lamps to entire home systems. Over the years he has gained the technical training and expertise needed to install and repair these products as well as business acumen to manage his store and three employees. George is the source of many best practices for the SEED program when it comes to sales strategies and marketing ideas. The highlight of our visit with George included a great story he tells customers about using the portable Sun King lamp to fix his rooftop antenna during the last world cup games and although the lamp fell out of his hands, off the roof, and into the street, his son was able to safely retrieve it still in perfect working condition.
We met Lydia Twebingye as she was finishing a local government meeting. Lydia is a SEED entrepreneur with a talent for community leadership and was recently elected to the Mpumudde sub-county government. We believe that entrepreneurs like Lydia, who are influential leaders in their community, are key to the success of the program. She will be able to utilize her position to teach the community about the benefits of solar lighting compared to traditional methods such as kerosene lamps and may even encourage others to become SEED entrepreneurs.
A farmer by trade, Tugume “Mulefu” Emmy is an example of someone with a strong entrepreneurial spirit. He lives in a small village, far from the electricity grid, with his wife and three adorable children, and works hard to find ways to expand his opportunities. As a SEED entrepreneur, Mulefu has become the highest selling individual in the program by conducting many sensitization meetings where he presents renewable energy products to the communities of most of the nearby villages. Because he does not own his own vehicle, Mulefu struggles between the rising cost of transportation to remote villages and the challenge of keeping product prices at affordable levels.
When we first began our TEM Lab experience, still in Arizona, we were all enthusiastic about the challenge of working on the implementation and expansion of the SEED program. As I look back at our trip, I feel that we are now even more motivated to find the best way for the program to become a sustainable model in rural Ugandan communities and abroad. We now have stories, people, faces we carry with us and want to make sure we can make a positive difference in their lives.
By Samantha Bailey
I would never have imagined that I would be spending my XXth birthday at the source of the Nile in Jinja, Uganda. Our first week in Uganda was an exhausting five days of client interaction, and by the weekend we were ready to leave Kampala for some fresh air. We decided to use the mutatos, shared 14-passenger vans, to travel to and from Jinja, a journey of about two hours each way. The mutato station was an amazing paradox of chaos and organization. Scores of mutatos crowded into the station in queues which extended out of the entrances and clogged the downtown streets. At the head of each queue, the first mutato took off for its destination as soon as it was full of passengers. We easily found the sign for Jinja and were departing the station within a few short minutes.
On the road, we watched dusty city quickly change to lush farmland, as acre after acre of plantains, teas, coffees, and sugarcane rushed past our windows. By lunchtime we were crossing the hydroelectric dam which taps into the power of the Nile and supplies a large portion of the electricity used in Uganda’s urban areas. We debarked at Jinja’s mutato station and began to wander the small town in search of a music festival that was supposed to be happening. No one had heard of it. We decided to check into our hotel and try to get some information there.
Our hotel was a lovely hideaway 8 kilometers outside of town set against some breathtaking views of the Nile. There was a cascade of white water rapids named Bujagali Falls, and we were tempted by the ads for rafting and kayaking, but we feared the parasites in the water more. Our lodging would be in one of the six-person bungalows, and the other Uganda TEM Lab team would be staying immediately next to us. My team gave me a very special birthday gift; they allowed me to stay alone in the loft while they shared the beds on the first floor.
After waiting out a quick but heavy rain storm, we called a taxi to take us back into Jinja for the alleged music festival. On the bumpy dirt road, our driver tried to pull a fast move by swerving around some slower vehicles. Instead, he bottomed out and tore his fuel line, and we rumbled to a stop in front of the few huts lining the road. There was no hope of rescue, so our resourceful driver propped up the car with a jack and got to work. Across the road, all the children in the neighborhood had gathered to shout “Mzungu” at us and mock us by pretending to hold cameras up to their eyes and snap photos. To our amazement and relief, our driver was able to tie up his fuel line with a ribbon he had found on the ground, and we made it without further incident to Jinja Town.
The other team confirmed that there was indeed a music festival, and we soon met them and went in. Ugandans of all ages and many foreigners were swarming about from demonstration to demonstration in order to see and hear the different types of local dance and music. There was one table where some men were playing a local gambling game with dice. David O’Connor decided to try his luck at the table. Although we were all supporting him, and even some of the Ugandans were rooting for him, he just couldn’t catch a break.
As the stars came out above us and the music paused for some local comedians to take the main stage, five exhausted Mzungus retreated to our fully repaired taxi for the ride back to the resort. Everyone except for a sleeping Bayo Adebiyi gathered in our bungalow for some last laughs and a birthday toast before we turned in under our mosquito nets and the sound of the rain on our roof.
By Reem Nassar
After a full week of preparation for our TEM Lab project on campus, we finally landed in Uganda the night of Saturday, March19th.
We spent Sunday trying to rest and recover from jet lag in order to be ready to start our project Monday morning. On Sunday afternoon, we took a little tour to discover the area around our guesthouse, had a taste of Ugandan cuisine and ended the day by having dinner at the home of the relative of one of our Thunderbird colleagues. The dinner was a great introduction to Ugandan culture and cuisine. The main cuisine is typically a sauce or a stew of beans or meat, served with mashed plantains called “Matoke” which seems to be an integral part of the main meals in Uganda, and apparently will constitute a large part of what we will be eating for the coming four weeks.
On Monday we had our first client meeting. It was interesting to finally meet our client on the ground and talk through the project’s main goals, recent updates, and activities, as well as outline client and team expectations. Much of the rest of the week was spent conducting in-depth client interviews and having discussions about their financials, marketing, supply chain, partnership structures, human resources, and technology. In addition, we had two detailed brain storming sessions. In one session we analyzed their current organizational structure and processes, and in the other we analyzed their current mission statement, studying how different variables and objectives of their mission statement will be reflected in their overall performance.
This week’s client interaction and participatory brain storming sessions made me think about the role businesses can play in society. At the grassroots level in East Africa, where almost 80% of the population earns less than $3 per day and has no access to modern energy services like electricity, an organization like smallsolutions aims to provide renewable energy and sustainable business solutions to the base of the pyramid consumer. Through carefully designed and operated programs, smallsolutions is working to mobilize individuals and communities to tap into their own growth potential in a way that will be sustainable in the long run.
How can smallsolutions build a sustainable program that can be replicated in different countries across Africa, impacting consumers and creating market development in rural Africa? What levels and kinds of partnership and collaboration will be required with civil society to gain market knowledge, access to specialized skills and to build the trust required to achieve their goals? How can we create consumer capacity by looking at affordability, access and availability of needed energy solutions and services to ensure that we are not only providing a service but are building consumer capacity and improving living standards? What are the base of the pyramid consumer needs and requirements and market infrastructure?
These are just some of the questions our team is going to be looking at and analyzing while we are in Uganda. It will be fascinating to watch this unfold, using the information, analysis and the relationships we are building on the ground to build a sustainable profitable business and an organizational structure that can impact the base of pyramid consumers and contribute to their development.