/ 18 August 2011

The women bringing solar power to Sierra Leone

An Indian college is training 12 Sierra Leonean women to become solar engineers as part of a drive to bring electricity to rural communities

A group of 12 women from villages in Port Loko district in Sierra Leone is in the frontline of a battle to bring solar-powered electricity to rural communities. No small feat, given that rural Sierra Leone is not connected to power.

The women are assembling 1 500 household solar units at Barefoot College, in Tilonia, Rajasthan, in western India, prior to a new Barefoot College being opened in West Africa. They sit at long wooden tables fitting tiny coloured resisters to circuit boards — heads tilted, deep in concentration, as smoke puffs up from their soldering irons.

The women are all either illiterate or semiliterate — they used to be subsistence farmers, living day-to-day like millions in Sierra Leone. But now they are proud graduates of India’s Barefoot College, having travelled 9 600km to learn — in the women’s words — “how to make light from the sun”.

“The idea of solar was so surprising that I had to be a part of it,” says Mary Dawo from Romakeneh village.

“Snakes, rodents, reptiles and biting insects crept and crawled into our homes with the dark at 7pm. Children couldn’t study, and we couldn’t relax, socialise or plan our lives after a long day’s work,” says Fatmata Koroma from Mambioma village.

The Barefoot College in Sierra Leone, the first in Africa, is set to open next month in Konta Line village, in Port Loko district. It will enrol up to 50 students on four-month residential courses in solar engineering. The Sierra Leone government has invested about $820 000 in the project. Though the college is funded by the government, the women hope they can run it independently, in what they describe as the “Barefoot way”. The solar equipment the college runs on, and the equipment for 10 villages, was provided by the Barefoot College in India, and the initial training was sponsored by the Indian government as part of its south-south cooperation programme.

“In India, the first problem was vegetarian food,” says Koroma. “The desert was too hot and everything was different. But, within months we could assemble circuits and construct systems. Anything was possible after that.”

The graduates now live in the college hostel, where they will stay until they have trained their replacements “for the service to our villages and our country”, says Nancy Kanu. She was in the first female batch of students to train in India, in 2007, the same year that Konta Line village, where she’s from, was declared the first solar village. She is now chief solar engineer. “I teach full-time, but I’m on call — even at night — to fix a fuse, change a bulb or charge a phone,” she says.

‘People socialise more’
People interact differently now in Konta Line, says Aminata Kargbo. “People socialise more — they’re nicer,” she says. The advent of solar energy has saved the village about $1 000 in candles and kerosene so far; money that is being kept for the upkeep of solar equipment.

However, the solar units are expensive [$500 to $800] and far beyond the reach of most rural households. “There’s a 45% import tax … You need electricity to manufacture solar equipment here,” says Idriss Kamara of the Safer Future Youth Development Project. The local NGO tackles the country’s 60% youth unemployment, training people in vocational skills, including solar. But, Kamara says, few solar trainees find work because hardly any households use it. The government says it is looking to reduce the tax so benefits are passed on to customers and access to solar power increases.

However, while Sierra Leone’s government supports the Barefoot College project, people have wider energy needs, says Yvette Stevens of the ministry of energy and water. “We are developing a broader rural energy programme focusing on community, productive and social needs,” she says. Renewables such as solar, biofuels and hydro form the basis of this programme, supported by an upcoming World Bank project. “There’s a lot of donor money for renewables now, given their impact on climate change,” says Stevens. The government envisages local solar systems will provide power for clinics and schools, and for “water pumps, communal television, and computer centres”, she explains. Energy is not set out as a separate MDG, but it’s vital in meeting them, she says.

Sierra Leone is still catching up after the lost years of the decade-long civil war that wiped out the country’s fragile infrastructure. More than 60% of people (about 3.6-million) live rurally. Few can afford generators. Even in urban areas, more than 90% of people go without power.

A recent World Bank report states that electricity is Sierra Leone’s most daunting infrastructure challenge. This, despite the new Bumbuna hydropower plant, which has improved the situation in the capital, Freetown, a little during the rainy season, providing nearly half the city’s demand. Nevertheless, rural areas lag far behind. Sierra Leone records 46 days of power failures a year, which is four times higher than in other low-income African states.

They may be a small part of a bigger strategy, but Sierra Leone’s Barefoot women are thinking about the future. “Once these units are installed, I think we’ll need an investor to manufacture solar units here to make them affordable for everyone,” Barefoot College graduate Kanu says. “There’s nothing we can’t learn now to make our lives better. We have the power to change our villages.” – guardian.co.uk