Change starts with a vision, but a vision cannot come to life in a vacuum. As a Peace Corps volunteer in Niger, I spent most of my time doing one essential activity: developing relationships.
Tonkassare Villagers selling batteries, flashlights, matches, soap, and other items
I woke, greeted my villagers, learned about the weddings, births, naming ceremonies, deaths, and any other happenings each and every day. The children viewed me as an oddity, a white man living in a hot town, not speaking the language particularly well, unmarried despite having a beard. One of my host mothers even said “a man your age needs a wife. How will you survive otherwise?” Through the children, I learned many of the local customs, but more particularly, I learned how I could make a difference.
Niger is one of many developing countries near the equator, and while many of us living in places with an abundance of electricity – summoned to our use by just plugging something in or flipping a switch – might think that life in the desert offers plenty of daylight hours, that is only half the story.
Villagers during the festival of Ramadan, getting ready for the sun to set so they can break fast.
12 hours of the daily story, to be exact. For a child in the developing world, daylight hours are a time for chores: helping plow a field, sweeping one’s home, doing laundry, and cooking. For children fortunate enough to go to school, the end of the day often means the end of studying, the end of learning.
Technology has provided several answers to the darkness: kerosene lamps that pollute the air and create a fire hazard; battery-powered lights, using cheap, disposable batteries that often leak acid as they are discarded in the sand. An image that will never leave my mind is one of two infants kicking around one of these batteries. The oozing acid shone disturbingly visible in the sunlight.
Solar lanterns offer a better solution, but technology sent to the developing world in the hopes of improving peoples’ lives can be unfortunately short-sighted. Can industrial countries manufacture enough lanterns to satisfy the needs of the 1.2 Billion of the world’s population without easy access to light? Perhaps. But can these countries also satisfy the longer-term maintenance needs of this equipment?
Tonkossare school garden: parents, teachers, and children working together to grow nutritious vegetables for the community.
I went to Niger armed with several items of American camping gear, including a solar charger. I returned home with none of these items three years later, as they all bit the dust under the wear and tear of sand, wind, rain, and heat. Furthermore, what lesson are we teaching by giving manufactured lanterns to the world’s poor? Dependency is the cancer of development.
I support TayaSola because this social purpose corporation and its founder, Alma Lorraine Bone Constable, understand that innovation in the developing world must change from a model of dependency into one of interdependency and collaboration. Through TayaSola’s lantern kits, children and families in Africa learn the principles of harnessing power from our most visible, renewable resource: the Sun. Children build their own solar lanterns, and in doing so, they gain the greatest tool of all: the knowledge and the skills to create their own self-sufficient power and light systems. Now they can purchase parts to construct larger systems for their home, school, community, or even to start their own business. These tools do not come through a pre-assembled lantern; they are only cultivated when the children and their families learn and build what they need.
I support TayaSola for another reason as well. As a social purpose corporation, TayaSola is a for-profit entity that balances its responsibility to generate a profit with its commitment to a social mission. Unlike fast growth-high profit industries, Social Purpose Corporations and other “conscious companies” are unlikely to attract the kind of seed investment necessary for their vision to take root. As such, TayaSola seeks support from the community through its campaign that is now live on Indiegogo. Every dollar towards its $20,000 goal brings TaySola’s vision closer to life through perfecting a prototype, getting 500 solar lantern kits produced, and forging lasting relationships on the ground in Africa. This work began years ago, as Alma traveled to Kenya in the early 2000s and saw the need for light in the rural communities and schools, similar to the need I saw in Niger. She collaborated with women’s groups in Kenya to do something about it. Village leaders told her that they were looking for ways to build smaller, lower cost solutions that everyone could use. This is the heart of TayaSola’s lantern kit and its larger vision of energy independence. By contributing to this campaign, you become part of the TayaSola family, and as this SPC flourishes, you can say “Yes, I helped build that.”
Please contribute to collaborative power and light solutions in Africa today. Even just a small amount, US$10 or $25, when leveraged through the contributions of others will help spark innovation and skills development for children around the world.