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SEI Team Member Travels to Uganda with We Care Solar

Posted by: chris
February 26, 2014

by Laura Walters, SEI PV Curriculum Developer

I just got back from a bit over two weeks in the southwest corner of Uganda working with We Care Solar, as a Solar Ambassador. We Care Solar partnered with Solar Energy International in fall of 2012 to train Solar Ambassadors from around the world to teach and install Solar Suitcase systems.  This trip was part of a Grand Challenge grant for Saving Lives at Birth. About 150 Solar Suitcases will be installed in about 100 clinics in four districts of southwest Uganda. This was my first international trip with We Care, and my first time to Africa.  It was absolutely incredible! 

On the first day, as we were all piled into the vehicle (with lots of gear) to drive to the classroom through deep clouds of mist with people everywhere; I felt strangely at home. This was a train-the-trainers program where we had two days in the classroom, then about 5 days of actual installations with smaller groups to reinforce concepts.  Merritt Gates was the lead trainer (who is also a work-trader for SEI), along with Hal Aronson (co-founder of We Care Solar), Shannon Fulton (fellow Solar Ambassador,) and myself.  The training focused on: how the WCS suitcases work, hands-on installation techniques and using tools, troubleshooting, and how to best teach healthcare workers about the Solar Suitcases.  We had about 35 Ugandan students comprised of health care inspectors, cold chain technicians (who service propane vaccine fridges), and Kable University engineering students.  A great bunch! 

Working with WCS, I have heard the stories about health care workers holding a cell phone in their mouth to perform a delivery at night.  You do not feel the full impact of what that means until you are standing in a clinic with no utility power and a midwife is bent over a delivery bed with her phone in her mouth showing you her routine practice.  The look in her eyes when she first turned on her new light in her delivery room was priceless.  She plugged in her cell phone to charge, and told us this would save her from traveling about 10 kilometers on foot to a phone charging station and save her personal money required for charging.  Standing right in front of us was just one person whose life would be greatly improved by the Solar Suitcase- the work we were doing was making a difference.
It was also super gratifying seeing our students teaching their communities about solar and improving their installation skills! By the last day, things totally clicked for them; they were efficient, they were implementing best practices on their own, they were coming up with creative ways to mount the lights so they would be most helpful for health care workers, and they were working together as an awesome team!!!  Building local capacity to correctly install and maintain these small solar electric systems is the key component in this project that, I feel, will make it successful.

SEI donated five PV Design and Installation Manuals for this project.  We gave four of them to Kabale University’s engineering department, since they could reach a large audience this way.  The University students in our class were SO impressive and excited to learn more about best system design practices.  They were go-getters, extremely hard workers, information sponges, and had incredible workmanship.  The last book I gave to a solar installer in the Kisoro District, Chance.  I was carrying the book in my bag and when he saw it, he was super excited and kept asking to borrow it.  Chance is really respected in his community, and a great guy. 

About three years ago, he was approached by a mother asking if he would train her daughter, Evas, as a solar installer.  Evas' had a dream of being a technician (it is very rare to see a woman technician in Uganda).  Chance took her on and was completely impressed by her work ethic, ability to listen and learn, and her reliability.  Now whenever he has extra work, he looks for women to employ.  When I gave Chance the book,  he got teary-eyed and told me "I will read this whole book, starting with the first page and ending with the last.  I know a lot about solar but I weak on the design side of things and this is just the resource I need!"  Evas was sitting behind me, and she said "Does this mean that I can read it too?!?" as she immediately grabbed the book and started to pour through it. 

These are just a few choice stories from the trip; truthfully I was in awe pretty much every day.  Whether it be the generous and caring people we met, the students in our class, living with the reality of unreliable electricity (we lost power everyday at our hotel- it was off more often than it was on), the grateful expecting mothers at the clinics, the children who were amazed to see a blond white woman doing electrical work, the beautiful scenery and wildlife...everyday was an adventure and everyday was a thrill.

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