VIDEO: Lesotho Solar Brings Information Technology to Remote Village
Solar Power | March 14, 2014 | Posted by Fred Greenhalgh
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ReVision Energy Digital Marketing Manager Fred Greenhalgh, wife Amy, and daughter Nyana returned mid-February from a three week trip to Malealea, Lesotho, where they oversaw the installation of a small battery-based solar electric system on a community hall and donated a number of tablet computers.
The project came about as the two were looking for a way to appreciate the generosity people gave upon the birth of their daughter, but did not want to receive the traditional baby shower gifts. Instead, they urged people to donate to a solar energy project for Malealea, where the local Malealea Development Trust(MDT) had indicated that electricity would be transformational for the remote African village.
“Lesotho is a place that is not all that different from Maine, in some ways,” Fred says, “It’s a little behind-the-times, people are tenacious about their local traditions, and a lot of the challenges they face are because it is getting harder to be a farmer in the modern world. If you go into a bar, regular folks will complain about their job and talk about how they want more things. But the difference is, ‘more’ to someone in Lesotho is very, very modest compared to the definition of ‘more’ in America.”
Outside major urban centers there is limited electricity in Lesotho, with the grid tending to follow and then terminate at cell phone towers. The country is mountainous and sparsely populated, so implementing a centralized electric grid is a tall order, and poverty is so widespread that the economic incentive to do so is minimal.
Yet, the lack of a traditional electric grid actually positions Lesotho well for the future. The country boasts among the best solar resources in the world, roughly comparable to the Southwest United States. Much of Africa skipped landline telephone infrastructure, transitioning instead from no telecommunications directly to a cellular network. In the same way, renewable energy advocates throughout the continent envision that Africa can skip the ill-sighted fossil fuel era and build a renewable-energy powered micro-grid infrastructure.
The system Fred and Amy helped to install was a modest start toward a renewable energy grid – four panels and four batteries – but it is an impressive resource in the village of Malealea, where needs are small.
The system was installed on Malealea’s community hall, a multi-purpose facility built by MDT with help from European donors. The Trust plans to use the new electricity to foster a number of community-based programs already in place, such as library days for AIDS orphans, pottery classes, IT training, reading courses, and a pilot African Storybook project. A DVD player allows for educational programs to be screened, and the local sewing group was excited at the idea of having electric – not treadle powered – sewing machines. And, while internet is still dismally slow in the area, there is hope that the cell phone company will soon add 3G and the facility could also serve as an internet cafe.
The solar array itself was installed by students from a local school, the Bethel Business & Community Development Centre (BBCDC), located in a remote part of Southern Lesotho. The BBCDC is essentially the Lesotho version of a community college, training students in a variety of practical trade areas including carpentry, food service, hospitality, eco-tourism, permaculture, plumbing and electrical work, and solar.
The BBCDC’s campus is off-grid, and students work to support the day-to-day management of the facility using skills related to their studies – wiring up new PV arrays, renovating buildings, managing a small conference center, and tending gardens. The facility has multiple types of demonstration PV arrays and solar water heaters, parabolic solar bread ovens, a biogas digester, a variety of water conservation technologies and lush gardens throughout the grounds. After two years, students (who typically have not completed high school) leave ready to start and manage their own business in their area of study.
While Lesotho has its share of problems (widespread poverty, devastating levels of HIV, and a largely dysfunctional educational system), Fred and Amy left inspired by the resiliency, cleverness and big hearts of the Basotho people.
Lesotho is a place where not a thing goes to waste – the local band Sotho Sounds turns oil cans into guitars and car tires into drums. In the early mornings, there is the chaotic sound of cow and sheep bells jangling en masse as the animals head to pasture, while the Basotho herdsmen in their traditional attire follow behind, texting each other and playing music from their cell phones The transition from agrarian to modern living is a rocky one, but renewable energy and efficient appliances suggest that this remote mountain kingdom may yet have access to some of the same opportunities as the Western world.
In the end, Fred and Amy’s friends and family contributed over $10,000, with a large amount of support coming from colleagues at ReVision Energy, whose contributions were matched by the company. The donations covered the four solar panels and batteries, installation and annual inspection of the system, and a variety of electronics including laptop computer, monitor, printer, wifi router and five tablet computers. Fred configured the IT resources and provided training to MDT’s staff while in-country.