Showing a Jackie Chan movie with the aid of solar energy in combination with a charity ... WOW!
Darkness is falling fast in Nitiri Corner when the SolarAid bus rolls into town, kicking up the dust. The North Bongoma village in Kenya is high and remote, 500 miles northwest of Nairobi and at least an hour’s drive from the last piece of tarmac road.
SolarAid is new to the area of North Bongoma, but news of the cheap and clean source of power it is offering is starting to get around. Within minutes of the orange matatu bus pulling up, a crowd has gathered.
Word has also spread that this public transport vehicle is a bit different. Fixed to the roof are two 120-watt solar panels that charge up easily in the bright Kenyan sunshine. They are connected to two 200AH/4-volt batteries and a 40-amp charge controller on the floor of the bus. So, plug in a projector, stick a sheet to a nearby wall and within seconds the first solar-powered cinema in the land flickers into life.
By now more than a hundred villagers have emerged from the gloom. Children sit in neat rows at the front while the adults cluster around the edges. Shrieks of laughter ring out as Jackie Chan’s The Forbidden Kingdom bursts on to the sheet. It is the first film they have ever seen.
For SolarAid, the impromptu cinema is a break from the more serious work that it carries out across Africa — installing solar panels in schools and clinics where vaccines cannot be stored and work stops at sunset.
But the film is also a smart way to spread the message that solar is the answer to Africa’s severe power problems. Only 2 per cent of the continent is on the grid, so in the vast rural areas of Kenya and elsewhere electricity is simply an impossibility.
Scarce funds are spent on batteries to power radios, the lifeline to the outside world, and on kerosene, the highly toxic oil that kills 1.5 million each year in Africa.
Women spend hours each day cooking and heating water over an open fire, with kerosene lamps the only source of light. Their tiny homes are filled with dangerous fumes. Babies, strapped to their mothers’ backs, breathe just as many fumes into their fragile lungs.
As the film plays, SolarAid’s local staff move through the crowd showing off the simple solar lamps that they hope will one day replace kerosene in homes. The miniature solar panel is the size of a paperback book, connected with a simple lead to a bulb.
“You leave it outside during the day, then all night you can light your home,” explains Romonah Omukhobero, a 42-year-old mother of two, who heads the team of five that distributes the lights.
“It comes in a bag, so you can carry it around for walking in the dark. They are guaranteed for a year, but last for seven or even ten years if they are well looked after.”
SolarAid charges a small amount for each light — around 2,000 shillings (£15). That is a lot for a family earning less than £3 a day, which is the norm around here. But charging is crucial to SolarAid’s approach to development. It wants to give a hand up, not a handout. “It is very important that people save up and pay for their solar light,” Ms Omukhobero says. “We have seen many things given away for free by charities. They are often not valued, not used properly, not taken care of. People think if they break them, they can just get another one. When you save up for something, it is more important to you.”
SolarAid hopes to distribute more than 2,000 solar panels and lights in Kenya in the first few months of next year alone. That means immediate health benefits to almost 20,000 people and a considerable saving for households, which no longer need to spent 100 shillings a day on kerosene. A second project involves installing solar panels in five schools and one clinic before the end of this year, with a further 15 schools and 10 clinics earmarked for next year.
SolarAid has set a target of reaching one million people with clean, cheap solar energy by 2012. “The movie is great fun, but there is a serious message here too,” Ms Omukhobero says. “We are saying ‘look what solar power can do’. It can light your home, it can light your schools and can run vital equipment at your clinics.”
As the film draws to a close, delighted youngsters clap and cheer, then the crowd vanishes into the pitch black night, heading back to the dark huts.
Ms Omukhobero heads home too. She starts work at dawn, walking vast distances to spread the word about solar power. “I work from sunrise until it is dark,” she says. “I will go anywhere if anyone wants to see solar light. I want to make a difference.”
Source article and photo: TIMES ONLINE
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