Photo credit: David Youmans
For the past five years, a group of San Francisco engineers from Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) have partnered with a Tanzanian community thousands of miles away to harness the sun’s energy to provide electricity to the town and meet the villagers’ basic human needs. Kelsey Gross, EWB-USA communications coordinator, shares their story.
Community members in the rural village of Ngelenge, Tanzania, have a reason to rejoice when the hot, African sun beats down on them. Solar energy now provides solutions to a serious problem – lack of access to clean water and adequate health care.
Five years ago, women and children in the Ngelenge community spent the better part of each day walking many kilometers to collect water. Community members also had to walk five kilometers (3.1 miles) to the nearest health facility, which lacked consistent electricity, whenever they wanted basic health care.
This phenomenon of unstable energy access is all too common for many African communities. In sub-Saharan Africa, 30 percent of health facilities lack electricity. As a result, they cannot adequately store essential medicines, operate essential, life-saving medical equipment or perform procedures after the sun sets.
However, the Ngelenge Development Association (NGEDEA), a Tanzanian organization dedicated to the development of the Ruhuhu River Basin, wanted to make a change and reached out to the Engineers Without Borders USA (EWB-USA) San Francisco Professional Chapter to do so.
After exploring many potential ways to improve access to clean water and adequate health care, EWB-USA and NGEDEA partnered with the community to build a health clinic and a water distribution system powered by solar energy.
EWB-USA members and community members celebrated the installation of the solar panels that now power the water pump and local health clinic. The solar panels have been functioning for two years and the system receives routine maintenance by well-trained community members. Photo credit: David Youmans
Tanzania receives more than 3,000 hours of sunlight each year. For community members in Ngelenge, more than 3,000 hours of sunlight each year means more than 3,000 opportunities to supply life-giving energy for their health clinic and water source.
“Ngelenge is 75 kilometers from the nearest electrical grid ,and the bumpy dirt roads make the transport of goods, including fuel for energy, expensive and difficult,” David Youmans, an EWB-USA member who was one of the engineers on the ground in Ngelenge, said. “What they do have, though, is abundant energy in the form of sunlight.”
The EWB-USA San Francisco Professional Chapter worked with local solar vendors to install the project, a localized approach that increased the capacity of the community’s solar technicians. This also helped build the local solar economy and ensured long-term sustainability for the project.
Today, every community member in Ngelenge has access to health care facilities within one kilometer from their home, whether or not the sun is shining. Additionally, the solar-powered water pump delivers water to 18 access points in the community so that every family has access clean water less than 100 yards from their home.
EWB-USA members also conducted solar energy training in Ngelenge so individual community members can maintain the solar energy technology. In addition to keeping the water pump and health clinic running, the solar energy training increased the capacity of community members to install solutions to energy poverty in their own homes.
“It was amazing to return to the village year after year and see that community members had purchased panels, batteries and controllers to put together their own systems,” Youmans said. “Many homes in the community now have a few lights to brighten up their night.”
On the community level, energy access is now a reality for Ngelenge. However, many communities in sub-Saharan Africa are still living in the dark. The solutions are there, and more than two dozen African states have already committed to support the goal of providing universal energy access by 2030. By partnering with developing communities to supply sustainable supplies of energy, we can energize the fight against energy poverty.