Bringing Solar Hope to Africa

In this era of expansive first world solar electric projects spurred by feed-in tariffs, rebates or other incentives, it’s easy to forget where some of the most important solar work is taking place. In places like sub-Saharan Africa, solar photovoltaic (PV) projects can sometimes mean the difference between life and death.

Among these efforts are those being conducted by Solar Light for Africa (SLA), a Virginia-based nonprofit organization. SLA collaborates with American and African church leadership, nongovernmental organizations, and governments to provide power and light to public facilities — health clinics, hospitals, schools, orphanages, churches, and community centers in rural regions of Africa. In recognizing the work that SLA is doing in East Africa, the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) has awarded a US$ 300,000 grant to the organization. USAID administers the U.S. foreign assistance program, providing economic and humanitarian assistance in more than 80 countries. Its Bureau for Africa and Bureau of Economic Growth, Agriculture, and Trade (EGAT) are providing SLA’s grant for a solar electrification project for a hospital in Uganda and a grouping of smaller projects. “Access to clean, reliable and affordable energy is an essential component to social and economic development,” said Juan Belt, Director of the Office of Energy and Information Technology of USAID. “In the health sector, electricity is essential for lighting hospital operating rooms, refrigerating vaccines, and running diagnostic equipment. In the education sector, electrification can extend the hours of study that students can devote to studying as well as the hours that a school can stay open. The first project is a solar electrification of the Kakuuto Hospital located in the Rakai District of Uganda where the AIDS epidemic was first identified. This installation enabled the medical staff to preserve vaccines and other medicines, as well as operate small medical equipment. A solar powered pumping system with two large storage tanks and 3.2 kilometers of piping supplies the hospital with pure water. Additionally, an SLA program is underway in Tanzania to provide the initial installation of 100 solar electric systems in rural health clinics, schools, and other public facilities. A formal commissioning ceremony was held at the Kakuuto Hospital on earlier this fall. United States Ambassador Jimmy Kolker, spoke at the ceremony. Kolker quoted from a study documenting the fact that the most effective technical intervention in providing measurable improvement in quality of life for rural people is the provision of electric power. Also present at the ceremony was Ugandan First Lady Janet Museveni, a patron of Solar Light for Africa. She and President Yoweri Museveni have long been enthusiastic friends of the work of SLA in Uganda. After completing the hospital project, SLA provided an American medical team to instruct the local doctors and nurses on how to operate the new medical equipment powered by solar. They also worked with the local staff in the treating of patients while there. SLA’s founder, Bishop Alden Hathaway, stressed that solar electrification in health clinics and hospitals has a key role to play in combating diseases, including HIV/AIDS. The ability to preserve vaccines and other medicines in refrigerators, as well as to operate medical equipment powered by solar, is of great benefit. The provision of good lighting at night enables the medical staff to better treat patients. To date, SLA has provided power and light to 1,500 facilities in rural regions of East Africa, including two large regional hospitals. It has decreased environmental and human degradation by providing a clean energy source, which eliminates the polluting toxic fumes of kerosene lanterns. It has aided in economic development by providing light at night for students to study and other activities, including micro-enterprise projects for increased productivity. In some instances, SLA has partnered with Discovery Channel to provide enough power for satellite link-up to facilitate young people’s access to the 21st century with educational programs and Internet connections. SLA also organizes annual cross-cultural mission trips, bringing together high school seniors and college-aged young people from the U.S. and East Africa for a two-three week hands-on experience of installing solar systems in rural public facilities. An American medical team also accompanies the group in order to work with local medical staffs at the health clinics and hospitals where solar power is provided.
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