Solar lamps are forever positively changing the lives of Africa, particularly those living in Rwanda. Let there be light. This sentiment, often attributed to the deities or pioneers in the fields of electricity and light bulbs, or perhaps the first humans to discover fire (more grunting than verbal vocalizations, most likely), signifies that light shall cast the darkness aside. In Rwanda, some folks with solar lamps and some very good ideas have literally made this possible for people in need. And by doing so, they’ve helped fellow human beings save money for food, reduced the need for unhealthy fuel sources and made life safer for women and others who have to move about at night.
Working with United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) offices in Geneva and Rwanda, Global BrightLight Foundation and partner Great Lakes Energy, have transformed life in the Kiziba Refugee Camp with solar lamps — and they’ve made a wonderful film about the project as well, which you can watch below.
Joe Hale, from Global BrightLight Foundation, recently took some time to talk to TheBlot Magazine about the solar lamp project and how it has helped improve the lives of the people who call the Kiziba Refugee Camp home.
Carl Pettit: What benefits — expected or a surprise — have you discovered since the project got off the ground?
Joe Hale: We expected the refugees to appreciate the lamp, but we didn’t expect them to value it as much as they do. We’ve seen a sell-on rate of less than 1 percent. When selected families are being resettled in the U.S., they’re returning their lamp to the camp administration, saying that those staying behind should use the lamp. This is a powerful anecdote because these families usually sell everything they can before traveling to the U.S.
What were some of the biggest hurdles encountered when starting the project?
Refugee camps are complex environments. Working there requires coordination with multiple parties. The implementation of this project required coordination with, and approval from, UNHCR’s field office, UNHCR’s Rwanda Headquarters, UNHCR Geneva Headquarters, the Rwandan government’s ministry for refugees, and the American Refugee Committee. All parties gave us full support and much appreciated guidance.
Great Lakes Energy, our partner in Rwanda, did a great job handling the coordination.
What made you choose the Kiziba Refugee Camp for your initial tests?
When I was driving to our project site in southern Rwanda, I drove by a newly built refugee camp, recently populated with an influx of Congolese fleeing the most recent violence in their home communities. Seeing this camp inspired me to explore the possibility of providing lamps to a camp.
When we approached UNHCR with this concept, they directed us to Kiziba camp. Kiziba was the largest camp at the time and is the oldest in Rwanda. Kiziba camp has 16,400 people and was opened in 1996.
Distributing solar lanterns in a refugee camp was not our original business model. However, after seeing the incredible need in the camp, we developed a “sweat equity” approach to lantern distribution there, where recipients traded “community service” in the form of participation in a tree reforestation project, in exchange for their solar lantern.
How can ordinary people get involved?
We’re trying to raise enough funds to implement this same program in the other four refugee camps in Rwanda. There are roughly 12,500 more families living in camps in Rwanda, selling their precious food rations to buy unhealthy kerosene and candles.
This situation reminds us of a quote from Thomas Edison, soon after inventing his famous light bulb: “We will make electricity so cheap that only the rich will burn candles.”
That Edison’s prediction is not the reality today demonstrates that the energy balance in this world is tilted against those in need. The worse off a community is, the more they pay for energy. The refugees in Rwanda are examples of this imbalance: They subsist off of cornmeal rations, measured out to the precise calories of nutrients each family requires to stay above malnourishment. They’re forced to sell portions of these rations only to have a little light, and the light they get in exchange is dim and emits harmful fumes. They deserve better.
You can help us raise the funds we need to distribute Sun King lights to the other camps in Rwanda by visiting www.globalbrightlight.org and donating — and by spreading the word. A Sun King lamp that emits 75 lumens of light for seven hours per night and charges a phone for a refugee family costs only $24. Every little bit we raise helps. The lamps have a two-year warranty, so we can all be assured that we’re providing a quality solution.
Carl Pettit is a contributing journalist for TheBlot Magazine.