In this installment of Digital Diversity, Gwen Kidera – Project Associate at S3IDF (Small Scale Sustainable Infrastructure Development Fund) – explains how their non-profit organisation provides underserved communities with Integrated Energy Centre carts (IECs) equipped with reliable solar powered lamps and mobile charging stations. Access to light and mobile technology improves the quality of life in these communities by allowing them to continue working after dark.
Digital Diversity is a series of blog posts from kiwanja.net featuring the many ways mobile phones and other appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. This article was curated by Gabrielle LePore, our Media and Research Assistant. You can follow Gabrielle on Twitter at @GabrielleLePore and kiwanja.net at @kiwanja
By Gwen Kidera
Solar lights switch on in the tents of nomadic North Indian residents as the sun sets over the Thanisandra slum in Bangalore, India. Men pick up their tools to carve drums, which serve as the community’s primary source of livelihood, and women crouch to cook supper as the smell of firewood permeates the thick night air.
Wahida, a resident in the camp, returns from the community-owned cart with a rented and freshly charged solar lamp. She hangs it in the centre of her tent above the heads of her six children and her husband who busily works on the ornate drum on his lap. She relaxes because the light allows her husband to work into the night carving drums that are sold to earn additional income, and her children keep safe from pests that would otherwise creep into the poorly lit area. Reliable and safe lighting was a luxury beyond the reach of most residents before the community-owned and operated Integrated Energy Centre (IEC) arrived.
In March 2013, SELCO Solar Pvt. Ltd. (SELCO India), an organisation whose mission is to improve the quality of life in underdeveloped communities through sustainable methods, worked with S3IDF to establish a waterproof and durable solar-powered IEC cart to provide lamps and mobile charging to 30 of approximately 80 households in Thanisandra. The nomadic community, which has been moving as a unit across the country for generations, can take the cart with them wherever they go, ensuring many years of reliable lighting. Once they pay off the initial capital costs of the cart, they can own it and lend the lamps to community members without cost.
Before the IEC, families spent a large portion of their earnings on black market kerosene which posed health hazards such as increased risk of burns and the release of unhealthy fumes. Now, families spend less than US$2.50 a month for up to eight hours of solar light each evening. In addition to the cart, SELCO India and S3IDF are exploring ways to connect the community’s drum production to viable markets, thereby increasing residents’ incomes.
A nomadic family sit in their tent and prepare dinner by the light of a rented solar lantern. (Photo by SELCO Solar Pvt. Ltd.)
The centre in Thanisandra is just one of 18 IECs under development across the state of Karnataka. Each centre is created based on a needs assessment and tailored to meet the community’s specific circumstances. Although the centres vary in services and business models, at heart they are all solar-powered community centres that provide the underserved with resources to which they otherwise would not have.
IECs are built within communities which are off the grid and lack access to electricity. They not only provide much needed energy but they also have the ability to supply useful products, such as solar lanterns, small appliances and tools, mobile charging, larger productive-use technologies – grain mixers and grinders – community TVs, cooling/heating systems, as well as resources for education, health, awareness and livelihood training.
IECs offer educational services including audio-visual aids to books, and computers to DVD players, and other basic literacy programs. The IECs can also improve public health by providing solar charging points for ultrasound devices, vaccine boxes and refrigeration for medicines. Other resources include ticket booking and printing, Internet services for obtaining identity cards and sending bill payments, and access to agricultural and trade-related information. As if that weren’t enough, IECS also offer community members the opportunity to enroll in vocational training programs, including classes on computers, sewing and fruit drying.
The people who benefit from the IECs run them, and they are designed to be operationally sustainable with revenue generated by the IECs covering all maintenance and operating costs.
The implementation of the IEC cart in Thanisandra improved the quality of life of the entire community. “Now we can easily make 20-30 more drums after dark, and I can even finish my quilting without letting my housework suffer”, Wahida explains. “It feels different since it’s the first time we have had the luxury to work like this.”
Wahida is hopeful for her future and that of her family and community. She would like to see an increase in demand for their drums, which could become a reality with SELCO India and S3IDF’s help.
When asked how the solar lights have changed her circumstances, she smiled and proudly stated, “With the light, even our tent starts looking like a palace, it makes us feel like our dreams can come true.”
Gwen began exploring the field of social entrepreneurship in 2009 while in South Africa on a field study program through the Social Enterprise Institute at Northeastern University. She assisted in giving business development support to local entrepreneurs from the townships around Cape Town over the course of two trips. She went on to study microfinance in Belize and work with a group of students to determine the effectiveness of a microfinance institute’s training programs and causes of default among Haitian borrowers in the Dominican Republic. She spent a summer working for the Clinton Health Access Initiative, and in 2011 worked in Meru, Kenya for the Miriam Kanana Mubichi Foundation where she taught health and art classes, advised a women’s textile company, researched malnutrition at the local hospital, and arranged school feeding programs.
In 2013, Gwen became a Project Associate at the S3IDF, a nonprofit organisation based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Members of the organisation work to reduce poverty in developing countries by supporting small scale enterprises that meet basic infrastructure needs and providing opportunities for economic advancement. She is an avid traveler and enjoys documenting her trips and getting to know the local culture through photography and blogging.
Digital Diversity is produced by Ken Banks, innovator, mentor, anthropologist, National Geographic Emerging Explorer and Founder of kiwanja.net, FrontlineSMS and Means of Exchange. He shares exciting stories in Digital Diversity about how mobile phones and appropriate technologies are being used throughout the world to improve, enrich, and empower billions of lives. You can follow him on Twitter @kiwanja