Bringing solar power to Tanzania

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Most of us take electric light for granted. For the most part, we flick a switch and the light comes on. That's not the case in much of the world. The World's Jeb Sharp reports on the promise and challenge of bringing solar power to rural Tanzania where most people still don't have access to electricity.

JEB SHARP: I'm Jeb Sharp and this is The World. Most of us take electric light for granted. We might use candles during a blackout or flashlights on a camping trip, but for the most part, we flick a switch and the light comes on. That's not the case in much of the world. I saw that on a recent trip to Tanzania where most rural residents still don't have regular access to electricity.

STEPHEN CHIMALLO: Imagine if night is not light. Imagine if you want to study at home and it takes you like ages to find where the matchbox is because there is no light.

SHARP: Stephen Chimallo grew up in a small village in Tanzania.

CHIMALLO: Sometimes there's no matchbox so therefore there's nothing to light on your kerosene lamp. Imagine you're sick at night, you're bitten by a snake, it happens a lot in the villages, you're bitten by a scorpion. There's no light. You don't where you're bitten.

SHARP: Chimallo didn't experience the joys of electric light until he won a place at a Catholic boarding school as a teenager. He remembers being amazed just walking down the lighted corridors.

CHIMALLO: When you see the light, it's like oh my God, this is the world now. This is what's supposed to be there. This is what we really need.

SHARP: Electric light changes everything Chimallo says which is why he finds his job so satisfying. He works for SolarAid, a British NGO that installs solar powered electrical systems in schools and health centers across Tanzania. On this day, Chimallo and his American boss, Mason Huffine, are headed to the remote village of Idodi in the center of the country. It's miles from anything resembling an electrical grid. SolarAid is installing a new solar system at the village health center which will light the whole clinic. When they arrive, Huffine tells a medical assistant they're here to finish installing the new lights.

MASON HUFFINE: The technician is on his way and we brought the batteries so he's come to be able to do the maternity ward. We'll have one outlet we can use for a brighter light and for a suction machine.

TARCHISYA KIPANGULA: That would be awesome.

HUFFINE: That would be an answer, huh? Good.

KIPANGULA: That would be an answer.

SHARP: Tarchisya Kipangula has worked at this clinic for four years, four frustrating years because electricity has been intermittent. There was an old solar system but it broke and no one knew how to fix it. Kipangula says they've had to resort to flashlights on night shifts. It's hard to stitch wounds or find veins for injections and delivering babies is an ordeal.

KIPANGULA: Labor, they always come during the night for maternity so this also is difficult.

SHARP: Kipangula's cellphone which she charges at a village shop has a flashlight on it. She pops it into her mouth to show how she copes in the dark when she needs free hands. She mumbles through the phone to show how ridiculous it is.

KIPANGULA: It's very dangerous even for contamination.

SHARP: Dangerous because you're using the same pair of hands to touch patients and handle the cellphone and then putting that cellphone in your mouth.

KIPANGULA: But if there is light, you go on with the procedure without touching anywhere. After this, you wash your hands; you move out your gloves no problem. But with the darker, it's a very terrible situation.

SHARP: If practicing medicine in the dark sounds terrible, consider what happened just up the road at Idodi Secondary School. Students let off steam by playing volleyball outside the government-run boarding school. It's the sort of place where students can earn a ticket out of poverty if they do well on national exams. As a result, they work incredibly hard. They're in class most of the day and they return to their classrooms at night for more study. For years, the school lit those classrooms with a diesel generator. Now many of them are lit by a solar system provided by SolarAid. But until very recently, there was no electricity at all in the dormitories. That proved fatal says Mason Huffine.

HUFFINE: One of their brighter students was studying in the dormitory after midnight. As near as we can tell, she fell asleep with her candle in the bed. The mattresses are these super cheap foam mattresses and they ignite up and there's a wood ceiling in there and in literally 15 minutes, the entire place was engulfed in flames and 12 students perished.

SHARP: School officials won't let me talk to the students about last year's fire. But they can't make it go away. The graves of those who died are right next to the school. The tragedy spurred a national campaign to ensure safe lighting in all Tanzania schools. Candles and kerosene lamps are now banned here at Idodi. Instead, students share solar powered study lamps that have been donated to the school. Eighteen year old Leah Gawaza uses them to study at all hours.

LEAH GAWAZA: I get sleep for two hours and then I woke up again, studying for three hours, then sleeping until morning.

SHARP: Do you set your clock or do you wake up anyway?

GAWAZA: I just set my clock or if someone woke up, they can make me to wake up also. We sleep together, studying together.

SHARP: Leah's friend, Oliver Mwenda, says she's getting better grades now there are study lamps in the dorms.

OLIVER MWENDA: Especially mathematic subject. I was poor in performance because the time was not enough for studying mathematics in the class but when the light comes, I was spend most of the time in the dormitory for mathematics.

SHARP: Terrifying as it is, the risk of fire is not the only reason solar advocates want to wean Tanzanians off candles and kerosene. Kerosene is also notoriously dirty. It spews carbon into the atmosphere and clogs children's lungs with smoke and it eats up money that could be spent on better things.

HUFFINE: So our slogan is don't burn what you earn.

SHARP: Mason Huffine likes to point out to people like these students that if they invest in a little solar lamp, they'll have paid for it with what they spend on kerosene in a matter of 2 or 3 months. Huffine's not your typical aid worker. In another life, he was a contractor putting up green buildings in Seattle. That was before he rode his motorcycle around the world and ended up in East Africa. Now he's a development worker with a business sensibility.

HUFFINE: You know we're passionate people but you know, what makes this world go around is not passionate people; it's people who know how to make money. 1,500 schillings, yeah? That's like, that's like a dollar.

SHARP: Huffine is a born salesman and he sees Tanzania as a giant potential market for solar power. On his trips to and from villages like Idodi, he often stops by the side of the road to talk to people about solar.

HUFFINE: Now with one of these, you have a good light but no kerosene. But no smoke.

SHARP: His dream and a key part of SolarAid's strategy is to spur viable businesses selling small, affordable solar devices that power radios, phone chargers and desk lamps like the ones the students at Idodi are using. SolarAid even has its own franchise with the catchy name Sunny Money to market these products. Huffine hawks them wherever he goes.

HUFFINE: Like this one I think is 10,000 schillings. In one month you could buy it from the batteries you spend.

SHARP: His goal is not to sell products one by one. It's to identify shops and tap entrepreneurs who can serve as distribution hubs. Huffine says that's the big challenge, getting these things out to the people who need them in the villages. A crowd forms around Huffine's Land Rover. Huffine's colleague, Stephen Chimallo has a big smile on his face.

CHIMALLO: They're really excited; everybody's excited. Everybody wants to see, everybody wants to see everything so I can't get everything out of the car now.

SHARP: It's a hopeful time for solar in Tanzania. NGO's and businesses are making a big push to promote it. The government is helping by providing tax breaks and the economy is growing. And if global warming isn't enough, the tragedy at Idodi secondary school serves as a stark reminder of the benefits of clean, safe power. What's not clear yet is how long it will take for solar logic to prevail in what is still one of the poorest countries in the world.