Halfway there and making steady progress
We’re half way into the trek and right on pace: 22 of the 40 suitcases installed so far. Our teams have crossed the country, starting in Banjul, on the West coast on Wednesday, and today we rowed our Solar Suitcases across the river to install in the remote Eastern Wuli District. We started up this morning loading up our usual car with Solar Suitcases, then drove to the ford where we carried our Suitcases, tools and ladders into little canoe-y boats and got rowed across. We had coordinated with another government vehicle to pick us up on the other side, so we loaded up our new pickup and headed off down the worst roads we have hit yet.
The extraordinary number of lives that will be touched by this project is undeniable. The suitcases have been trekked into some of the poorest and most remote regions of the country. It’s hard to predict when reliable electricity will come to many of these communities because the roads we have driven to reach them are, quite frankly, absolutely ridiculous. We jaunce, we jerk, we silently contain our surprise that the car continues to function. After wearing new tracks off to the sides of the road to avoid potholes, people have actually started reverting back to the road’s original tire ruts, because at least now the original potholes aren’t likely to bottom out your car. I don’t even know how to convey the quality of these roads. I’m amazed this car survived some of these road hazards. But we got where we were going and did some good installations!
Not that many people out here are used to driving cars. Living out here, however, in isolated villages comprised heavily of mud brick huts, thatched roofs, and crude fences of lashed-together sticks, only makes the people we meet all that much more appreciative of the Suitcases, and what they represent. The simple lights themselves are game changers, and alone they will save lives of mothers and babies delivered at night: they carry with them the hope that will allow the health center staff to save even more lives. The Suitcases are a much needed reminder that these struggling remote clinics have not been forgotten, not by the rest of the world, not by their government, not by the Gambian Ministry of Health.
Power Up Gambia is proud to be a supporting partner of this Ministry of Health initiative, providing advice and fiscal support to a Ministry project. That is key to the prolonged success of the Solar Suitcases: now they belong to the Ministry; now there are Ministry technicians with the knowledge and means and pride in the project to come service them; now Ministry administration has the experience they need to get and deploy more suitcases. Working on this project has also taught me to think about all sorts of ideas I had never considered, especially not in the NGO context..This Solar Suitcase project is set up specifically so we are supporting the efforts of the Ministry of Health, not just coming in and putting down some solar panels and leaving. It gives the Gambians a sense of ownership of the project, and more importantly, organically creates the internal structure to keep up and continue to expand the systems.
Doing it like this may be the slow way, but letting the whole project go from start to finish through the Gambian bureaucracy means they know exactly what’s out there. They have technicians who know how to fix it. And they know the process and the structure necessary to finance, get, and install another load of solar suitcases in the future. A survey by a UN technical project found that in many developing countries, 75% of all solar energy systems donated by non-profits fail in two to four years. If the solar systems are left unserviced and unsupported, the good intentions of the donors achieve no sustainable results. For these projects to work, there needs to be this sustainability and infrastructure in place to keep the units operational. Power Up Gambia will be helping set up a maintenance fund for the solar suitcases and will be coordinating closely with the Ministry of Health to make sure these units – all of these units – stay functional well into the future.