Working again with Alein Ein, the Myanmar NGO that helps communities recover from the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, Solar Roots went to a community in the north west of the Ayerwaddy Delta, near Pathein. This was a village called Kandaw and the population belongs to the Pwo Karen group. Although not badly damaged during Nargis, the people of Kandaw stand out as having started one of the most successful savings group in the Delta area. What is a "savings group"? Well, we've all heard of the very popular micro lending schemes, where villagers can borrow small amounts of money at low rates of interest to start a small enterprise. However, in the usual model, this money comes from outside the community and the interest generated goes back to the big city, where the bank is located. Alein Ein have pioneered a new model where the community sets up a savings group and members contribute a small amount each month. But with 100 members, as in Kandaw, the saved amount accumulates quickly, and is soon ready to be lent out to a group member. Alein Ein has used this savings group concept to great effect in fostering community building in the areas devastated by Cyclone Nargis.
The villagers of Kandaw are rice farmers and proud of the Pwo Karen culture and language. They even have a few motorbikes in the village - but almost no-one had electric lights or phone charging capacity. Alein Ein invited us to come to the village to give a 2-day solar training and I saw this as an ideal opportunity to test out some of the new small solar home systems. Previously, we had introduced systems where the recipient had an LED light and a battery, but had to take the battery to a central charging station twice a week. The new systems we introduced at Kandaw are self contained units which include 2 LED lights, a USB phone charging port, a charge controller, a battery and a solar panel, all designed to work together. One model, from China, cost around $36 and another, larger system, built in Myanmar, cost $55. We brought six of the Chinese and four of the Myanmar systems. I like to support local enterprises where I can and I suspect that the Myanmar system will be more popular, as it is more powerful and can be repaired locally.
I had two volunteers from UC Berkeley with me and the villagers treated us all like loyalty. We were given meat at every meal, which I am sure the villagers only eat occasionally, when no guests are around. The Pwo Karen are Buddhist, in contrast to their cousins, the Sgaw Karen who live in the mountains near the Thai border and are Christian. To a greater degree, the Pwo Karen have been able to hold on to their culture and language, since they have been less affected by outside influences. We were treated to a two hour presentation of their traditional dances, with all the young folk dressed up in traditional costumes. We were also presented with Karen tunics for MIchael and myself and a dress for Lisa. It was humbling to be treated so well by people who have so little.
I did my usual 2-day solar training, explaining the basics of photovoltaics and emphasizing the need to carefully manage the usage of the system during the rainy season, when the available sunlight is much reduced. In point of fact, it was rainy season when we were there - extremely hot with violent daily rainstorms. I will be very interested to revisit Kandaw, to check up on the performance of these solar home systems and see if they really hold up in the rigors of the tropical climate. It will be a delight to check in again with the good friends we made during our first visit to the good folks of Kandaw.
Please let me know if you like the work that Solar Roots is doing. Your feedback and continued support is what makes this work possible. Thank you, Bruce.
In June 2014 Solar Roots went down to the Bogalay region of Lower Burma to install a solar system for the Mangrove Services Network. I was accompanied by two students from UC Berkeley, who had come to work with Solar Roots as volunteers. Arriving at Bogalay township, we made last minute puchases of materials before setting off by boat to Mangrove Island, which is located 45 minutes south of town, in the middle of the Bogalay River.
The island is about 30 acres in extent, but only 2 acres are actually solid ground above water level, and those were created by bringing in sand and tamping it into place! The rest of the island is made up of mangrove forest, some of it planted by Mangrove Service Network (MSN) to select the best species for re-establishing the native trees. Mangroves have been devastated in recent years, by people establishing shrimp farms and converting the trees into charcoal for the urban market. MSN labors mightily to replant the mangroves and help local people develop alternative sources of livelihood. Here is their website:http://mangroveservicenetwork.org/.
MSN uses the island as a research center and training facility, holding about a dozen trainings per year. Before we arrived, power was provided by a large diesel generator, which was extremely expensive to operate, due to the remoteness of the site. I proposed to MSN that we install a hybrid solar/ generator system, so that they would always have sufficient power, particularly when there was a long training or in the middle of rainy season. During our time on the island, rainy season was just beginning, and daily downpours with thunder and lightining were the norm. At the end of the work day, we three Solar Roots folks would bathe in the river, often in lashing rain and keeping an eye out for roving crocodiles!
With the two permanent staff who live on the island and maintain the facility, plus several other MSN staff, we installed 4 x 80W solar panels, a 150Ahr battery and a 1,500W inverter. The installation included one of my favorite solar devices, which is a manual tracker that allows the user to turn the panels by hand, following the sun during the day. This can add another 20-30% of solar production which is especially useful during rainy season. The solar system will provide enough power for lights, water pump and the occasional video during the seven months of dry season, but should be supplemented by the generator during the rainy season.
After four days of cooperative work between the locals and the Solar Roots team, we had installed a robust system that should provide power in all seasons. I'm sure I will return to work with MSN - they have an interesting rice husk-burning kiln that is used to fire their ceramic stoves at another livelihood project. However, I'll try to schedule it outside of rainy season!
Through a mutual friend, I met U Ye, a well known activist for people with disabilities in the Mandalay area. When he learned that I gave solar trainings, he immediately requested one for a special group, principally made up of people with disabilities.It is a testament to U Ye's organizing abilities that he was able to bring 25 people from Mandalay and Mogok to Pyin Oo Lwin and to house them and feed them for the 5 days of the PV solar course. U Ye himself is disabled, but this does not affect his tireless work on behalf of disadvantaged people.
AUNG MYINT (*)
As usual, I needed a translator, and Seya Peter, the Director of the Lisu Theologiocal Seminary and fervent organic gardening activist, was kind enough to fill that role for the first two days. When Peter left to teach an organic class elsewhere, one of the participants volunteered to translate, this was Aung Myint. Due to his disability, he lived at home with his parents in a small village near Shwebo and despite his Bachelor's degree in Physics, he was unable to find a job of any kind. In Burma, people with disabilities find it almost impossible to secure employment, even if they are very qualified.
Aung Myint did a good job on the translating and he was obviously so very motivated to to find employment that I determined to help him in that search. I had previously visited the "School for the Needy Blind", located in a monastery on the edge of Pyin Oo Lwin and I thought that might be a place that could use Aung Myint's talents. After a short interview with the Abbot and founder of the monatery, it was agreed that Aung Myint would take on the position of Teacher of English and Physics. I agreed to pay his salary, $100 per month, for the first year and then we would see. Aung Myint was transformed - this was his first job, his first salary, and it gave him a way to be independent of his parents and even send back part of his salary to them. The latest report is that Aung Myint is very happy in his new position and I'm hoping he will find useful the book on Physics I have bought to give to in December.
Several of our participants needed wheelchairs to move around on and one of them had actually installed a battery propulsion system that worked reasonably well. He had put together the battey, charger, controller and motor from parts that were made for an electric bicycle. This demonstration creativity and technical ability inspired me to commit to a project to electrify the wheel chairs of the disabled in Mandalay and Mogok. U Ye wants each wheelchair to have it's own onboard solar charging set up. We will see what can be done, as solar panels are large and their power output is low.
After studying hard, six hours a day, for five days, the participants were given Certificates of Completion. Everyone was delighted with the class and promised "never to forget their solar teacher". Burmese people are very respectful towards teachers and older people, so I reap great rewards on both counts!
(*) Aung Myint is an invented name to protect the identity of this recipient
Earlier this year Solar Roots was invited to come to Kayamyo in western Sagaing Region to install a solar system at Emmanuel Orphanage Center. The Center was founded 3 years ago by Pastor Joel and he runs it with his wife and his parents. There are many orphaned kids up in the border area close to India and Joel hopes to be able to take in more and more as time goes on.Right now they are constrained by lack of funding. Previous to our arrival, the Orphanage depended on power supplied by a local generator, who charged $2 per month per light, for only 2 hours of service per day. Kayalmyo, being a remote border town, is not well supported by the central government, especially in the area of energy. There are no official gas stations and all fuel is sold on the black market from small roadside vendors. Since the government doesn't offer regular electricity supply, almost every second house has a solar system - the highest market penetration for solar I had ever seen in Burma. So it was a breeze to pick up the 300Watt panel, a great solar battery from India and all the parts we needed, including 18 LED lights, that fairly lit the place up.
I am still in Burma and the internet is too slow to upload photos, so to see some images and to read a Blog written by Hamish Lee, our New Zealand voluteer, place go to this link: http://leesmission.blogspot.com/
Thank you for your continued support,
The following is a postcard from Charissa Murphy, GlobalGiving's In-the-Field Representative in Southeast Asia, about her recent visit to Solar Roots in Myanmar.
Lights. Energy. Heat. Hot water. Cooked food. Clean water. Critical thinking. Preventive maintenance. Knowledge sharing. Experimentation. Community advancement. Sustainability. These are just some of the resulting benefits of the trainings that Solar Roots provides to the communities within Burma, focusing on community sustainability.
Enthusiastic to learn, the 20 participants (monks, monastic teachers, and a few local residents) joined together for a 10 day training with Solar Roots on clay oven building and Photovoltaic solar panel training at a monastery in Taunggyi, the capital of the Shan State. Bruce, the founder of Solar Roots, highlighted that the enthusiasm in Myanmar to learn is incredibly inspiring. Koh So, an environmental activist and local resident of Taunggyi, really exemplified the motivation within the community to not only learn and experiment, but to also share that knowledge with others too! He really took a lead in building and experimenting with both the clay oven and the solar energy trainings. Koh So also supported Bruce by translating for the others and building connections to what Bruce taught so that everyone understood well and was involved. It's uplifting to see how involved they were!
The participants learned to build a rocket stove, which is essentially an L-shaped oven with a chimney where wood is fed in from the bottom of the wood. The stove that Bruce introduced burns wood more efficiently, produces less smoke, and creates a very strong amount of heat. All of the materials used were locally sourced (from the earth and from local product stores).
Bruce focuses on teaching installation, preventive maintenance, and repairs. Preventive maintenance is sometimes a difficult concept to grasp in a culture that generally fixes things only when they break. To understand this, it's important to know that the education system in Myanmar is very restrictive. Freedom of thought and critical thinking are not taught. Instead, students in Myanmar are required to memorize throughout their education years, which in turn does not teach preventative monitoring. This is a reality that will change with continued opportunities such as Solar Roots' trainings, giving these eager learners practical, hands-on experience to implement the ideas they are taught and to continue sharing the knowledge to build sustainability within their communities.
The training was a tremendous success, and Bruce looks forward to regular updates from the monks and the community members who participated to see how they're sharing and implementing the knowledge they gained! Though the challenges within Myanmar are plenty, Solar Roots is commited to helping to empower the communities that it reaches to know that there are alternatives and to provide the tools to implement and teach those applications.
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