The solar lanterns this Liberian nonprofit distributed weren’t being used. The question it needed to answer was why.
Dr. LeRoy Boikai grew up in Liberia and founded the Village Improvement Project to enhance the quality of life in Liberian villages. How does VIP make good on its mission? For starters, they Listen, Act, Learn. Repeat.
Many families in rural Liberia rely on dangerous and unreliable kerosine lamps, and VIP distributes safe solar lanterns for free to address the problem. When VIP received a GlobalGiving grant to distribute 500+ new lanterns to Liberian families, their team worked with GlobalGiving to first get feedback from past lantern recipients before giving out more lanterns.
“We didn’t want to give them the lanterns one time and then turn our backs. We want to continue to hear back from the communities,” Dr. Boikai said.
Most of VIP-supported families don’t have phones or computers, so in-person conversations turned out to the most effective feedback option for VIP. The lanterns weren’t being used at all. The villagers said they weren’t even turning on. VIP staff discovered the lanterns weren’t broken after all; they just needed to be charged. This was VIP’s chance to act.
The VIP team started training the villagers on how to use the solar lanterns and made sure that no maintenance issues went unanswered. “We are regularly going back to find out if there are any maintenance issues. If we do find some, like when people are failing the charge their lanterns and think it’s broken, we send our field operators back to re-educate them,” Dr. Boikai said.
Not only did VIP make sure no maintenance issue went unanswered, but they acted on all feedback they received. The in-person interviews about the lanterns also highlighted a different need: access to a water well. Although the VIP team was not prepared to help build a well themselves, they knew they had to do something. So, they began partnering with other organizations to build wells in the village. Dr. Boikai and the VIP team learned that any insight you can gain for the community is important even if it’s not want you intended to find.
VIP continues to seek feedback as a regular stage in all of its projects. “One of the challenges is thinking you know what someone wants for themselves. It is really important to have people tell you what they want,” he said. “If you are not providing what they need, the value may not be as high for them or they may not use it at all.”
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Featured Photo: Solar Lanterns for 1,000 Village Homes in Liberia by Village Improvement Project