Mark and Ben getting support from the CWS team in
It has been a very busy quarter for Community Water Solutions for one very exciting reason: we have officially launched our new solar program! Around this time last year, CWS announced the kick-off of a Social Enterprise Competition at our annual benefit; an opportunity to bring new and innovative solutions to rural communities in Ghana and to expand the CWS model and brand to more than clean water.
After interactive workshops and valuable mentorship sessions, two of our Fellow Alumni, Ben Powell and Mark Moeremans decided to team up, bringing together a diverse set of skills and knowledge. And while there are a plethora of challenges and opportunities facing the people of Northern Ghana, the duo decided they could make a difference in the region’s lack of electric power, which results in poor health, limited education, decreased productivity, and traps the region’s people in poverty.
The team – also known as InnovaSun, proposed an entrepreneurial solar power business that leverages several of the ideas of CWS’s successful water business model – providing demand to a community in the form of rechargeable lanterns and charging individuals to recharge their appliances. The team went on to win the competition and the $10,000 prize as seed money to turn their idea into reality.
This October, the InnovaSun team travelled back to Ghana to pilot their idea in the village of Wambong. After weeks of building, training, and testing the solar business officially opened on Halloween! Below is the blog post that Ben and Mark wrote for the CWS blog about opening day. So far the solar business has been a huge success and we are excited to pilot the system in more villages this spring!
With the women trained and the solar equipment in place, it was almost time to open our Solar Center. Before the big opening party could take place, we just needed to distribute the rechargeable lanterns to all of the households and add some finishing touches to the façade of our solar center.
When we had first arrived in the community we asked the village elders to provide us with a list of households in the village so we could have an exact count for lantern distribution. Each household is basically a small compound with about 6 or 7 separate huts all in an enclosed wall. Compounds consist of a man, his wives, and their children, and sometimes their elderly parents. We had been planning on approximately 60 households based on Ben’s water implementation in Wambong three year ago, so we decided to be prudent and order 75 lanterns for the village. When we finally received the new household list we realized that Wambong had grown to over 120 households, more than double what we had planned for. Luckily, when we went to pick up our shipment of lanterns the store had more than enough in stock. We were definitely relieved to know that we would have enough lanterns for everyone and excited and humbled by the idea that we would be providing access to electricity for over 1000 people.
Distributing lanterns was exhilarating. The town assemblyman had already gathered a large group in the town center in anticipation of our arrival and when we pulled up in our taxi they started making announcements via the Mosque loud speaker which is usually used to broadcast prayers. Before long we were surrounded by people and we felt confident that we had representatives from all the households present. We took the opportunity to speak to the community at large about the solar center and how it important it was that the community work together to keep it safe. We discussed prices for charging, and taught them how to take care of the lanterns. Once we were confident that the community understood the importance of the center we began listing off household names and handing out lamps. The look of excitement and gratitude on people’s faces when they received their lantern had me grinning from ear to ear and just got me all the more excited for the opening party that night. Once all the lanterns were passed out, we returned our attention to the solar center and gave it a face-lift. Ben and I used what little artistic ability we had between us to give the building a paint job that Picasso would have been proud of.
With everything set and ready to go we headed back to the CWS office to catch a breather before the opening that night. We had decided to break from the CWS tradition of having an Opening “Day” and traded it for the first ever Opening “Night” hoping that the addition of lanterns and electricity to the village would make for a lively and well-lit party. So we set off around 6:30 with no idea what to expect, fingers crossed and holding our breath in anticipation.
We were anxious but quickly put at ease thanks to the support and company of the full CWS team including Brianan, Peter, Amin, Wahab, Eric, and of course Shak as they decided to come out and partake in InnovaSun’s first ever launch party.
As we pulled into the village we were mesmerized, the whole village had a soft glow to it, or as one our translators suggested, “the village is blinking!” From the center of every household a soft light was floating up into the pitch-black sky, we knew something was working. We headed toward the town center and made our way to the Solar Center, connecting several power strips to allow for mass charging, hitting the on switch, and officially declaring the center open for business! Slowly people started making their way toward the center, first in the dark, then with flashlights, and finally carrying the lanterns we had distributed that morning. What was a trickle quickly turned into a flood of people as the center was surrounded by people wanting to get a first hand look and start charging their electronics.
Within minutes all 48 sockets were in use and charging a combination of cell phone and lanterns. Salima and Chang Chang were rockstars, quickly connecting all the appliances, adding up the total watts being used to make sure the system wasn’t overloaded, and most importantly keeping their cool among hoards of people – something I was struggling with.
More and more people continued to materialize each face more excited than the last. Some were holding lanterns and some just basking in the glow of their neighbors. I felt elated and totally overwhelmed, trying to make sure the center was working (it was), that people were having fun (they were) and that we were getting awesome pictures (we did). The community was enthralled, asking for photos, passing around lanterns, and pushing to the front of the crowd to see the solar center in action. They even organized most of the community in the center of town for a group photo, an unheard of accomplishment that took 5 different translators to coordinate.
As if lights and cell phones weren’t enough it wasn’t long before a pair of massive speakers appeared and started blasting some serious club music. Don’t ask me how or why this village, which previously had no electricity, has speakers taller than I am (clocking in at 6’3) but Wambong was bumping.
I kept wondering if we were going to get a noise complaint from the neighbors and then quickly laughed at my own stupidity. Ben and I had been wondering this whole week how quickly people would start making the electricity their own and branching out from lanterns and phones, well once the speakers were plugged in, it wasn’t long before someone else was siphoning off electricity and had plugged in a black light above the “DJ” booth. Seriously I felt like I was in a New York nightclub.
After 3 hours of pure euphoria, we decided to start winding things down. We took a ton of photos, made sure the center was in good hands and locked up, and started to head out. The village spokesperson continued to thank us, praising God for our help. It was one of the most unbelievable nights.
Seeing all of our planning, preparation, and hard work pay off, seeing the joy on everyone’s face, feeling accomplished and successful, and realizing what an impact we had had on this community. Indescribable. Ben and I couldn’t sleep last night, because we were too wired (pun intended) and even this morning I’m having trouble comprehending the magnitude of the moment and what it even means to me. All I know is I can’t wait to get back to Wambong and see how it’s going. I feel like a parent after their last child has grown up and gone off to college – empty nest syndrome for sure. I’ll just have to be patient and wait till tomorrow when we begin monitoring. I’m sure there is still lots of work to do, but I’ll be enjoying this day for a long long time.
Boy in Wambong with his new latern
Group photo of the village with their new laterns
The solar center in action!