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Thursday, October 13, 2016

Lighting Up the Night in Uganda

Dave Campbell - RSM's 90-90-9
Pursue Your Passion Winner
I knew my trip to Bwibere Primary School would be a special one. I was getting the opportunity to see first-hand the completion of the lighting system, where a month before, there had only been candlelight or darkness. But I never could have imagined the feeling I experienced when walking through the school’s entrance on a sunny Saturday morning in July, being greeted by many of Bwibere’s 1,400 students dancing and singing, forming a type of runway into the center courtyard. The energy and excitement were contagious, and I, along with a few of the innovation:Africa team members, danced our way through the crowd to settle in for a full day of speeches, performances, ribbon cutting and demonstrations.

The sub-Saharan region of Africa includes the majority of the continent, and many of the countries within it struggle with poverty, disease, and a lack of clean water and electricity, resources that the developed world often takes for granted. Located in East Africa is Uganda, one of the poorest countries in the world and where roughly 20-percent of inhabitants have access to electricity. Much of that access is concentrated in Uganda’s urban areas, so for those in more rural areas, including the students of Bwibere, the only light comes from daylight, candles and kerosene lamps, which are expensive, often unsafe to operate, and harmful to the environment. The flat-wick type most often used can easily start a fire if broken or spilled, and the inefficiency of such lamps results in an incredible amount of carbon dioxide emissions for what is relatively an inadequate source of light.

It was this issue that got my attention, and when I became aware of RSM US LLP (“RSM”)’s 90-90-9-Puruse Your Passion program, I saw it as a way to get involved and make a real difference on whatever scale I could. The solution was solar power, which through incredible advancements in the technology has become more and more affordable and effective. The benefits are not limited to the reduced carbon emissions; because the capital requirements are so much lower than traditional fossil fuels, solar power is a near-perfect alternative in the developing world where the resources do not exist to build costly coal or nuclear plants. Incredible engineering efforts by a number of for-profit and non-profit organizations have driven the cost down to a competitive range, and the task now is to bring this technology to people in need.

After some initial research, it became evident that I would not be able to do this alone, due to the technical expertise required to install and test the system, as well as the logistics of identifying a community in need and getting the equipment on site. More importantly, for development efforts such as the one I had in mind to be successful and sustainable, there is a degree of ongoing monitoring required which I would not be able to accomplish from across the world. My research led to me to a fairly small but very impactful organization, innovation:Africa, which I was fortunate to find. The issue of improving electricity access is just one that the team at innovation:Africa is focused on, and with 124 solar, water and agricultural projects completed in seven different countries, I could not have found a better partner for my initiative. By the time I got in touch, the team had already identified Bwibere as a great candidate for such a project, and with the funding I was able to provide courtesy of RSM, we were able to provide solar-powered electricity to each of the school’s classrooms and dorm buildings.

One occasionally overlooked aspect of projects in the region, however, is how and whether the local community will be able to sustain the fixtures and technology (i.e., replacing batteries, repairing panels, etc.).  To that end, we spent much of the time at Bwibere meeting with faculty and administrators to teach the mechanics of the system and some basic troubleshooting. One advantage of the system: a portion of the energy generated by the solar panels mounted on the school’s roof feeds a cell phone charging station, which community members are welcome to use for a very small fee, which is collected by the school. The funds are used to pay for any equipment repairs or replacements.

Clearly this was an important project to me, but after spending time with the students and faculty at Bwibere, it became clear their excitement exceeded even mine, as we were treated to hours of a genuine outpouring of appreciation and gratitude. These students, some of them as young as five years old, so prized their educational opportunities that they viewed the newfound light not only as a convenience, but as a way of extending the number of hours per day that they could spend learning, and from the looks of it there was no better gift in the world. We returned on the evening of the first day to see the lights “in action.” What I did not expect was that every seat in the classroom would still be full at 8 p.m., and that I would walk into a room of students no less eager and excited than they were 12 hours earlier, making the most of their new tool. What was intended to be a quick tour turned into an hour-long geography and politics lesson, as I fielded questions about America from the curious and enthusiastic group. This was not something they would be taking for granted, and I was humbled by their boundless acknowledgement and appreciation. Days before, I was a short-tempered traveler, half-sleeping my way through a six-hour Amsterdam layover and wondering if it would all be worth it. No moment could have more effectively put everything in perspective for me.

After spending some time at Bwibere, I traveled for a few days with Robbs and David, two members of the innovation:Africa’s team, to a number of other past and potential project sites to get a sense of both the group’s capabilities and the immense needs of the region. The quantity and reach of the team’s projects are inspiring and impactful; but the needs remain extraordinary. To see first-hand the dirty and often diseased swamp water that many local residents use for everything from drinking to washing, it is clear there is a long way to go. But it is the innovation, generosity and capabilities of organizations such as innovation:Africa and that helped make my dream, and that of 1,400 students at Bwibere Primary School, a reality. Let’s not stop here.

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