Evans Wadongo

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Use solar, save lives

Key to the most successful design is simplicity; how do you solve a problem in a way that is cost effective, environmentally sustainable and easy to use? Evans Wadongo did just that when he developed his MwangaBora solar lamp, and this month we delve into exactly how his design has helped evolve rural energy consumption in Kenya…

According to the World Bank’s most recent data, only around 20% of Kenyan citizens have access to electricity and it is subsequently estimated that a third of the population rely on kerosene lanterns for their lighting needs.
This means that every evening across the country, thousands of Kenyan children sit down to do their homework by kerosene-powered light.

Using kerosene is not only expensive, meaning many families cannot afford to run the lamps for too long, but ineffective. The light provided by a kerosene lamp is dim and difficult to work by, impacting negatively on the education of children who rely on them.

Taking aside the economic and educational concerns, the smoke from the lamps is bad for the environment and bad for health. The United Nations Environmental Program says that in rural areas of Kenya more women die of smoke-related illnesses than they do of tuberculosis and malaria and the chemical agents in kerosene lamps have been linked with health issues ranging from cancer to respiratory illnesses.

One man who is addressing this issue is Evans Wadongo, the 29-year-old entrepreneur from the West of Kenya. Growing up in a rural community to teacher parents, Wadongo walked 10 km a day to go to school and experienced first-hand the difficulties of a lack of clean energy at home.

Wadongo graduated from his high school with top marks and was amongst the top 100 best students for 2002 in Kenya’s Certificate of Secondary Education exams and went on to complete a Bachelor of Science degree in Electronics and Computer Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.
While at university, Wadongo was actively involved in charitable volunteering and realised that he wanted to use his talents to address issues in rural communities like the one he grew up in.

“I wanted to create something – a simple design,” explained Wadongo in a Design Indaba interview. “I could read in the media and watch television and see very sophisticated solutions coming up to solve energy problems, but they were not really relevant to us, were not really trickling down. So, in my first year I decided to create a simple design for a solar lamp called MwangaBora.”

MwangaBora is a Swahili word meaning “good light”, and Wadongo wanted to create something that would be easy to construct and use, naming the entire project ‘Use solar, Save Lives’. The lamp is made from over 50% recycled materials and sells for around $25 through the non-profit Wadongo founded in 2006 called Sustainable Development For All – Kenya (SDFA-Kenya).

SDFA-Kenya operates throughout all regions of the country delivering the ‘Use Solar, Save Lives’ initiative and has directly influenced the lives of thousands of Kenyans.
“We have versions which have a USB port for charging mobile phones – simplicity is key for me in design,” explained Wadongo of the project. But, the young entrepreneur is not satisfied with just one solution – he wants his innovation to provide solutions to as many issues as it can.

“We have been able to train over 1,000 youth to make the MwangaBora solar lamps and we specifically target youths who have dropped out of school because of poverty issues,” explains Wadongo. “Then we work with women in their own communities. We train them on micro-entrepreneurship and support them to start saving the money they would have otherwise spent on kerosene, and by using those savings they are able to create businesses. We are able to leave them with skills and a way to earn a living every day.”

Wadongo’s work is very much centred on creating a design that solves socio-economic issues. Not only does the design address the issues countered above, but having a good source of light at home means that the children of families with a MwangaBora lamp can study properly for school and fulfil their own potential for achieving great things as Wadongo has. The entrepreneur’s invention is a direct example of how access to reliable, clean energy has a direct effect on a range of important areas of progression.

Wadongo has received international recognition for his innovative design and successful implementation. He was voted one of CNN’s top 10 heroes of 2010 and was awarded ‘Social Entrepreneur of the Year’ by the Schwab Foundation in 2011.

The entrepreneur is expanding his efforts beyond Kenya to Malawi and other surrounding countries and co-founded GreenWize Energy Ltd in 2013, a for-profit social enterprise that designs and implements renewable energy solutions.

In much the same way that mobile communications leap-frogged the slower progression of landline and cable infrastructure in Africa, it is expected that local, sustainable means of power production will outpace the slower improvements in state energy infrastructure on the African continent – and it is innovators and entrepreneurs like Wadongo that are driving this change. Wadongo was torchbearer for Kenya in the 2012 London Olympic Torch Relay, and is torchbearer for a new wave of energy entrepreneurs in the African continent.

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