When Evans Wadongo was a schoolboy in a rural village in Kenya, he'd study for exams by the light of kerosene and firewood. The smoke and poor lighting made it difficult to finish his homework and irritated his eyes.
But you know that old cliché: "Necessity is the mother of invention." That's the story of Evans Wadongo. In 2004, at age 19, he designed a portable, solar-charged LED lamp. He calls the lamps "MwangaBora" – Swahili for "good light."
With guidance from the nonprofit Sustainable Development for All, Wadongo began distributing these lamps to villages in Kenya in 2006. Just three years later, he became executive director of the organization, which has given more than 50,000 MwangaBora lamps to people in Kenya and Malawi and will soon expand to sub-Saharan Africa.
Each lamp costs $25. The making and distribution are funded by donations from individuals, corporations and foundations, as well as proceeds from Greenwize Energy and funds received from community groups when they pay for subsequent lamps after setting up businesses.
Wadongo is currently a fellow with the Aspen Institute's New Voices Fellowship, a program that spotlights emerging global development leaders.
Goats and Soda spoke with Wadongo about his thoughts on using technology and social media to foster global development.
How'd you get the idea for the lamps?
I was doing experiments with LED lights, and then I thought "OK, I can use this energy to create something useful and simple." I decided to create the lamp from scrap metal. I looked for broken pieces of solar panels. And really that was how I came up with the first lamp.
Had you tried designing products before this one?
I always liked technology, but I also wanted to be able to use technology to solve problems. I always had these questions in the back of my mind: How can we use technology to help people have more food, to help people have more access to do more lighting, to help people improve their health? For example, [my organization] trains youth how make these solar lamps but also allows them to use the [office] space to create others things they can sell to make a living. We also distribute the solar lamps to communities, to women groups.
Why work with youth and women groups in particular?
The pillars of our community are youth and women. There's a huge population of unemployed youth, especially in Africa. Women are generally more organized already, some of them have groups where they meet and discuss issues. But they lack the capacity, support and financing to really improve their lives. So when we give the lamps to the women, we even go further and train them on micro-entrepreneurship. We equip them with skills on how they can run a business. The majority of households spend about 40 percent of daily income on kerosene, so when we replace these kerosene lamps with the solar lamps it means women have more money for themselves. They put that together into a group account and after a couple of months they use that as capital to invest in a business.
"Empowerment" is a word often used in development discussions, especially in regard to women. How do you define empowerment?
The act of enabling people to improve their own conditions — to improve themselves as human beings. When we provide skills to them and then give them that opportunity to earn their own income, that's transformational. They control their own destiny.
How did you get local communities involved in your project?
We talk to the community leaders so that everybody understands the benefits, the impact, and the objective. Once we start working, we never abandon them. That is really critical in making sure that solutions trickle down to common people. Also, we allow the design of the lamp to be changed. We are not saying, "This is the kind of lamp you should make."
Have the communities changed the design of the lamp?
The youths [making the lamp] continually change part[s] of the design. What we are keen on is keeping the high-quality LED because we don't want low-quality lighting. But everything else can be changed. Some communities want a port for charging mobile phones [in the lamp], some [add] small radios because they want access to information.
You said in a previous interview that the impact of what you do is not in the number of lamps you distribute but "how many lives we can change." Can you share a story?
Yes, in one particular community in Kenya affected by HIV/AIDS, there was a young lady, Sarah. She had dropped out of school to take care of her younger siblings because her parents had passed away. She was really struggling because she didn't have a job. She didn't own land because of land rights, she didn't have anything. So she joined one of the centers we set up to provide skills. She really liked drawing, so we provided her with materials, and she started coming up with really, really good drawings. She sold the drawings and was able to support her siblings back in school. She even went back to school, and graduated from high school last year. Now she is getting income and wants to go to college.
You're active on Twitter. What do you think of social media as a platform to engage with ideas about development?
It's good for the conversation, but it's also important to move the conversation beyond the social media. The idea, for example, of people sitting in Silicon Valley and coming up with solutions and products and saying, "This is intended for some poor people in a village in Africa," that kind of mentality needs changing.
How can we bring the voices from Africa to Silicon Valley?
Development practitioners need to take those proposals back to communities and ask for feedback. I often talk to kids in schools, go to colleges and conferences.
You're in the process of developing a new online platform, Fail-2-Bounce, for people to share their experiences with entrepreneurship. How will this product be different than existing social media, like Twitter and Facebook?
Those platforms are OK, but they don't allow people to put in feedback in a structured way on a particular issue. Also, the stories we share are mostly about accomplishments, but rarely do we share failures. I want a platform exclusively for people to share things that they've tried, so it can make people — especially young people — realize that it's OK to fail. Eventually there will be gatherings around cities where people can talk about how they failed and say, "What if we collaborated, would it have been better?"
You were 19 when you came up with the lamp design. Any advice for a young entrepreneur?
You have to have passion [for] what you want to do. Of course you'll have obstacles. But once you have that passion and that goal you want to achieve, you'll find the means to do it.
Sometimes it's important to start doing something so that people can see the results and believe in you, so they become ambassadors of your work. Human beings are naturally very skeptical. People won't believe at the time, but if you start making something, people will start believing.
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