By Mani Joseph
Mwangabora solar lamps have changed the lives of countless people in rural Kenya. A cleaner, cheaper and even healthier alternative to traditional forms of lighting, they hold the key to improving education and reducing poverty and hunger. As Evans Wadongo, the innovator responsible for the solar lamps, put it, “These families are so poor. They don’t have electricity. It’s only kerosene and firewood they use for lighting and cooking. The amount of money that every household uses to buy kerosene every day – if they could just save that money, they can be able to buy food.”
Born in rural western Kenya, the youngest of five brothers, Evans experienced firsthand how vital proper lighting is to competing effectively in school and thus individual and community development. He constantly fought with his siblings over the use of their one kerosene lamp, and watched as a number of his fellow students dropped out because of their inability to review the material at home, coupled with the regular punishments for unfinished homework. Constantly frustrated by the situation, and wishing he was able study as much as he wanted, as well as consistently finish all his homework, he resolved to find a solution.
It was years later, while enrolled as a student in the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology, that he finally found his answer. He stumbled upon a broken off piece of a discarded solar panel, which he used to light a number of small LEDs he had been experimenting with. Using the help of a local artisan, he designed the first Mwangabora solar lantern and his project – Use Solar, Save Lives – was born. To help get his project get started, Wadongo’s family and friends subsidized his student loans for two years. Production was slow, however, until he attended a leadership training program by the nonprofit Sustainable Development for All – Kenya, in 2006.
When the group got word of his Mwangabora solar lamps, it immediately committed to offer assistance, eventually bringing him on as a partner. In 2007, the nonprofit was registered by the NGO co-ordination board, with Evans as Founding Chairman. He currently plays the role of Executive Director and Chairman.
The lamps are made from about 50% recycled materials, with the group buying excess pieces of solar paneling, cut from commercially sold panels, in bulk from overseas. Wadongo and volunteers then hammer scrap metal for the lantern’s frame in an outdoor metal shop, adding on the solar panel and LEDs. Each lamp costs 20$, which is covered by donations, with some of the money going toward the volunteers. They work in tandem with the local government and women’s groups to help determine the communities most in need, and have successfully distributed more than 23,000 free lamps.
“I want to reach out to as many rural communities as possible,” he says. “The impact is saving lives.” And saving lives they are. Kerosene fumes have been known to cause blindness, respiratory diseases, and lung and throat cancers. Wadongo himself suffers from eyesight problems because of his childhood exposure. He therefore knows exactly how dangerous these lamps are, and how important his solar powered Mwangabora lamps are for the health of the community. And as a bonus, it also helps keep carbon emissions low, which is good for the health of the whole planet!
His efforts have not gone unrecognized, and he has been in the spotlight of the international community ever since 2010, when he was first hailed as a CNN hero. In 2011, he was named the Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab foundation, and was the recipient of inaugural Mikhail Gorbachev Award, “The man who changed the world”. In the same year, he was named as one of the “20 men who will shape the next 20 years” by UK’s Esquire magazine. In 2012, he received the African International Achiever’s award. His story has been featured on CNN, BBC, AFP, CCTV, the Discovery Channel, Reuters, France 24, Huffington post, Russian State TV, among other international media channels.
Yet he still seeks to do even more. Teaming up with fellow CNN heroes Marie De Silva and Magnus MacFarlane-Barrow, he is teaching orphans in Jacaranda School, Malawi, how to make their own solar lamps. SDFA-Kenya has also made plans to open youth resource centers that offer informal training to the youth, who can then use these skills to generate an income. They have set up nighttime “shepherd classes” for marginalized pastoralist communities, who have daytime responsibilities that prevent them from attending regular school. Evans Wadongo is without a doubt a role model for all Kenyan youth, and should be emulated.