Let there be light

Naeem Mawji knew that many of his fellow Tanzanians did not have access to electricity. But, it wasn’t until he got to UBC and investigated the matter that he realized the extent of the problem.

The fourth-year chemical engineering student did some research and discovered that 80 per cent of his fellow Tanzanians don’t have access to electricity, and the figure jumps to 97 per cent in rural areas.  He also learned that families without electricity depend on kerosene-fueled lamps for lighting and that 75 Tanzanians die every day from respiratory issues and burns caused by these lamps.

“It’s not just a health problem,” says Mawji.  “Electricity allows people to store food, work longer hours and process grains into flour which can be sold for more money.”

Mawji was intent on making power accessible but it has taken him more than two years to turn his intentions into reality.  He worked with Dr. Shafik Dharamsi, an assistant professor in the Department of Family Practice in the Faculty of Medicine and the Faculty Lead of the Global Health Network at the Liu Institute for Global Issues. They also worked with the Ethics of International Engagement and Service Learning (EIESL) to develop a plan.

UBC’s EIESL project explores the ethical dilemmas of international engagement projects, and aims to make UBC’s international outreach sustainable as well as collaborative with local people.

“Naeem’s project is a model for EIESL,” says Dr. Dharamsi, the principal investigator at EIESL.  “It’s not about charity; it’s about social justice through community partnership, sustainable engagement, and solidarity.”

Mawji, with the help of his father, who works in road construction, found it simple to connect with a community.

The village of Masurura, just outside the city of Musoma where Mawji grew up, had no access to power and does not use generators.  In Masurura, people walk long distances to get water, and the medical centre has to close when the sun goes down.  To charge the cell phones that most villagers own, one woman would travel 20 kilometers to a nearby town, charge a car battery and bring it back to Masurura.

Mawji worked with the community to develop a plan.  The priority was to provide electricity for the community centre, the school and the medical centre.

“The objective of this project was to first introduce the technology to villagers by illuminating communal spaces and using those spaces as a platform to educate, interact and collaborate with the community,” said Mawji.

In July 2009, Mawji installed solar lighting systems in the community centre, the school and the medical centre. All three systems are also equipped to charge cell phones. The fees from this service are collected and reinvested by the village council to maintain and repair the systems.

After this initial project was complete, Mawji decided to expand.  He started a social enterprise, Carbon X Energy, and recently won a grant of $100,000 from the World Bank through the Lighting Rural Tanzania Competition 2010. The funds from this award are now being used to build a solar-powered mini-grid to provide power to some of the homes in Masurura.

Last May, Mawji returned to Tanzania with two other UBC students and began preliminary work to build a solar powered mini-grid that will provide power to some of the homes in Masurura.  During this trip, UBC student Dan Kahn was approached by a man living in the village.

“He came up to me,” says Kahn, “and said, ‘Don’t say you’re going to do something and not do it. So many people come and say they will do something and then they leave.’”

This is one of many recurring issues that EIESL has identified; it’s the type of problem the project hopes to prevent.

“When I heard Naeem talk, it came through loud and clear that he was genuinely interested in working and learning with the community where he’s from, and improving the quality of life in a sustainable and enduring way” says Dr. Dharamsi.