Friday, August 29, 2008

Karagwe and Pedal Power

Somehow I thought Karagwe was a 5 hour drive from Dar es Salaam, but as I’m flying to the northwest corner of Tanzania, to Mwanza, where I switch to a small propeller plane to go to the farther northwest corner town of Bukoba, on the western side of Lake Victoria, close to Rwanda, I’m realizing how important it is to check the spelling of a town name (Karagwe not Korogwe?) before committing to something.

I was introduced to Gary Zieff, who runs a firm called dissigno, that focuses on appropriate technology solutions in developing countries. Gary and team are launching an initiative in Karagwe to install a system using human powered generators - Pedal Power -- which will charge battery-powered lights that will replace kerosene lanterns and candles. Most of the region, like 95% of Tanzania, is off the grid and so households use kerosene lanterns (which are toxic and expensive). The Pedal Power initiative aims to set up a system so that people can rent these human power-recharged batteries and lights at a price below kerosene cost.

Dissigno was one of the sixteen winners of the World Bank Development Marketplace Lighting Africa competition. They competed against 500 participants, were selected and awarded $200,000 to test their pilot project in Tanzania.

Flying from Mwanza, on one side of lake Victoria, to Bukoba, on the other, took 40 minutes. The lake, the biggest in Africa, is truly vast, covering 26,000 square miles, making it the largest tropical lake in the world. It is bordered by Tanzania, Uganda, and Kenya, and is home to more than 3,000 islands. Rocky outcroppings dot a landscape of folded hills with occasional villages of scattered houses of cinderblock and tin or thatch. I learn that this land is well suited for the coffee and bananas that grow here.

Gary had asked if I could meet with their NGO partner, KADERES (Karagwe Development & Relief Services) to assess their level of enthusiasm and interest in the project. I spent my first afternoon with the Executive Director. This should have been familiar territory as I’ve done this due diligence questioning with a hundred nonprofits in the U.S. But this somehow was different.

Questions I asked, such as - how do people choose which Savings and Credit Organization (SACCO) to join, were met with answers beginning with, “we don’t do things here the way you do in America...” There is a decided tension to this development work (based on my, oh, one or two data points). On one hand, western development work is truly needed and welcomed. The government of Tanzania relies on western donors for 45% (!!!) for its annual operating budget. On the other hand, I get the feeling that there is a real desire to develop and implement home-grown solutions, and a touch of resentment of mzungu efforts.

The Pedal Power project is, like so much of the appropriate technology work being done here, designed to be an intermediate step. Using rechargeable batteries is not a hoped for permanent solution. But until billions of dollars are spent on infrastructure - to wire the country and get clean water - it will be many many years before most people have access to basic services.

I was put up in the $13 a night Hotel at Home. Water in the bathroom was in a large plastic tub for washing, and in the morning, they’d bring in another tub of hot water. This was as remote as I’d been. I was out of safe ex-pat comfortable Dar and in real Africa. It was exciting and surprisingly, didn’t make me as nervous as I thought I’d be. (Although if I start an NGO here, it will be called Hot Shower-Aid, because in my book, you gotta have a hot shower in the morning.

Hotel at Home did have a bar with plenty of cold beers, and I spent the evening talking to the local priest, who apparently was at the bar each evening. He asked me if I wanted to go to mass. When I told him I wasn’t Catholic, he started a guessing game, “Muslim? Anglican? Bahai?” When I said Jewish, he started laughing and said, “I know about that from studying at seminary.”

I travelled with Optatus, the accountant at KADERES, who provides technical assistance to the SACCO’s in the region. We drove out rutted dirt roads for many miles to visit three of them. When we went in, each a small office the size of two office cubicles, we were formally handed a guest book to sign. I signed, and scanned the names above. On each page, Optatus’s formal sign-in over the past few months was officially noted, and little else.

Each of these SACCO’s had about 2,000 members, and served as the regional savings bank and lender as farmers weather the cycles of crop harvests. I learned that virtually all of the members of the SACCO’s depended on kerosene for light in their house. I also asked for estimates of the amount spent per month, and all replied that approximately 5 liters were used per household per month, costing about $12. This is a huge burden for families getting by on under $400/year.

Before the visit, I thought the project was innovative but maybe cute. After the visit, I realize what a significant difference in so many lives, such a simple idea can have. The groups were excited. The biggest issue that they believe will need to be addressed is the initial plan to serve 3,000 families when so many more will be demanding the batteries.

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