Sunny Days Are Full Of Energy (Part 2)
I think my second trip to the villages will be (or at least feel) different, without part of the excitement flowing like electricity on my skin and a little bit more consciousness of what awaits me instead. The villages we are going to visit are located in the internal part of the same region of the ones described in Part 1, therefore the landscape will offer endless hills instead of the shores of lake Tanganyika. According to my sampling estimation, we are going to interview 550 of the over 11,000 unelectrified households across eight villages. Yes, re-read the number: eleven thousand families not reached by the national grid, which corresponds to more or less 55,000 kids, women and men (using the average size of a rural Tanzanian household size), the equivalent of the whole population of Greenland. Next time someone asks me “Do you consider Mobisol and M-KOPA as your competitors?”, I will bring up these figures to support my thesis that the rural electrification market is calling for collaboration instead of competition, in order to offer reliable and affordable energy solutions in the most efficient way.
After a five-hour journey on the “luxury” bus, the adventure starts! We will have to rely on local bodaboda (motorcycle drivers) to move around, as there is no bus reaching the villages. The ride to the first one on the list, located on top of hills, turns out to be the worst one ever given the combination of a very bad road and my driver ignoring my “Pole pole, tafadhali” (Please, drive slowly). I discover very quickly the reasons behind that situation: first, there is no guesthouse (the only reason why roads are maintained are economical trades and the absence of an available accommodation for visitors mean that the village does not participate in such trades), and second, nobody seems to speak fluent Kiswahili. This will highly complicate and maybe compromise the survey process. However, thanks to the hospitality of the chairperson who opened up his house to us offering a floor to sleep on and provided us with translators, we can proceed with our wealth assessment and enjoy the beautiful location! My favourite moment of each scouting day is when, after showering with a bucket of cold water, I stand in the complete darkness with my nose up in the sky full of stars. Thanks to the almost null light pollution of this village (besides a couple of torches, the darkness embraces everything), I can even see the Milky Way!
Surely, this one was the poorest village scouted so far: most of the households were using candles to light up their houses for no more than 2 hours per night, the local restaurant was not offering anything but rice and beans (every time I come back from a field trip, I avoid rice like a plague), and charging a mobile phone was only 150 TSH compared to a normal fare of 300-400. Nevertheless, even in such conditions, several households had small solar home systems; one of them offered to be our ambassador because “Solar energy changed my family’s life: now my daughter can study in the evenings and her grades got better, while my wife and I can finally look each other in the eyes”.
The trip to the second village on the list was definitely the worst bodaboda ride of my life, making the previous one look great… Imagine the worst mountain road full of potholes and steep bends. Now picture yourself riding it downhill with a very inexperienced driver. I still shiver when I think about it! Anyhow, we arrived safe and sound to our second stop where we expect to find around 1,000 unelectrified houses according to the satellite pictures, but already at first glimpse it is very clear the village is undergoing an expansion phase. The main cause can be found in the newly built road to connect it to the main village of the district, which is creating new opportunities for trading agricultural products, evidenced by the guest houses under construction and the impressive quantity of milling stations. One stood out especially because of its noise: it was a huge chinese machine powered by a diesel generator, brought from God-knows-where for processing the harvest, capable of processing the ear of maize, separating the corncob and the kernels and milling the kernels into flour. The huge crowd was looking at it amazed: during the harvest season, the women spend most of their time removing the kernels from the cobs with their bare hands and then bring the bulk to the milling stations. A revolution that will save days of manual labour (for double the price though as the diesel consumptions will definitely be higher)! Also in this village we need to rely on the chairperson’s hospitality for a small room to rest during the night; a surprise was awaiting us in the toilet/shower: his daughter used part of their firewood to warm up the water for us. I treasure these little happy moments and bless them from the bottom of my heart.
Even in this village, the sunny days are full of energy: we come across more than forty panels and half of them of a size higher than 40 Wp, which allows them to power some small appliances such as radio, TVs and barber clippers. I had to run away from one of them who was determined to trim my hair, which, according to his words, would have been a great wig for his wife. However, most of the villagers still use batteries and torches to light up their houses, and they can be very creative with ways to power their radios; one caught my attention (see part of it in the picture attached) because the owner managed to use only AA batteries to power four small LED lights and a radio. I spent one hour discussing with him trying to understand how he managed to do so, and I am still pretty sure that his circuit violates at least two laws of physics. But yet it works!
The harvest period is both the best and the worst for the villagers: it is when most of their income is generated which causes the people to spend more in unnecessary goods such as alcohol; it is not unusual to see them drunk already at 10AM. Mobile money has the potential to induce a behavioural change, thanks to the possibility of a savings account accessible from any phone with GSM connection. “Yes, madam, but what if they steal my phone? They will steal all my money!” argues one man sitting at our dinner table at the local restaurant (where we managed to find some ugali with meat; I am so fed up with rice and beans); I spend two hours with Elizabeth, my translator for this trip, explaining to him that his PIN code will protect him from such an occurrence. He does not seem totally convinced, but I am now sure that the penetration of the technology does not imply the awareness of the advantages connected to it and that education is the key to the success of it.
Luckily reaching the third village does not require an adventurous ride, so that I can enjoy the view of the sunflower and maize fields, and notice as well a huge telecom tower that makes me think about how amazing it would be to finally have a bed to watch a movie and then sleep tight. Somehow the rumours that a muzungu was in the neighbourhood anticipated our arrival, so we get a warm welcome from the village, or maybe I should say town because at a first glimpse it looks like a pretty developed community. After the ordinary interview with the village authorities who granted us the permission to proceed with our surveys, we find a guesthouse with solar panels, which grant it the chance to offer a couple of hours of electricity in the evening and power a TV in the bar attached to it. I will discover later on that besides the normal game of the Tanzanian football championship, they also broadcast old Champion League finals, such as Juventus-Ajax 1996 or Milan-Liverpool 2007; nevertheless, everybody cheers as if it were a live game! We still have enough time to survey all the businesses of the town and discover some interesting facts about the energy usages: most of the people use torches and batteries to light their houses and power their radios, the most wealthy ones own solar home systems with enough battery capacity to power the same services plus charge one or two mobile phones. For all the others, several shops offer the possibility to rent batteries for 4,000 TSH per day; this means that to charge two mobile phones (20Wh) and power 2 light bulbs (2W, 5 h) and one radio (10W, 10 h), the cost will be 28,000 TSH/kWh. Just to give you more context, the TANESCO tariff is less than 300 TSH/kWh. There is also a small diesel generator connected to a bar, a video show and some other businesses; the connection tariff is 2,000 TSH if used only for light bulbs in the shops and 5,000 if other appliances are in use such as TVs and fridges. It is impossible for Devergy (or any other off-grid energy service provider) to compete with TANESCO, but surely our solution is designed to be more affordable than the aforementioned ones or to offer higher energy services for the same price.
I have purposely omitted all the wedding proposals received during the trip; I am now used to having men and boys offering me cows, goats, chickens and houses even in front of their wives; however, I cannot fail to mention the time a woman did while styling my hair! My scouting team could not stop laughing for hours at my surprised face! Luckily, it is time to move to the fourth and last village, built at the crossroad of the two main roads of the district, a fact that makes it the perfect location for markets and trading; even just looking at the two guesthouses, one could tell how many visitors pass through there. Therefore, when mentioning the name of the Devergy villages, several people were nodding and defining our system as “mzuri sana” (very good); this enormously facilitated our work, removing the suspicion the villagers sometimes have towards private companies coming into their village. We even find one man holding proudly one of the mini-radios he purchased from Devergy: a happy customer is the best publicity in a social structure based on the common knowledge.
In the village, we found several large solar home systems acquired through loan systems, for which they have to pay between 1,700 and 3,500 TSH per day for 3 years. I really like this kind of solution, because, in my European mind-set, it is better to pay more but own the system after the loan repayment rather than keep paying forever to a grid provider such as TANESCO or Devergy. However, when asking these villagers, they said they would be more than happy to give back their systems and acquire a Devergy meter, “I will have much less troubles, madam! I do not wanna worry about changing my battery or that my panel gets damaged”. Again, my brain fails to comprehend the problems presented by the remoteness from urban centres (I lived all my life in medium-large European cities).
Once we finish the interview process, we decide not to come back from the same road (the memories of the bodaboda rides in the mountains were the main reason for this choice), but try to catch another bus in Kilyamatundu, a larger town on the shore of the river Momba. After a nice bodaboda ride, we arrive to a guesthouse where we finally manage to get the first cold bottle of water in 7 days and get some well-deserved rest. As the bus is not going to leave before the next morning, we decide to go explore the surroundings and we end up bumping into a suspended bridge. What a cool experience! I run up and start crossing the river, but once I reach the middle of it, I hear a horn behind me: it is a bodaboda crossing the bridge at full speed! Given all the missing wooden boards, one should be completely crazy to try such a move! However, once we reach the village on the other side, we soon discover why he did so: the main bridge where all the vehicles used to pass was destroyed by the river during the last rainy season. Oh, wait, what about our bus tomorrow morning? “That’s why the bus does not stop anymore in Kilyamatundu. It will leave from here tomorrow at 5AM”. Therefore, we had to go back, pick-up all our bags and find a new guesthouse. The cold shower at the end of that day was such a relief!
After a 9-hour bus ride in the middle of a game reserve (we almost remained stuck in the mud twice), we finally reach Mbeya and my usual taxi driver is already waiting for me at the bus station. “Long time no see! How are you, sister? Pole na safari (Sorry for the journey). You look very tired”, he says. Yes, I am exhausted both physically and emotionally, but I am not sorry for my journey at all: I love how much the fieldwork manages to fill my heart with very vivid pictures and stories of the villagers; it is what motivates me during my daily office work and it always recharges my internal battery. The last image I think about before falling asleep is myself under that sky full of stars looking at the Milky Way and thinking how lucky I am to be living my Tanzanian dream.
In collaboration with the CommUnity Post
Published on 12 June 2017
Silvia Francioso in a nutshell:
Silvia has a real love of people. She started with volunteering to foster education and social inclusion of the immigrant kids from her neighbourhood when she was 16 – and this spirit of giving back to the world community continues to this day with her work in designing and distributing appropriate technologies with the appropriate financing schemes in developing economies. She acquired the necessary skills to achieve her dreams studying the InnoEnergy RENE Master’s programme at Instituto Superior Técnico in Lisbon and École Polytechnique de Paris and volunteering with Engineers without Borders.