Powering Africa: A Night in Musubiro Village, Uganda
(Article originally published on PhotoPhilanthropy.org on January 14, 2011)
It was getting late. Our 2 1/2 hour journey was approaching 6 hours thanks to horrendous traffic, countless bus-eating potholes, rough dirt roads, and a couple of wrong turns. As we finally emerged from bush of southern Uganda, 45 minutes from the nearest city of Masaka, our headlights revealed the crowd gathered in anticipation in the Musubiro village schoolyard. It was close to 7:30 p.m. The last sliver of light had dipped past the horizon, and I feared the entire trip had just been wasted.
I had come that day from Kampala with Charles, regional manager of Barefoot Power. We were there to document Barefoot’s innovative approach building a network of “Solar Entrepreneurs” who are responsible for bringing solar lighting to towns and villages all across Uganda. Their products, ranging from the extremely popular “Firefly Mobile”, a small 1.5 watt panel with 12 small LED lights and a phone charger, or their full “Village Kits” that can provide lighting to an entire house, are making solar products affordable and accessible to those at the Base of the Economic Pyramid.
Ronald, one of Barefoot Power’s first and most successful “Solar Entrepreneur”, gives a night solar demonstration, or “activation”, to the villagers in Musubiro Village, Uganda. Ronald earns his income from selling small, affordable solar solutions to individuals and families in off-grid villages like Musubiro.
In a small town on the way to Musubiro, we picked up Ronald, one of Barefoot’s most successful Solar Entrepreneurs who has been at it for over 3 years now. When he hopped in the car and we took off down the road, I was getting visibly antsy. There was no way I was going to be able to get a quality portrait of him, let alone quality pictures of the “activation” (a solar power demonstration Ronald was going to be holding for villagers) or of end users with my flash as the only light. I knew I needed some night shots – I mean, I was photographing the impact of solar products, and it’s hard to see their effectiveness during daylight – but I thought I would have some time to capture the scene, take some portraits, and provide a context during the day. At night, it would be pitch black.
Photographing in Africa, or in most places where time follows quite a different pattern, things often hardly go as planned. You must always be prepared to deal with the cards that are dealt, and rise to the occasion, capturing the best moments possible with whatever limited resources are at your disposal.
Ronald, a Barefoot Power “Solar Entrepreneur”, explains to the crowd the benefits of solar energy, and how he has created a custom payment plan so that families can afford the cost of lighting their homes. Typically, compared to the price of Kerosene, the smaller solar solutions pay for themselves in 5-6 months.
As we pulled into the darkness of village, Ronald and Charles unpacked the truck and began setting up panels, lamps, light, boxes of Firefly’s and Powa Packs on the hood. The community began crowding around, first marveling at the demonstration about to take place, and then at the crazy Mzungu (white person) climbing on top of the car and wandering around looking for the best shot.
As soon as the lights were switched on and as Ronald began preaching solar, I suddenly became aware that the lateness of our arrival, the darkness of the village, and the scene which was unfolding ended up being my blessing in disguise. The blue LED lights from the solar products lit up the faces of the children who were staring like deer in headlights with amazement.
A child marvels at the solar light on display. Nearly all of the families in Musubiro Village use kerosene to light up their dwellings at night.
The unavoidable blurriness, the high ISO settings, and the eventual not-so-perfect quality of the photos didn’t matter. Instead, the energy of the scene and the story of why solar was so necessary unfolded in front of my lens, and I danced around the crowd with my shutter open.
In the village of Musubiro, like so many others across Africa, the main source of light is kerosene. It is not only expensive, but also has a myriad of negative health side affects and the risk that always comes when you mix open flames and straw-thatched roof dwellings. Typically, the day’s choirs are done, children’s studying over, and small shops are closed when the sun goes down at 7:30 p.m. Yet with these small solar innovations, people can work, read or study later without the financial and health expenses of kerosene. As the crowd huddled around the light emitting from the small LED’s, Ronald patiently answered questions and continued his well-refined pitch on how solar technology works, how one small light is five times brighter than a kerosene lamp, how it can save money, and how he has created custom payment plans so that they can afford the cost over time.
Saidi Rukamata, of Musubiro Village, Masaka District, Uganda, purchased a Barefoot Powa Pack nearly a year ago to provide clean energy for his family of 8. Previously, he would spend upwards of 9,000 Ush (around $4) per month on Kerosene.
At the close of the 45 minute demonstration, several people were not only interested in purchasing the solar products, but many were interested in becoming Solar Entrepreneurs themselves. A few were visiting family or friends in the village, and wanted to hold demonstrations to help bring light to their friends, families, and neighbors in other areas.
As we packed up, waved our goodbyes, and headed through the darkness to visit the homes of a few individuals who had already purchased small lamps or kits, it was easy to spot them. A low light was spilling from the entryway in a small pharmacy run by Namwonge Agnus; and an even brighter light was coming from the living room of Saidi Rukamata, who purchased a 12v Powa Pack system almost a year ago. I couldn’t have imagined photographing these scenes during the day. Usually an ugliness corrected by white balance, I left the cool surgery-room-blue tint of the LED’s as is. The dark faces and spots stayed dark, and the shots were hardly edited. Perhaps they aren’t picture-perfect, but they are pictures that perfectly capture the story that I had set out to document. Sometimes you just have to sit back and let the shoot unfold.