The name Evans Wadongo will undoubtedly remain engraved on the minds of many Kenyans for several years to come – especially the natives of Chumvi, a settlement located in the Eastern province some 211 kilometers from Nairobi, the Kenyan capital.
Evans Wadongo calligraphed his name on the annals of history and became something of a local hero by designing and building the first made-in-Africa solar-powered LED lanterns, otherwise known as ‘MwangaBora.’
Such was his resourcefulness and ingenious improvisation that he was able to put the whole thing together from discarded materials. Through his creation which has quite literally illuminated the lives of many of the locals, he has been able to alleviate the misery that has hitherto been the case for most people living in poor Kenyan communities.
With absolutely no hope of electricity as is evident in the lack of infrastructure, the people of Chumvi – and similar communities – who are predominantly farmers have to eke out a living and go about their daily lives wholly dependent on kerosene lamps as their only source of light at night time.
Growing up, Wadongo experienced firsthand the vile-tasting reality of having to make do with just one kerosene lamp as the only source of illumination after dark in a family of about seven. The five Wadongo brothers had to study using that single light source; the dim kerosene lamp, which they treasured much like those Knight Templars did the Holy Grail in one of those Dan Brown novels. It’s no wonder the brothers bickered over who gets to use the lamp on several occasions.
Without electricity which should ordinarily be more of necessity than luxury, studying was a tremendous burden for kids of school age, as working on school assignments at night became some sort of Herculean Task.
Of greater concern, the kerosene lamps required a refill of kerosene on a regular and since the fuel is no cheap commodity, many households were forced to do without it altogether and wallow in the darkness as most families in rural Kenya survive on less than a dollar a day.
In such households. food takes up a major chunk of the meager income available as it is understandably given preference over light in terms of importance. As a result of this, a significant number of children are left with no light after sunset.
No kerosene. No light. No means of studying. Education gradually begins to take the backseat. And before long, truancy becomes the order of the day for these kids and many of them drop out of school eventually.
You may have a hard time coming to terms with why these kids have only nighttime to study. You may be tempted to ask the obvious question; “If you have no light source at night, then why not study during the day?” Well, hold your horses because there’s more to life in poor rural communities than meets the eye.
To begin with, it might interest you to know that the closest schools to these kids – the Manyonje and Bisunu Primary schools – are no less than 10 kilometers away. This implies a daily walk of at least 20 kilometers to and fro; no cake walk.
More so, in most low-income households, kids shoulder some responsibilities when it comes to fending for the family from a tender age. They are required to work during the day to bolster the family’s income. Hence, they ply the somewhat unconventional route by going to school well after midday, after they must have worked on farms or done other odd jobs from the break of dawn.
That said, these kids will have to embark on a 10 kilometers walk to school from the afternoon after all the exertions from work, probably under the scourging rays of the sun. They will have to also cover the same distance on foot on the return trip which typically takes up the greater part of dusk and all the way to nightfall.
For these kids, the common practice is to attend ‘afternoon school’ with their kerosene lamps in tow as they will need the illumination for the latter stages of the school day and on the walk back home. For families that had only a single lamp or maybe no lamp at all, and for those ones that could not afford kerosene, the kids had to sit out school.
Even as a young child, Evans Wadongo was deeply disturbed by the situation. Many of his many friends and classmates had quit school simply because their families couldn’t afford the luxurious commodity – kerosene. Yes, in rural Kenya, being able to afford kerosene in those days was as close to luxury as one could possibly come.
Born in Western Kenya to a family that had both parents as teachers by profession, Evans Wadongo didn’t exactly have an upbringing laden with scoops of milk and honey, but it was no hand-to-mouth situation either. He was, at least, privileged enough to not suffer the same fate as many kids his age. Pained by the unsavory scenario, Evans who is the youngest Wadongo boys, resolved to do something to literally brighten the lives of kids in his community.
Evans’ family was one of the few that could afford the ‘luxury fuel,’ but this seemingly fortunate situation didn’t come without drawbacks of its own. Studying with the dim lights produced by kerosene lanterns means staying really close to these lamps and inhaling the dark fumes they emit. This is known to cause a number of health problems, including respiratory tract problems and damages to eyesight. And Evans even has the battle scars to prove this as he still struggles with sight problems to this day.
Apart from these obvious health concerns, kerosene lamps are potential fire hazards as they can ignite inflammable materials and set an entire house ablaze, destroying lives and property. For the record, there are several occurrences of this horrendous ordeal for a considerable number of households in parts of rural Kenya.
These problems and drawbacks only acted to reinforce the resolve of young Evans to provide an alternative to the notoriously-harmful yet highly-treasured kerosene lanterns that had become something of a staple.
The little boy was concerned for his classmates and friends whose education suffered because they didn’t have access to a steady light source. And the saddest of all is that kids who gave up on education also gave up on opportunities to improve their lives. So, they tow the same line as those before them and continue the vicious cycle of privations and hardship by birthing yet another underprivileged generation.
To put an end to this, Evans Wadongo stepped and like a ‘circuit-breaker,’ he swung into action to stop the continuous cycle of ignorance and poverty. He brought an end to this chain of events with his solar-powered LED lanterns.
Being relatively privileged and slightly better off than most of his peers, and being that he was an assiduous student too, Evans went on to complete his high school education at Kakamega High School while also emerging as one of the best 100 students in the 2002 Kenya Certificate of Secondary Education Examination.
Unfazed by the gloomy situation in his hometown, Evans furthered his education in 2004 when he joined the Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology in pursuit of a degree in Electronics and Computer Engineering. It was within the walls of that institution that he got what could be called his first flash of ingenuity.
That was during his freshman year. While working on a school project that had them use LED for Christmas lights, the young Engineer conceived the idea of using solar-powered LED lanterns as a perfect replacement of kerosene lamps. Those powerful but intangible thoughts led him through a series of experiments which eventually brought forth his creation; solar-powered LED lanterns.
While he was at it, his sole motivation the entire time whole time was the need to put an end to the situation where life seemingly comes to a halt or even become miserable after sunset in some of Kenya’s rural communities.
He was also buoyed by a desire to wipe clean the tear-streaked faces of those students who had to face the teacher’s ‘correction stick’ because they failed to do their homework. Evans made it something of a personal mission to, as well, see to it that the number of out-of-school kids many of those rural communities was significantly curbed.
The young lad knew that these seemingly-insurmountable problems would vanish in the wake of a steady, affordable and healthier light source. Thus, he was relentless in his quest to find that light source; the good light, the MwangaBora. And find it he did.
Being only an ‘engineer-in-training’ at the time, he still managed to craft what is considered the first made-in-Africa solar-powered LED lanterns from inexpensive scrap metals and a solar panel he picked up on his way back from school. And he was only 19 and barely into his sophomore year when he pulled it off.
At such a young age, Evans had exhibited remarkable courage by tackling the problems of his entire community. As a student of engineering, the workload was staggering and enormous. But somehow, he found the time to see the task to its successful completion.
To produce those lamps, he had to buy scrap metals, photovoltaic panels, batteries and LED with money that should have been used for his feeding and upkeep. For several weeks, that meant skipping two meals daily – such was his unusual sacrifice and commitment.
His unflinching resolve yielded phenomenal success – he created ‘the good light’ which birthed the entire project was named ‘Use Solar, Save Lives.’
However, as soon as the fanfare of his initial achievement had died down somewhat, Evans was greeted by the harsh reality that starving to make a few ‘MwangaBoras’ and giving them out to families didn’t make much difference.
The situation in the communities pretty much remained the same and to make a significant impact, he had to push himself even further. This time, the challenge was to find quicker and cheaper ways of making the lanterns. As at that time, a single MwangaBora cost about KSh 2 K (about USD 23.00) – an arm and a leg for the poor families he was actually trying to help.
This led him to undertake a bigger project and in 2006, he founded Sustainable Development for All Kenya (SDfA-Kenya). He designed the new project as a non-profit social enterprise geared towards combating poverty in rural communities by focusing on three key areas; education, environment, and economic empowerment.
In June 2007, SDfA-Kenya became registered and officially recognized in all of Kenya and it adopted the ‘Use Solar, Save Lives’ programme as its headline project. The project seeks to tackle poverty and ignorance head-on by teaching women in rural areas alternative sources of livelihood.
These women are aided with solar lighting and encouraged to save up funds originally meant for kerosene with the aim of channeling those saved funds into local businesses that can improve the economic situation in their respective communities. The strategy is known to have given rise to a number of local businesses built on agriculture.
As these solar-powered lamps are now being locally-made, lives are also being enriched. This manufacturing job is known to pay as much as USD 110.00 per week to workers in many rural communities.
In July 2009, Evans Wadongo obtained BSc honors in Electronics and Computer Engineering, and despite his limited study time, he was one of the best graduating students. Besides being the Founder and Chairman of SDfA-Kenya, Wadongo also functioned as the organization’s Project Manager from 2006 to 2008.
He went on to wear the hats of Chairman and Programs Director between 2008 and 2010. Directo. He currently works as the Executive Director and Chairman of SDfA-Kenya; an establishment that has since spread its tentacles beyond Kenyan borders to reach parts of Malawi in collaboration with Jacaranda Foundation.
Under the leadership of Evans Wadongo, SDfA has influenced millions of lives both directly and indirectly. In 2010, Wadongo was voted as one of CNN’s Top Ten Heroes and in July 2011, he went on to launch the ‘Just One Lamp’ campaign globally to raise awareness and funds for the MwangaBora lanterns.
That same year – precisely on 30th March 2011- Wadongo made history when he received the inaugural Mikhail Gorbachev Awards for ‘The Man Who Changed The World’ in a ceremony that took place in Russia. And if you’re wondering just how big a deal this is, you might have your answer in the co-recipients of that year’s award in the form of Sir Tim Berners-Lee; the inventor of the World Wide Web, and Ted Turner; Founder of CNN.
A recipient of numerous awards and a speaker at many events and forums, Wadongo was honored as one of three Kenyan torchbearers as the Olympic Games which took place in London over six years ago. He made a 2013 list by MIT Technology Review of the ‘Top 35 innovators under 35’, while also earning a thoroughly-deserved spot in Forbes’ ‘30 under 30’ list of Africa’s best young entrepreneurs for 2013. His story has seen extensive coverage from both local and international media.
Evans Wadongo currently resides in Nairobi, Kenya, where he works as the Co-Founder of GreenWize Energy; an enterprise which serves clients with renewable energy solutions. He is also an adviser to a number of social enterprises which aim to increase food production, as well as expedite processing and distribution by speeding up technology and business model innovations.
The boy who created ‘the good light’ has also co-founded Wadson Ventures – an establishment that supports startups who offerings feature innovative solutions for the underprivileged and economically-disadvantaged. It appears he has something of a personal vendetta with poverty and ignorance.
Wadongo’s MwangaBora has spread throughout Kenya and beyond. Special designs of these lanterns adorn walls at Victoria and Albert Museum in London and Atlanta’s High Museum of Art also has permanent collections.
Evans believes that one cannot make an impact by keeping things to himself. He also thinks that training young people on a variety of skills fosters a sense of leadership in them, as well as inspire them to take the initiative to carve out their own path.
Featured Image Courtesy: npr.org