“I don’t buy candles anymore; I use the light to study more than I did before.”

This statement made by Wilbroad Banda, a teacher and student from the Garden compound in Lusaka, could have been made by any number of teachers or students who received a Nokero solar light during my time interning with Lifeline Energy. For the past two months I’ve been conducting research in the compounds (urban townships) of Lusaka and I have witnessed first hand the impact that new technologies have on the urban poor. 

My internship has been a form of participant observation and the research will help me write my graduate thesis on energy poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. I examine the research through Amartya Sen’s and Martha Nussbaum’s Capabilities theory, asking the urban poor ‘has technology changed what you are capable of? Can you do the things you value?’ From the Nokero N200 solar powered lights to Lifeline Energy’s Prime Radio, a solar and wind-up radio designed for large groups, the examples of positive change abound.

For those without electricity, buying candles is a daily challenge. The typical family burns through two candles a day, with each candle lasting only two hours and lighting less than half of a small room. The cost adds up each day as an unrelenting reminder of the poverty that the family faces. The smoke burns the users eyes and the poor light puts a strain on it. Students have a hard time studying and teachers have a hard time writing lesson plans.

For those who received a solar powered light, their lives completely transformed. The amount of time students and teachers had to do the things they valued more than doubled each night, and almost all of them stopped buying candles all together. The technology didn’t just affect the receiver of the light either. Their families could cook, safely go outside at night, and read or write as well.

Energy poverty has many hidden faces. Without access to reliable energy, the poor cannot get vital information or access educational programming over the radio. Clement Chipili, a teacher and resident of Misisi Compound expressed to me how he and his family worry the government or private enterprises will tear down their homes, building high rise buildings or private residences. Rumors and a lack of reliable information fuel their fears. With the distribution of Lifeline Energy’s radios, schools can listen to programming over the air and stay updated on the local, countrywide, and international news. They can listen to educational programming such as Zambia’s Learning at Taonga Market distance education programme when broadcast.

Their daily lives change. They have an opportunity to study, to learn, to educate themselves on their surroundings. The technology adds value to their lives because it allows them the capability to learn, off the grid.

“If you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day, but if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.”  - Proverb

The average American changes their cellphone every 21.7 months. We update to the newest model, turn it on and immediately start to look for the small differences from the last model. Yet for those who have never been familiar with the technology, have never owned a cell phone, a radio, or even a flashlight, operating new technology, however simple, can be seem daunting.

When I first began my internship, Kristine Pearson explained how important access to something as basic as a solar light was an education for the poor.  I could find very little research to bear this out but it made logical sense.  She further explained that people who have not used solar products may have misconceptions and how essential trying to find out what those misconceptions were.

In my time interning for Lifeline Energy, I’ve had the opportunity to distribute green Nokero N200 solar lights to students and teachers connected with community schools in three compounds or informal settlements in Lusaka, to study the impacts the lights have on teachers’ and students’ education and learning experience. Lifeline Energy has an on-going partnership with the Denver-based social enterprise, Nokero, a quality and affordable solar light manufacturer. 

During the distribution process I distributed a light to each participant and showed them how to use it while visiting with them in their homes.  Lifeline Energy really emphasized to me the importance of thorough training.  The recipients practiced turning the lights on and off and did a walk-through of charging it in the sun. 

I followed-up with each participant several weeks later to see whether or not the light had made any difference to the student or teacher and their families.  To my surprise, I discovered that very few family members used the light as I would have thought. 

One student, 14-year-old Falisai Makai, lives with her grandmother. She explained that her grandmother won’t use the light when Falisai isn’t home; Falisai had shown her how to use it but her grandmother feared that she might break it. The same response was repeated by the family of Veronica Phiri, 13, who reported how great the light was for studying, but that she is the only one in her family who would use it. Her two older brothers and grandfather ask her to turn the light on for them when they want to go outside with it at night.  They would carry the light with them when it was already on but were reluctant to work it on their own.

If not for the feedback process, a lot of questions would go unasked. Kristine had emphasized to me that the poor, due to a lack of education, may be reluctant to admit not knowing or understanding something, and may not want to disappoint you.  Participants hesitate to ask questions about how the light works; sometimes the most benign sounding questions can have the largest impact on the participant’s experience.  One question asked frequently was whether it was the heat from the sun or the light from the sun that charged the light. It wasn’t until a teacher asked me if he could charge the light on his braai, or barbeque grill, on a rainy day that I realized how common a misconception this was - and how dangerous. 

The responses to the solar lights were overwhelmingly positive, but I have to wonder about programs designed without the necessary training or follow-up. Putting technology in the hands of those who need it is only a first step in the process to ending energy poverty. Distributing solar lights to those living with energy poverty, can be like giving away fish without teaching the skills needed for the future. The power of the technology is limited without the knowledge of how to use it.

Their salaries are too low; their classrooms are overcrowded; and their own training is limited. Despite these obstacles the teachers of Luba Community School in Garden Compound, an informal settlement in Lusaka, try their best.  Since Learning at Taonga Market, Zambia’s successful radio distance education program, ceased being aired by the national broadcaster, teacher training has suffered. Now, the most common qualification teachers can have is a Basic Learning Skills Program for Community School Teachers certificate administered by the Ministry of Education and USAID.

The 20-day one time training course, is not only time consuming but also expensive. Despite its cost, it’s still easier to obtain than a university teaching certificate. Universities are highly competitive, making it nearly impossible for community schoolteachers to progress formally.  

Previously, teachers received certificates through training that accompanied Learning at Taonga Market. The head of Luba, Mr. Banda Lucas, emphasized how important Taonga was for the teachers. We discussed how the training told them exactly how to work the wind-up radio, teach the students and gave them confidence in the classroom. He explained that “it was easy for the teachers to make [their] lesson plans” when they had Taonga.

For community school teachers, their salaries come out of student school fees. At Luba the average is 20 kwacha a month, or about  $4 per student.  These fees must also fund the upkeep of the school. 

Other schools I visited in the compounds reported having a difficult time keeping teachers. Frequently, teachers show up late or not at all and leave in search of better paying jobs. It is my understanding that government schools have this issue as well. It’s not uncommon for more than half the teachers on staff to report in sick on any given day or quit without giving notice. The commitment to the job is often low because the salary is not enough to sustain the teacher and their family.  This obviously puts the learners in a precarious situation.

At Luba the teachers are making active strides to follow their education goals, while still fulfilling their role as a teacher. They want more education and formal training and often feel unprepared.  To add further difficulty for the teachers, energy poverty affects them as much as the students. Because these teachers do not have electricity at home, they create their lesson plans at night with candles after teaching double sessions at school. The candle often burns out before they finish their lesson plans. Wilbroad Banda, a teacher at Luba, has lived in the compound all his life. He wants to further his education but says,  “each night I try to also study history, but there is not enough of the candle to do both”.

With the limited resources they have, these teachers struggle to gain more skills and better their own educations. They know better than most just how important it is to all facets of life and are twice affected by a lack of reliable power.

This past weekend I had a chance to visit Kawaza Primary School in Mwufe, a ten-hour multiple bus ride from Lusaka in the Eastern Province. This allowed me to contrast the energy problems experienced by the peri-urban schools that I’ve visited in Lusaka’s  compounds with a rural village school. To my surprise, it was the similarities that were striking. 

Kawaza averages 30 students per class with two classes per grade. The school serves the surrounding villages that lie within a few kilometres. One block of the school is electrified and is used primarily for Grades 7 to 9 for nighttime study. None of the students have electricity in their homes and access to working radios is scarce; they report to school late in the afternoon to enable them to study with electricity. 

Like the majority of the schools I visited in compounds, the school does not have computers or working radios. Schools in both locations had the big and colourful Lifeline radios of the past and used them to access the Learning at Taonga Market distance education programme.   Children participating in Taonga Market used to be able to access quality school lessons anywhere initiative the country.   Unfortunately, the Taonga Market programme is only being broadcast on community radio stations and not by the national broadcaster, ZNBC, as it once was.  The high cost of on-air broadcasting fees was is the main problem. 

The schools miss Taonga Market.  Christopher Yambayamba, the head of Kawaza Primary, spoke of how the students not only loved the interactive nature of radio learning, but that their grades improved when the school had the programme.  He believed the students also learned listening and attention skills quicker through the radio programme. At one time students even came to schools on Saturdays to hear the education programmes and then were tested on what they had learned during the week.

Kawaza Primary School also shares similar issues with access to information as schools in the compounds in Lusaka. Abigail Chimba, the Grade 2 teacher, explained that because they were not a community school, they were told that their solar and wind-up radio did not qualify to be replaced when it finally died. The radio was more than five years old. 

The lack of radio not only makes it difficult for schools, but also for community information access, especially during the rainy season. Travel becomes more difficult because the few dirt roads flood quickly, which isolates the villages and schools. They must rely on a few secondhand cellphones to reach relatives in different villages to hear even local news and connect with each other.  

Despite the different locations of schools across ZambiaZambia, whether deep rural or urban, the root of the issue involves the lack of reliable energy and poverty. available.   It really struck me how Kawaza experienced the same education issues as those schools I've visited in the city and how poverty transcends geography.  Despite the distance from Lusaka’s compounds, Kawaza had the same issues regarding education. 

Between 80 to 90 percent of the students at Pakachele Primary School, located in the rural area of Foxdale, outside Lusaka, are vulnerable children. They are either single or double orphans, meaning that one or neither parent is involved in their lives. Pakachele doesn’t charge school fees. Donors provide textbooks and writing tools, as well as breakfast and lunch. Often these are the only meals the students eat. The school also provides each student with a uniform, even though it’s not mandatory to wear one. As their one uniform becomes tattered from wearing it every day they do not have a way to mend or iron it. Often these young learners do not want to go to school without the proper clothes; they feel self-conscious without having a clean uniform to wear.

While speaking with the teachers at Pakachele for my research on energy poverty and education, I asked their opinion on how the children were affected by their lack of electricity. While they are too young to study more than one subject each night, I was interested to hear what the teachers observed on the effects of energy poverty. The vast majority of these students, Grade 1 to 5, rely on candles for all of their lighting needs. One teacher, Francis Zulu, notices a difference between students who have access to a radio and those without it. He believes the students without radio or television miss out on educational programs and feel embarrassed when other students talk about it.

The problem of embarrassment and self-esteem issues came up often. The school counselor, Theresa B. Kasonde took a moment to explain that “students feel inferior if there is no electricity at home. They isolate themselves, and will not raise their hands in class even when they know the answer”. When Ms. Kasonde meets with students who are having a difficult time, she has them draw their situation at home; their treatment at home can lead to an inferiority complex that the teachers work hard to combat. They encourage and support the students, and track their progress in and out of the classroom.

The vulnerable children of Pakachele Primary School are well cared for thanks to the support of the wonderful teachers there. They do not teach do get rich, and all admitted that there was nothing else they would rather do but teach. For the students who have so little, the 8 teachers and 1 counselor at the school must be jacks of all trades. They are teachers, confidants, and Lifelines for the vulnerable students in Ng’ombe, Lusaka.

Students in Misisi Compound, just a 10 minute drive from Lusaka’s city center, had a hard time answering the question, " when do you study?" I asked grade 6 and 7 students (aged 13 to 17) about their study habits to find out what kind of lighting they used if they studied at night.

Most students live in one or two room cement brick houses. All study at home. A few have electricity, but the majority of homes do not. But even being hooked up to the grid might simply mean a light bulb, a two-burner hotplate and a broken radio, and the hours of the day they actually have power vary widely. Some answered that because of load-shedding (intentionally shutting off the power by the power company). Others admitted to only having power for three days a week, for a few hours a day. This can cost a family anywhere from 50 to 350 kwacha a month, or roughly $10 to $70. The discrepancies in the numbers seemed random to me until Sharon Phiri, a teacher at Mount Sinai Community School, explained that on a given night your power might be cut, but your next door neighbor’s is working.

I first asked students when they studied and invariably received the answer ‘everyday’. The real question though is not when you study but how. Students admitted wishing they could spend two hours a night looking over their papers, but are often without quality lighting to do so. Later, while talking about the cost of electricity with their parents or guardians I began to understand the layered complexities of access to electricity.

ZESCO (Zambia Electricty Supply Corporation Ltd) is the country’s sole electricity supplier. However, power doesn’t always reach informal settlements. While the ZESCO website produces shutdown notices and load-shedding timetables, they are not up to date and do not include Misisi. The most recent load-shedding timetable is from July. As Godfrey Mannchishi, teacher and head of Mount Sinai puts it, “ZESCO is working as a monopoly, it has no competition and they have pride and arrogance.” Residents are quite literally left in the dark trying to predict and prepare for ongoing power cuts.

The power outages are not limited only to Misisi, but the effects there are particularly harsh. With constant cuts, residents must buy candles every day - a strain on budgets that are already stretched by lack of employment and the costs of rent, food, school fees and electricity. Esnelly Phiri, the mother of one student explained that with the cost of candles it's often a choice between using it to see to cook with charcoal or having her daughter study with it.

The situation is made worse by landlords splittng the power lines between houses; renters have little control over their supply of power. If a neighbor uses too much the electricity for the month the supply could end half after two weeks. While sitting with some parents and estimating the cost of energy per month the volatility of the system became evident. Owning a hot plate and a light bulb doesn’t mean that you won’t need to buy charcoal and candles every day to cook and see.

At first glance it seems that access to electricity in the home would translate to the ability to study more. Yet the unpredictabilities of access to electricity make it an unreliable option in Misisi and other compounds.

The World Bank estimates that there are 62 cellphones for every 100 people in Zambia. This week as I interviewed students, their families and the community school teachers of Luba Community School for my research project, I struggled to find anyone who didn’t have a cellphone in their family. Yet I quickly discovered that owning a piece of technology does not automatically translate into the opportunity to use it. Time and time again each respondent laughed at my questions about their cellphone usage.

How often do you use your phone and for what purpose? How do you charge it and how much does it cost? How often do you put more air time on it?

Very few people have electricity in their homes in Lusaka’s Garden compound.  A compound is what other African countries might call an informal settlement or township.  To charge their phones, owners deposit them at kiosks in the compound market for between one to five hours.  It costs an average of one kwacha (US 20c) per hour.  Owning a mobile means little if you don’t have the capacity to charge it. The cellphones I saw were old, handed down or resold as the batteries start to die. Then they must be charged much more often. Some phone owners I spoke with charge the old phones three times a day.

For the residents of Garden, buying minutes or talk time is a daily activity. Time is sold in small increments according to what people can afford, which might only be one to six kwacha a day. For comparison, the current conversation rate is 5.36 kwacha to the US dollar. This amount may seem small, but it adds up very quickly throughout the month to make cellphones an expensive commodity.

But it’s not just the money that makes the phones costly. By leaving their phones for hours in an airtime kiosk, people might often miss out on important information. Soko Evelyn, one of the community schoolteachers at Luba, missed a job interview for a higher paying position with the government because her phone was at a charging station. Ester Mwanza missed a call informing her that her cousin passed away; she did not hear about it until after the burial.

Cellphones can connect people from all over so that they can share information and news. For those without access to a radio, television or the Internet it may be the only opportunity to reliably learn through an SMS what else is going on in their world. Yet having one piece of technology does not take away the negative effects of a deep energy deficit, and in some cases may even add to a financial one as well. So while there may be an abundance of cellphones in Zambia, not everyone that owns one can actually afford to use it.  

I arrived in Nairobi late Sunday night during the horrific terrorist attacks at the Westgate Shopping Centre.  This wasn’t how I expected my arrival in Nairobi to be. Then again I knew going into this that my internship would be different than I imagined. This was my first trip to Kenya and to Africa,  yet rather than hiding in a hotel room or hightailing it back to the airport as my mother wanted, I spent my first day in the Great Rift Valley getting a glimpse of the challenges of rural education.  I came to Kenya to go into the field with Kristine Pearson, Lifeline Energy’s CEO and her friend and Maasai community leader, Agnes Turanta.

For my internship with Lifeline Energy, I will spend the next seven weeks in Lusaka examining the gap between those with information and energy and those without.  I will also look at how access to information and energy impact education and what radio access means to a student or a teacher.

Today was only day one and if it any indication of what’s to come, then I’m thrilled. The Oltanki Primary School has seven teachers for 267 students in Grades 1 through 6, including pre-school. There is no electricity or running water and the student’s uniforms are in tatters. Despite the dirt floors and bare wooden benches the bright smiles and warm welcomes were encouraging.

Florence Kamiau, the head of the school, explained to us how many obstacles these young students have to overcome. The children walk an average of four kilometers each way, often arriving tired, but always ready to learn. The students and teachers work hard despite having so little. They solved their own problem of drinking water by harvesting rain from the rooftop drainage pipes.

Opened in 2009, Oltanki ranks 4th in a district of 20 schools. The only schools that ranked higher have electricity and running water.

With the Prime radio that Lifeline Energy provided to Oltanki today, the school will have access to news and information. The teachers and students will be able to listen to interesting programmes in their local language, Maa; national broadcasts in Swahili; or the BBC or China International Radio broadcasts in English.

Today has been a whirlwind as I witnessed my first glimpse of limited access to energy and information in Africa. There are so many facets and layers to energy poverty, and I hope to explore each one further. 

My friends have asked me what I expect to learn from this trip and from what I have seen from my first day, I have great expectations about what I will discover.