“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.