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Female Solar Engineers Light Up Remote Villages in Zanzibar

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By Kizito Makoye

KENDWA, Tanzania (IDN) – As darkness falls, Natasha Mahmood and her brother huddle around the weak flame of a paraffin lamp, rushing to finish their homework before their mother blows it out to save fuel.

“I often try to get it done early. But that’s not always the case. My teacher sometimes punishes me for failing to complete my work,” says Mahmood, as a trail of smoke from the lamp rises into a corrugated roof smirched with soot. (P08) GERMAN | JAPANESE TEXT VERSION PDF | SWAHILI

For years, 14-year-old Mahmood, a pupil at Dimbani primary school in Kendwa village, northern Zanzibar, has been pleading with her mother to get a better lamp to avoid harmful smoke that makes her sneeze, but Mahmood’s mother has been dilly-dallying to discuss the matter with her husband, who is the sole decision maker on family matters.

Now, however, as part of an initiative aimed at bringing electricity to many off-grid areas in Tanzania’s semi-autonomous archipelago, Mahmood and her brother will soon be studying every night under a bright solar LED light, because their home is due to be fitted with solar power, thanks to a group of women trained as solar engineers who convinced Mahmood’s father to install solar power.

With the equivalent of just three dollars a month, Mahmood’s father has hired a female engineer in the village to install and maintain his family’s mini solar system.

“I can’t wait study under brighter light. I will no longer suffer from harmful smoke,” says Mahmood with a broad smile.

Despite being one of the world’s best tourist destinations, government statistics show that half of the population in Zanzibar live below the poverty line, with no access to electricity.

A short walk from pristine beaches dotted with five-star hotels to the dusty villages nearby, where thatched homes are plunged into darkness after sunset, is enough to show the gap between the rich and the poor.

While solar power provides cheap electricity to remote off-grid areas and reduces climate changing emissions, it is widely seen as a source of employment and income for women in Zanzibar’s male-dominated community, say experts from Barefoot College, an India-based charity working to empower women in East Africa.

In this east African country where only 24 percent of the population has access to grid electricity, according to Tanzania’s Ministry of Energy, empowering women can help them realise their full potential and actively participate in community decision-making, notes Malik Khamis, an official in Zanzibar’s Ministry of Empowerment, Social Welfare, Youth, Women and Children.

Barefoot College is trying to lift women out of poverty by imparting transferable skills and knowledge so that they can earn a living as solar engineers.

The charity works closely with community elders in Zanzibar, who help identify suitable candidates for training, usually illiterate women with strong roots in their villages.

The project has been created to meet the growing needs of cash-strapped rural women who are unable to find paid work elsewhere due to the male-dominated system.

According to Khamis, members of local communities are usually asked to choose two women aged between 35 and 55 to leave their families and attend a five-month course at college to learn solar engineering.

When they graduate, they return to their villages and start working as technicians, installing solar power with a salary of up to the equivalent of 60 dollars a month.

Women solar engineers from villages like Kendwa have so far installed electricity in more than 1000 households in Zanzibar, according to the charity.

Ali Hemed Mabrouk, who works as a tailor in Kendwa village, is busy sewing clothes under a bright LED lamp connected to a battery charged by a small solar panel nestled on his roof. For this brighter, cleaner and safer electricity, Ali now pays less than half of what he had previously spent buying kerosene.

Having solar-powered electricity is a blessing for the 51-year-old father of six. By working at night, he has been able to raise his family’s income by up to 10 dollars a month. Not so long ago, darkness would have prevented this.

“When you don’t have electricity there are a lot of opportunities you will be missing. Your children may use a paraffin lamp for studying, which will make them sick and cost you money for their treatment,” says Ali.

Abu-Bakr Khalid Bakar, Barefoot College community support manager, says that helping women to become solar engineers is the best way to reduce poverty and protect the environment, since they are quick to promote the use of clean energy.

Husna Husein Makame, a widow and mother of three children, has a reason to smile now that she is able to earn a living for her family.

After months of training as a community solar engineer for her village, she is now able to earn a regular income and subsequently raise her status working for the scheme that seeks to bring light to many off-grid rural villages in the Indian Ocean archipelago best known for spices.

“I really enjoyed participating in the lessons. I am now enjoying the fruits of my hard work,” she says, adding that the Barefoot College charity has made a huge impact on improving access to electricity in remote villages.

“I had no status in society before,” says Makame, “but with my skills and knowledge, everyone now calls me ‘Mhandisi’ [Swahili for engineer].” [IDN-InDepthNews – 06 June 2019]

Photo: Mariam Kassim Salum charging her phone on a solar equipment at Kizimkazi village in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Courtesy: Barefoot College

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