Monday, 1 September 2008

Visiting Ashden Award winners in East Africa

Ben Dixon, programme manager on the Ashden Awards team, has just returned from a trip around East Africa, working with past Ashden Award winners. Here's a report on his trip.

I’m just back from East Africa, having spent almost three weeks working with Ashden Award winners in Ethiopia and Tanzania. It is always inspiring to see the amazing social, environmental and economic benefits that Ashden Awards winners are delivering in the communities where they work – and this trip was no exception.

I started off in Addis Ababa, where I was able to attend a workshop that the Gaia Association (2008 winners) had organised to celebrate winning their Ashden Awards with all of the partners that have supported their work. This workshop had impressive high-level attendance from the Ethiopian government, including three government ministers and the head of the government’s Environmental Protection Agency. All were very supportive of Gaia’s plans to work with their private sector partner (Makobu Enterprises) on scaling up their manufacture and supply of ethanol stoves for urban areas, and providing ethanol stoves for more refugee camps in the north of the country (partnering with the UNHCR). It was also great to meet some of their customers in Addis, who are very happy with their stoves. We are working to connect Gaia with sources of support as they build their business plan and identify the finance they will need to achieve their scale-up goals.

Next was Tanzania, where we have three winning projects (and one winner who has relocated from Rwanda).

Zara Solar (2007 winner), based in Mwanza in the north-west of the country, are one of Tanzania’s leading suppliers of solar products. I was able to visit the villages and institutions where Zara has installed solar systems, and see some of the ways in which solar electricity is transforming their customers’ lives. Lighting of course (replacing dirty and expensive kerosene lamps), mobile phone charging, fridges, satellite TV, and even a piano synthesiser! Zara is working on two new strategic projects: developing new products for Lake Victoria’s fishermen, who use polluting kerosene lamps to attract fish to their nets, and working with local credit agencies that can provide loans to help their customers overcome the barrier of the upfront costs of purchasing a solar system (which will pay for itself in reduced fuel costs).

Mwanza Rural Housing and Food Security Project (MRHP) (2006 winner) are also based in Mwanza. They are an NGO providing housing, agricultural, and energy services to rural communities around Mwanza. They won an Ashden Award for their sustainable brick-making programme, training local entrepreneurs to fire bricks using agricultural waste (rice husks) rather than firewood. It is amazing to see the transformational effect this programme has had in the region – everywhere we travelled there were smoking brick kilns fuelled by rice husks, and rice farmers are now selling rice husks to brick makers (they used to pay people to take them away). We discussed MRHP’s plans for the future, which include expansion of their brick programme and commercialisation of a programme to provide energy saving stoves for rural and urban people. We will be providing support in the form of a professional volunteer organised through the Scottish charity Challenges Worldwide.

Kisangani Smith Group (KSG), are based in Njombe in the south-west of Tanzania. This group of blacksmiths won a 2008 Ashden Award for the design and production of a cooking stove that runs on sawdust – a waste product from the local timber industry. We spent some time looking at their plans for scale-up of their stoves business, and then travelled out of the city to the village of Mkiyu, where KSG have a training workshop for local youths. They have plans for a micro-hydro project to supply electricity to the workshop, the village, and a local secondary school – we visited the proposed site and also were lucky to see two neighbouring micro-hydro projects (one working, one under construction). It is truly eye-opening to see the engineering that is used to build these projects in remote areas, and to see the impact of bringing electricity to places where development is so constrained by the absence of energy for lighting houses and schools and carrying out income-generating activities such as agricultural processing.

Finally, a special mention to Ainea Kimaro, who won an Ashden Award for his biogas programme in prisons in Rwanda (he was working at the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology, Ashden Award winner in 2005). Now living in Tanzania, we met and I heard all about his biogas plans for Tanzania – exciting and top secret for now, so watch this space!

Ben Dixon

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