Nestled in the beautiful Ugandan hills two-hours west of the capital Kampala, sits Pioneer High School. The rural secondary school, set over 10km away from the next senior school, has a thriving student base of 472 student—54% of which are female. Headteacher Francis Kyanja sits on the steps of the staff dormitory at the highest point of the school grounds, looking back over the classrooms blocks to the rolling hills in the distance and, in the foreground, students reading and playing on the grass following a day of study. The school day here is long: lesson prep often begins at 7.30am and by the time the final bell is called at 4.30pm, teachers and students alike are ready for a hearty meal and some well-earned relaxation time.
Headteacher Francis has not only ushered a regionally cutting-edge and rigorous educational program, including history, science, arts, mathematics and religion, he was able to arrange an off-grid solar electricity system installed within the school grounds, providing electricity to the community for the first time.
In Uganda, as everywhere, it is inarguable the importance of education and the need to advance societies.
To that fact, there are bold global goals for universal education access, namely the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. Too often, however, education ends at primary school and millions of students are unable to continue their studies due to financial, gender or regional limitations. To help bridge that gap, UK social enterprise PEAS (Promoting Equality in African Schools) has built and manages sustainable secondary schools to allow African children receive further education that otherwise wouldn’t. The organization attempts to ensure that all of their schools are financially self-sufficient enabling them to run, independent of international aid, for the long-term.
Headteacher Francis has situated himself at an elevated position in order to gain mobile phone signal, intermittent at best in this region. He has agreed to speak with me via Skype, the first time he has ever used the platform, to discuss the impact a power supply brings to student learning.
Pioneer High School is situated in a coffee growing community, not directly in a village, and is about 50 km outside of Kampala and about 7 km away from the main road. Its purpose is to hone their students’ skills and knowledge, along with providing boarding for students. The rural area does not lend easy connection to the national grid, thus there has been no access to electricity to date. In fact the closest power line is near the main road. Francis is unaware of any future plans for extension of the transmission and distribution network, thus localized generation has smartly been turned to through a small-scale solar system. Centralized generation with high-voltage, long distance transmission lines have a place, but for small rural communities, off-grid systems are the most effective option to gain access to electricity.
Electricity is, in many ways, an additional lifeblood of an advancing community. Without electricity there are no lights, refrigeration for vaccines, charging for phones, or using computers, among the myriad of other uses in today’s world. Electricity provides a conduit to open doors instead of being trapped in the cycle of poverty. Francis noted that with the electricity, there is now the ability to connect with the outside world, as our Skype call was testament to, and to relay events domestically and globally.
As well as speaking with the Headteacher, I had the opportunity to spend time talking to two ambitious, friendly and gracious students who were excited to share their new experience. Naudrine, a confident 17 year old boarding student, wants to become either a doctor or an engineer, and her favorite subject is chemistry. She explained, as I noticed her visible happiness displayed by her facial features, how having the access to electricity and lighting provides her time to complete her studies in the evening and to prepare for class the next day. She also stated that the electricity in the school along with the fenced areas surrounding the school provide an extra sense of security.
Peter, a smiley faced 16 year old, told me his favorite subject is mathematics and desires to become a businessman. He too echoed the opening the electricity provides for night time studying, thus being able to advance his studies. He continued that the solar electric system was a living science experiment to learn from.
Both Naudrine and Peter, who have faced various challenged in their youth, were unequivocal that education and electricity have transformed their daily lives.
The system power house is about 10 meters from the school and near the solar arrays, which houses the batteries, electric box, invertors, and other technical system materials, with the conduit running to the school. The system has been designed to be expanded in the future and to reach the local area to provide new development opportunities, which students—including some members’ children—currently benefit from. The electricity would be sold to provide income to further sustain the school or offset school fees.
Currently, though, a very important additional benefit of the current electricity system is the ability to have better security, which is extremely comforting to the students who attend only day classes. There is 24 hour security for the compound and there are plans to continue the security efforts to build lights down the path from the school.
The system installed consists of advanced technology, thus onsite maintenance was necessary to be learned before the installers departed. New Age Solar Technologies (NAST), located in Kampala, designed, installed and does assist with the system when problems arise. However, NAST educated students on maintenance procedures so they now assist in keeping the system functioning to avoid any system disruptions.
Away for the school, the region is poor and households are reliant on firewood for cooking, heating and light, without access to electricity or cookstoves. Unlike other regions, charcoal is not frequently used as well.
Gathering the firewood, almost exclusively by women—young and old, takes away from time that could be used more productively. Much of the economy is agrarian based— specializing in coffee—and the flow of money is sparse and access to markets in not readily available. Moving beyond firewood collection, more time in the day could provide, for example, the ability to start a small business and bring coffee to market. Increased income can help pay school fees and sustain attaining solar lanterns and keeping them charged, enabling openings of other aspects of socio-economic growth.
As we come to the end of our discussion, Headteacher Francis talks a little about his own experience. He has worked with PEAS for 5 years and his passion for the project is clear. He has acquired various additional skills such as: leadership and administrative skills and feels touched to work with the organization that has such a great mission and vision. He says solar has given them a great opportunity to improve the community’s outlook.
Francis stated the area is thankful for PEAS providing the opportunity, for the students and himself, to have the chance to deliver secondary education and for the school to have an off-grid solar system to provide electricity to bring the associated benefits. He knows the combination will enable great benefits to the region.
After the inspiring chat, I was left with the impression that Francis, Naudrine and Peter will be able to attain their goals thanks to their ability to attend Pioneer School and having new access to electricity.