Posted by: seedfoundation | September 29, 2010

Perspectives from Africa

Ladies and gentleman this is the first in hopefully a series of OIT student interviews.  The first student is John Grieser, Oregon Tech scholar and apprentice engineer extraordinaire.  John recently returned from the small, quant little village known as AFRICA!!!  The following is his perspective on the first Solar HOPE  installation expedition in Tanzania.

John hanging out with the locals

E.B. – Hi John Grieser, how are you today?

J.G. – Fine, thank you for having me on the show today.

E.B. – You’re welcome.  So a group of students from Oregon Tech recently went to Tanzania and installed solar panels.  How many students went down total?

J.G. – Uhhhh… eleven and a half.

E.B. – So there was a midget?

J.G. – Yeah.  <laughter>  No, I think there was….myself, Brandon, Mike, Sean, Andrew, Dan, Leslie, Kelly, Jen, and…I think that’s it…nine.

E.B. – And you guys left August 20th?

J.G. – We left on August 15th.  We arrived in Dar Es Salaam on August 17th.

E.B. – Do you mind giving a brief rundown or summary of the entire trip and then we can go into more detail later?

J.G. – Sure, well it was a two part trip.  The first part being focused on the installs, the second half focused on….not really having a focus, I guess just doing the tourist part – doing the safaris, climbing Kilimanjaro, that took two weeks, the first part was three weeks.  We started in Dar Es Salaam which is the capital, it’s the largest city in Tanzania, it’s along the Indian Ocean.  And we did twelve installations in those three weeks mostly in the southern half of Tanzania anywhere from Dar [es Salaam] all the way up to the western border.  We did installations at schools, classrooms, dormitories, medical clinics, and a Massai village.

Nappy time

E.B. – Excellent.  So what were some of the things that really stood out about the local populations with regards to food, water, and especially energy?  What were some of things that really stood out that were maybe similar or different to what we have here in Portland?

J.G. – Well, starting off with energy since that was the reason we were there, most people don’t have access to electricity unless you’re in a city.  If you’re are in a bigger city like Dar Es Salaam or Aringa or Arusha, those big cities you probably have electricity, but once you get outside of the city, it doesn’t take far – 15 -20 miles outside the city center all the homes and all the villages start turning into the same brick building you see everywhere.  They make the bricks in the village, there is one person that does that, they take mud and they have this little wooden frame and they pack as much mud in that frame as they can and then they dry them out in the sun and they have bricks.  The older ones have a thatched roof, the newer ones have a tin roof.

You’ll see power lines running along the road but none of the lines go to homes or villages – they just can’t afford it.  Electricity rates are pretty comparable in price per kilowatt hour as they are here.  I think it was 160 shillings per kilowatt which is a little over 10 cents.  Electricity production is highly variable too, because it’s not as developed a system as ours.  You go to a lot of places and they have a voltage regulator because the voltage is supposed to be 220/240 coming out of the wall, but they get anything from 160 to 260 which can damage some devices.  So a lot of places have a T.V. that they run through a voltage regulator that can smooth out the power.  It’s something they haven’t completely figured out over there.

There are a lot of diesel generators.  Out in the villages there is just no way to get them power.  There might not even be power lines in the vicinity. Pretty much there only option is solar because they are on the equator and they get consistent sun all year and you don’t need to have the infrastructure for the installations.

E.B. – Why do you think solar energy is beneficial to these rural communities?

J.G. – The most important thing is that the one piece of technology that everyone has grasped is cell phones.  Almost everyone we met in Tanzania had a cell phone.

E.B. – Including the Massai?

J.G. – Including the Massai.  Not everyone in the village but a lot of elders and the ones who had jobs.  There were a few in each village who had a job because there were things they needed to buy in town like rice and clothing.  Everywhere we went in the country we had cell phone service, even if we were in a national park or up on top of a mountain – we had service.  It was better coverage then we have in the U.S.  The problem is they don’t have electricity so they can’t charge their cell phones.  They can’t access this communication technology.

What they would do is have one person that collects everyone’s cell phones in a big bag and hike 16 km in town and sit and charge the phones all day.  After the installations they were almost happier to see they had the ability to charge their cell phones than to have lights at night.  The cell phones are more important to them because the cell phones are their connection to the outside world.

E.B. – Did you also install or give them LED lamps and lights?

J.G. – Yeah, all lights in the installs were LED.  All of our installs were small.  We were actually surprised they were all one solar panel per install which was anywhere from 160 to 220 watt panel.  So we were thinking, “wait, that’s not going to give us very much power”. But then we looked at the lights, and they were anywhere from 2 – 9 watts.  That’s a tenth or less the power consumption of an incandescent bulb so that enables us to put up 10, 20, or even 30 light bulbs per installation and still only have one small panel.

Installed LED lights

E.B. – So did you guys effectively replace a lot of the kerosene lamps then, because that was one of the original goals right?

J.G. – Yeah, that was one of Slobodan’s primary concerns.  What they used for lighting previously was kerosene lamps which are a very dirty and dangerous fuel.  It’s dirty because they’re in closed spaces breathing the fumes and it’s a big health concern.

But, also there is a risk of fire with them.  One of Slobodan’s potential sites last year was turned down for installations by the solar organization he previously worked with.  The site was a student dormitory.   Later, a kerosene lamp fire burned it down, killing eleven young girls.  He left them to start Solar HOPE with the goal of preventing further tragedies.

E.B. – Are there plans to do a return trip to Tanzania sometime soon or perhaps next year around the same time?

J.G. – Yeah, there are plans to do at least two return trips in the next year; the summer trip like this year and possibly one over the winter break like late December or early January.  While we were out there, besides doing the solar installations, we gave a couple proposals for water pumping systems.

One village, of about 400 families, lives by a river.  They make 8-10 trips, per woman, per day, carrying 5 gallon buckets on their heads back to the village.  The biggest problem with the water is that crocodiles live in it.  A few times a year, one of the woman villagers gets snatched up by a crocodile.  What we want to do is give them a solar power water pump to bring water safely from the river uphill to the village.  It’s a totally doable project, there’s not much elevation gain so it wouldn’t require a big pump or a lot of power.  So that is a possibility for this winter trip.

E.B. – So do you think the experience down in Africa and your prior education at Oregon Tech has benefitted you with solar installs and the solar installs in Africa will benefit you as you finish your final year at Oregon Tech?

J.G. – Yeah absolutely.  One of things that originally sparked my interest in renewable energy was the ability to bring it to places that are off the grid whether it is by choice or in third world countries where it’s needed.  When we bring electricity to them, we are bringing communication, technology, wealth and knowledge.  Energy is knowledge and it brings access to so many things in the world.

E.B. – Did you feel safe in Tanzania?

J.G. – Yeah I felt safe.  The people were not threatening.  Not once did I fear for my safety.  I think they are generally good and honest people.

E.B. – What were some of the highlights of the trip?

J.G. – We did things that no one gets to do outside of Africa and we did things that everyone does in Africa.  Obviously it was spectacular on the safaris seeing the animals and it was unforgettable climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro.  The climb was a physically and mentally demanding six days, but very rewarding.  The highlights of the trip for me were the solar installations and seeing how grateful and happy the people were in our technology and our ways.

Halfway up Mt. Kilimanjaro

After a handful of the installations the headmaster would gather all the kids [students], and they would organize in rows and sing their national anthem or sing their school song.  They would do dances too.  They had kids playing drums.  At one site, Jen, Kelly and I danced with some of the kids.  Dust filled the air and we couldn’t see.  It was pretty special.

At another site, when things slowed down during an installation, I wandered outside to mingle with the kids a little and before I knew it I was involved in a two hundred person soccer game.  They play soccer with this little ball that’s made of plastic bags wrapped up in shoe strings.  They had all the skills and knew all the tricks.  It was a lot of fun.

E.B. – What are some things that you would like to see done differently for the following trips?

J.G. – Almost every installation we did, we would go to the site in the morning, install throughout the day, finish by nighttime and then leave.  We would only interact with the locals in between our work throughout the day.  So it was difficult to develop a real relationship with the locals.

Also, there was a lot of downtime because we had to wait while the local electricians did the wiring for the lights.  I think next year, if we were to do it differently, we could have smaller teams based out of a central location in a city, and we could send two or three separate teams out, maybe no more than four: a local, a guide and the students.  If it takes two days, then fine.  We could stay overnight and develop a better relationship with the locals by staying with them.

E.B. – Overall would you recommend the Solar HOPE expeditions to other Oregon Tech students or other students in general?

J.G. – It was an unforgettable journey.  It was the greatest experience I’ve ever had.  I learned about other people and other cultures.  I learned a lot about myself.  I learned a lot about renewable energy and solar panel installs and hands on work.  I would absolutely recommend it to anybody, especially to others in the REE program because you have to take advantage of every opportunity you have to learn and help others.

Meeting the locals on a safari

For more information on Solar HOPE, visit



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