UNH Solar Power for Schools is a group of UNH graduate students and alumni working collaboratively with partners and the village of Toh Kpalime to bring solar power to hundreds of students who currently lack access to electricity.
Every school day in Toh Kpalime, Ghana, a gaggle of 200 enthusiastic children gather under the tin roofs of the Bethel Takumi Community School. These students are pursuing their education in a rural village just to the west of Lake Volta. Most of their parents are subsistence farmers, who grow just enough food to feed themselves and purchase staples from a nearby market. Ask any of these students about their school, and they will proudly tell you that it has the biggest library in Toh, “with all sorts of books!” They will tell you that their uniforms are blue, “and itchy!” They will tell you that they love their teacher, love learning. What these students may not tell you about their school is that it lacks access to electricity. The school is not unique in its lack of electricity: the village of Toh Kpalime and surrounding areas have no reliable source of electricity. Those structures that do have access to Ghana’s notoriously unreliable electrical grid experience blackouts so frequent that locals are surprised when the lights do work. The school does its best to educate its students without fans, lights, any electronics, a refrigerator or stove for food. However, without electricity, Toh-Kpalime’s educators can’t protect students from distracting heat, or introduce them to the technology and materials that their urban and international peers are learning. Without power, teachers are unable to provide better light for their studies, and the cement walls of the classrooms are left half-built to let in outside light. Without electricity, even the most dedicated and resourceful educators at the Takumi Community School are seriously limited in providing the high quality education needed to reduce poverty and expand opportunities in this community.
A lack of access to electricity doesn’t just limit educational opportunities in developing communities like Toh Kpalime. It also poses a serious risk to health, and creates a barrier to economic growth.
UNH Solar Power for Schools partnered with the community of Toh Kpalime and a range of collaborators in New Hampshire and Canada to build a photovoltaic system for the Takumi Community School. In Toh-Kpalime, access to electricity will improve educational quality, create a center where adults can hold community meetings or night classes, and power the technologies that will drive their economic development in a sustainable way. The project will also provide access to training for village members interested in learning how to build and maintain photovoltaic systems. Adult community members that work all day will have access to a building with lights where night classes and community meetings can be held. Cell phones can be charged so that farmers can call markets to bargain for better prices. Here in New Hampshire, the project is engaging local elementary school children in the lives of students their age across the world. They learn about the science of energy, about Toh-Kpalime’s culture and geography through workshops held by UNH Solar Power for Schools.
At every stage in this project, UNH Solar Power for Schools has emphasized a collaborative approach. Our interdisciplinary team has studied the pitfalls and successes of engineering and sustainable development projects, and determined that the only way to ensure positive outcomes is to engage both the Toh-Kpalime community and our own throughout the process. Our team is not just building a PV system for a community – we are working with that community to determine how this system will impact life in the community, how it will be used, how it will be maintained, and how our team and Toh’s leaders will ensure fairness and transparency in its use. Our approach empowers members of the community to talk about their visions for Toh Kpalime’s future, and those visions inform every decision.