The power of the sun

African Photovoltaic Project
The Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria

The Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur have ministered in the Democratic Republic of Congo since 1894 and in Nigeria since 1963. Aware that the lack of clean water and electricity were major problems for both Nigeria and the Congo, they reviewed energy needs and researched energy alternatives. It soon became evident that with the technology available today, countries like Nigeria and the Congo should not have to struggle without electricity or safe water.

The mission of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur is to teach what is needed to live. The African Photovoltaic Project enhances this mission. Electricity and technology are viewed as tools that enable the sisters to continue their ministry effectiveness in education and health care. Hence, they ventured into the planning and development of independent power management facilities for 13 communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo and 12 in Nigeria.

Most of these communities have a school and/or clinic or hospital, but their education and health care services are hampered by the lack of infrastructure needed for effective service. The African Photovoltaic Project enhances the infrastructure needed to live and teach by providing access to electricity and the Internet. Health centers will now be able to explore up-to-date medical procedures and referrals, and teachers and students will be able to access information and broaden their scope of learning via the African Photovoltaic Project satellite Internet connection.

Living conditions of the people

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In the rural areas, families subsist through agricultural and land jobs. Most of the people earn less than $200 a year. In some of the Nigerian urban communities, family subsistence is achieved through daily wage earnings, manual labor, or hired house employment. Many people, especially in the cities, eat once a day. Housing for the people consists of single room structures made of mud or stone.

All communities have little or no access to clean water and electricity. Carrying water from the river or community spigot to fill water cisterns is part of the early morning ritual for young and old. The water needs to be purified by boiling and filtering. The infrastructure that provides electricity is fragile and the cost for fuel-operated generators is prohibitive. In some parts of the Congo some communities have no access to electricity so health clinics rely on kerosene lamps for night needs and for emergencies, they ration electricity from fuel-operated generators.

Preparations for project implementation

The ministry of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur is education and health care, but in some cases the sisters may participate in agricultural tasks. Realizing the serious problems ensued by lack of clean water and electricity, the sisters learned that electricity can be harnessed and water can be purified through a simple, self-sustaining plan that uses solar energy. Along with industry experts, the congregation developed a plan to create a 25-system grid of photovoltaic power panels in Nigeria and the Democratic Republic of Congo. To date, two African Photovoltaic Project Projects have been built; one in Nigeria and one in the Congo. The second project in Nigeria was scheduled to go on-line in 2008.

As the inception of the African Photovoltaic Project began to take shape, the sisters found themselves needing new skills. To take on the responsibility for upkeep and repair of the projects, they needed to develop skills in monitoring, correcting, and aligning the hardware and software. Two sisters enrolled in programs of higher education to study engineering and electricity. In addition, the Congregation has pursued contractual agreements with local Nigerian and Congolese vendors and contractors in construction, electricity, solar connections, and telecommunications to ensure ongoing supervision and maintenance of the projects.

Each project presented its own set of challenges, which altered the plans and projections for successive systems. As these challenges were addressed and solved, each additional project was enhanced as it came on-line.

In summary, the sisters and local leadership in the development of this project have contributed by:

  • Initiating a study to determine appropriate technology for addressing needs

  • Developing resources needed to provide support of this concept

  • Training and educating the sisters and local teams for the viability of this project

  • Researching and encouraging the involvement of local vendors

  • Supervising the building and implementation of the project

Step-by-step procedures for implementation

2003:


  • Contacted local engineers (Sustainable Energy Solutions) to discuss the lack of clean water and electricity in the Congo and Nigeria and explored alternative solutions to the problem

  • Discussed the possibility of initiating solar-powered projects with the local Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur leaders in the Congo and Nigeria. Dialogue and conversation with the local leadership is essential. When this possibility was first presented to the sisters they declined to accept it in their respective provinces, stating that they didn't have the skills to maintain the solar panels. Continued discussion with the sisters helped to pave the way for their acceptance

  • Conducted a feasibility survey of local ministry sites in Nigeria and the Congo to determine the sites most suited to implementation of a photovoltaic project

2004:


  • Planned for implementation of projects at selected sites and attracted donor involvement

  • Informed civil community leadership and followed local protocol to assure sustainability

  • Made preparations for building a prototype solar powered project in Ipswich, Massachusetts

  • Planned the initial training of sisters at the prototype site in Ipswich. The education program designed to train the sisters and others in the needed skills was a significant factor for their acceptance and support of the project

2005:


  • Presented the prototype project in Ipswich in October 2005

  • Planned for the initial presentation of the prototype to donors and school supporters

  • Prepared for the training of sisters and co-workers in all aspects of building, operating, and trouble-shooting at local sites

2006:


  • Conducted the education and training program for the sisters in Fugar, Nigeria. This training program was presented in two languages (English and French) and included translations for all materials. The training session included an expansion of the African Photovoltaic Project teams to include drivers and maintenance personnel.

2007:


  • Monitored and made adjustments as needed for the projects in Ipswich and Fugar, Nigeria. Once the projects were installed and running, supervision was needed to adjust controls as necessary. Each project needed someone to watch over it very carefully.
  • Prepared tentative plans for two new projects in Ngidinga, Congo and in Enugu, Nigeria

2008:


  • Finalized preparation for the project in Ngidinga, Congo. Training of the sisters helped them to understand the operation and material needs of the energy station.

  • Monitored and made adjustments as needed for the two projects in Nigeria and one in the Congo. Distance between sites in both countries required that each site had its own overseer. The stations were monitored professionally by systems experts through satellite links, which connected each station to the internet.

  • Finalized preparations for the project in Enugu, Nigeria

  • Prepared tentative plans for the project in Nselo, Congo

  • Reviewed and re-aligned project projections and expectations

Factors that affected progress

The importance of commitment, patience, and perseverance cannot be overestimated in an undertaking of this size. It is also important to gather a wide spectrum of people as a working group who understand the need for the project. Moreover, good communication plays a significant role in gaining and maintaining the cooperation of everyone affected by the changes that will impact their lives.

The Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters was one of the first foundations contacted for support of this project. At its invitation, a presentation of the project was given to the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters staff early in 2004. At that time the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters staff expressed concern about the viability of the project and suggested the development of a prototype as a trial run and model. Following this, a prototype was researched and initiated. It included a plan to bring sisters from Nigeria and Congo to Ipswich, Massachusetts, for initial training and experience in building the project. Further contact with the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters resulted in a three-year grant with a matching grant from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. The two grants are being used to fund the education and training of sisters and local community members.

Other factors that helped move the project forward were:


  • Knowing that clean water and electricity are vital to the sustainability of life and that photovoltaic technology would provide for a better and healthier life, was the driving force for this project.

  • Involving the local community in the construction and connection of materials helped them realize that they play a vital part in making this change possible in the lives of the poor.

  • Knowing that they have the ability to actually make this happen encouraged the sisters and the local leadership to keep moving forward.

Factors that impeded progress included the following: 1) visa procurement and shipment information, 2) transportation delays of materials, 3) equipment that malfunctioned, 4) personnel changes, 5) communication issues, and 6) cash flow.

It was not possible to hold to the timetable of completing 25 projects in 5 years. Adjustments that altered initiation and implementation were due for the most part to a misjudgment of the time needed for various program components such as: 1) the education component, 2) the funding component, 3) transportation of materials and customs clearance, and 4) adjustments, data retrieval, and re-alignment of project details.

Sustainability measures taken

Planning for future leadership is essential for program stability. The Congregation continues to direct and support the installation of new African Photovoltaic Project sites. As each site came on-line and was cared for by local teams, the maintenance of each unit was included as a line item in capital improvement budgets.

Ongoing training opportunities are ever present. As the projects and responsibilities grew, and as trained sisters moved on to other ministries, it has become standard practice for additional personnel to be trained and to move into higher levels of responsibility. To date, project managers have remained constant. Daily communication between project sites and program personnel is paramount.

Fund raising efforts have helped the congregation assume the initial financing of the 25 projects in the plan. With good maintenance, the life projection of each project is 25 years. Projections have been developed for each of the Nigerian and Congolese provinces to include maintenance of the projects through capital campaigns.

Each project is evaluated after installation by the engineers and the project manager. Moreover, a procedure for computerized monitoring of each project assures accurate performance of each project component. Since 2005, all activity has been monitored from the Ipswich site. This site provides the data used for making needed adjustments.

Greatest challenges for ongoing development

Funding is a major challenge for any kind of project in developing countries. Education of the local community in understanding the purpose of the project and the responsibility of respecting and caring for the property and technology is also important. Other great challenges for continued development are: cost of equipment, failing equipment, fund raising options, training of personnel, transportation problems, and the ever-present need to move slowly as dictated by the culture in both countries.

Factors that have helped to overcome these challenges include: 1) researching funding options with professional consultants, 2) developing a long-range plan for replacing personnel, 3) developing a better understanding of local transportation and customs procedures, and 4) good communication procedures.

Plans for the future

In addition to the prototype project in the United States, two African sites are now fully operational. As each project is planned and installed, unique problems which require adjustments in the plan are expected. A lot has been learned about energy needs, energy requirements, photovoltaic panels, satellite connections, local weather, and the effect of the interaction of all of these variables.

Currently there are no plans for expansion beyond the 25 projects in the existing long range plan. Other groups, both community-based and religious-affiliated, are interested in photovoltaic technology for their villages and communities. This kind of technology is encouraged beyond these borders and Sustainable Energy Solutions will also assist them if contacted.

This project has the potential to change forever the lives of children and adults who benefit from the use of the African Photovoltaic Project in their communities. The impact on educational endeavors and health care options made possible through sun powered energy and internet connections is a significant life changing experience for everyone involved.

*****

Taken from Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World © 2009, sponsored by the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters and used with its permission. All rights reserved.

For more information about the program or about Seeds of Hope Seeds of Hope: Sisters in Action Around the World, contact: the Conrad N. Hilton Fund for Sisters, 10100 Santa Monica Blvd. Suite 1000, Los Angeles, CA 90067-4011 USA. Telephone: 310-785-0746 / Fax: 310-785-0166 / E-mail: info@hiltonfundforsisters.org. Web site: www.hiltonfundforsisters.org.


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