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Solar lights for peace and reconciliation

Keith Neal

Keith Neal is a long-time supporter of SolarAid and has seen first hand the ability of solar lights to transform communities. Given the time and dedication he puts in to helping us spread solar throughout Africa it’s a wonder that he found the time to write a blog about his latest experiences. Thanks for the blog Keith, but most of all, thanks for your hard work and dedication. 

By Keith Neal

Joseph Karanja is a highly-qualified Kenyan lawyer. He has been a friend of mine for over 20 years. He was brought up in Eldoret, an important town in Uasin Gishu County in Western Kenya. He remembers struggling to get educated without any electric light in the house. However, through sheer determination he succeeded. He is a trusted entrepreneur who is determined to help Kenyans lift themselves out of poverty so that they can enjoy a satisfying life.

In 2007, Eldoret was the epicentre for inter-tribal violence following presidential and parliamentary elections. In spite of this history, many refugees from the surrounding area have settled in and around Eldoret in make-shift accommodation. Joseph, members of a local church, and a group of business people are working together to help transform a community of just over 400 refugee families – that’s well over 2,000 people.

“(The solar light) is a symbol of purity. Unlike kerosene lamps and firewood which emit smoke, solar is clean energy. It signifies that there will be no more external influences that harm a fellow human being.”

Early in 2013 I introduced Joseph to SolarAid. Solar lights have been one of the tools used to help transform this community. Remarkable progress has been made in addressing the need for education, employment and income generation, but most significantly this would not have been possible without a strategy to create peace and reconciliation within the community. Solar lights have, surprisingly, been a key to achieving this.

Under Joseph’s initiative, solar lights were trialled in Munyaka, a very poor part of Eldoret. This community is a microcosm of Kenya’s needs as a country. The families come from previously warring tribes, who are deeply suspicious of each other. They live side by side only because there is no other accommodation for them. What they have in common is their refugee status. Some children are orphans and some have only one parent. Mental health is a significant issue as parents who are still traumatised are unable to look after their children.

Joseph established an organising committee, which works in partnership with the Munyaka Anglican Church of Kenya and with people of other faiths. In Munyaka, only 10 per cent of the population have access to electricity. Getting connected to the grid costs £490, which is way beyond the reach of most of the population, who are generally very poor and dependent onfirewood and kerosene. Those who cannot afford kerosene do not have any light at night and children are unable to do their school homework.

The project, as already mentioned, has focussed on a community of some 400 refugee families in the area. Through the auspices of the church, the organising committee provides small loans, up to £28, that are given to enterprising women and men to buy solar lights. The committee includes 24 women representatives from the community.

A small solar study light costs around £8.50 each (taking into account distribution costs) and the more powerful Sun King Pro sells at £24. Today, 18 Sun King Pros are being used by women at night, outside their homes, where they sell their own produce. The ability of this model to charge a mobile phone is also hugely important. The loans are paid back from the profits made. Each borrower is encouraged to keep 14 pence a day to pay back the loan. Loans are not only used for purchasing solar lights, they are also given to community members who want to set up local businesses. By January 2014 over 260 families had possession of a solar light

I asked Joseph Karanja to explain how solar lights can be used as a tool for peace and reconciliation. He replied as follows:

“Members of our group are using solar lamps as a symbol of peace and development. First, when a person on one side goes out to reconcile, he or she will present the lamp as a gift to the other side. It signifies that the person making peace will be transparent and not undermine the other. It means walking in the light. Secondly, it is a symbol of purity. Unlike kerosene lamps and firewood which emit smoke, solar is clean energy. It signifies that there will be no more external influences that harm a fellow human being. In our context, politicians pollute our minds, especially during elections. Finally, by presenting a solar lamp, the recipient is empowered to read and write and carry out an economic activity, however small, which is beneficial. Every successful act of reconciliation provides motivation to take on more challenges.

Our community in Eldoret was once deeply divided, but today it is fostering healing and reconciliation. Our community has been encouraging a huge population of South Sudanese living in Eldoret to reconcile with each another. Great success has already been achieved.”

In neighbouring Baringo County animal rustling is a huge problem because of the tensions between farming communities and pastoralists. Joseph has advocated the use of solar lights as a tool for reconciliation to both the Governor and Deputy Governor of Baringo, as well as to several local Members of Parliament.

On 1st March 2014 Joseph and a colleague, Joseph Wainaina, took 54 youthfrom the Eldoret community to a big event in Baringo to mark the election of Hon. Kibiwott Munge as the local Member of Parliament. Almost 7,000 people attended. The two Josephs were invited to talk about the solar lamps that had transformed the lives of hundreds of people in Uasin Gishu County. The newly-elected MP, after receiving a carton of SunKing Pro lights, promised to lobby the Baringo County authorities to make the lights available to people at a subsidised price. Afterwards the youth were able to share their experiences in Eldoret with some of the Baringo youth.

So far, 60 lights have been donated by the Eldoret community to pastoralist communities of Baringo. This action has given members of the Eldoret community an opportunity to share their experience of peace and sustainable development to their Baringo neighbours.

The Eldoret organising committee will shortly conduct a surveyto see what difference solar lights have made to people’s lives. Eldoret will also host a group from Keiyo Marakwet County who are keen to learn about the use of solar lights in the community.Equity Bank is also training 15 people from the Eldoret community on best business practice. In all these initiatives solar lights have been the catalyst for increasing the level of community cohesion and bringing about significant economic benefits at grassroots level.