Interview with Evans Wadongo
Only one in ten people in Africa have access to electric light. Yet light also means access to knowledge, the chance to learn when it’s dark outside, the opportunity to go on developing. Evans Wadongo from Kenya came up with an LED lamp powered by solar cells that brings light to the villages. And was included by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the list of most influential innovators under the age of 35 for this product.
LED-lamps with energy from the sun
As a child, Evans Wadongo had to share a kerosene lantern with his brothers when doing homework after nightfall. Besides being expensive, dangerous and smelly, Kerosene provides only a dim, smoky light. Wadongo’s eyes were often so irritated by the fumes that he couldn’t finish his homework. Classmates failed to complete their education and remained poor partly because they did not have good light. Today, Evans Wadongo encourages others to start their own businesses with the help of LED lanterns that can be recharged by sunlight.
Audi Magazine: Mr. Wadongo, how does an LED solar lantern lead to new business opportunities?
Evans Wadongo: We distribute our LED lanterns through women’s groups. When we hand them over, we conduct training on micro-entrepreneurship and instruct the recipients to start saving the money they would otherwise have spent on kerosene. All the members contribute to a group account, which we use to help them establish a business. The businesses don’t usually have anything to do with the lanterns— mostly they’re agricultural enterprises. For example, several groups of women started a beekeeping cooperative for producing honey. Right now, we are helping them to get into the commercial market.
"We’ll need a lot of resources if we’re going to help about a million people escape extreme poverty by 2018.“
What inspired you to design these lanterns?
When I was growing up, we didn’t have electricity and I wanted to change that. I have been looking for a solution ever since. I started doing experiments with Christmas lights. Using what tools I could find, I worked on an uncomplicated design. The whole idea was to create something so simple that anybody could make it.
Who makes the lanterns?
Our organization is very small, we only have six employees. The lamps are built by people that work almost independently. We create resource centers, working space, where we put in basic equipment and tools and where we train the people about how to make the lanterns. And then they start making them, but they also use the centers to make other products . They are not employed by us but we provide an opportunity and training to enable them to afford a living.
How is the project financed?
We rely on donations and grants. Plus, we ask the women’s groups to repay the cost of the lanterns they received from us once their businesses are successful.
And where can we buy your lanterns?
We don’t feel it’s necessary for you to buy our lanterns because you don’t really need them. Instead, we would rather get them to the millions who still lack good light. That said, we are working on holding exhibitions where a few lanterns are sold to collectors to raise funds for our project. We’ll need a lot of resources if we’re going to help about a million people escape extreme poverty by 2018.
Do you have any other products that fit with your slogan “Use solar, save lives”?
For now, we are just concentrating on the solar lantern because our organization is still in its infancy. But we have plenty of ideas for the future. For instance, a wind and solar generator installed on a truck that can travel to any location. We are calling it “energy rapid” because it would provide power on the go. It would be great if we could combine it with a gas cooking station, water purification systems and basic refrigeration. One of the main problems in terms of healthcare is that in many rural areas vaccines go to waste because there’s no power so they can’t be stored. We already have everything planned and are hoping to get a pilot off the ground within the next two years.
You live in Kenya’s capital Nairobi—a very cosmopolitan city with impressive growth rates. Why do you think Kenya is doing better than other countries in Africa?
I think it’s because a lot of people realize that education is the only way out of poverty. Many parents make huge sacrifices to ensure that their children go to school. Getting education is a big priority in Kenya. We also have a good number of universities and colleges. As a result, the workforce today is fairly skilled compared to other countries in the region. In fact, our biggest problem is unemployment. There are so many college graduates who don’t have jobs. Geographically speaking, Kenya is fairly central located with good connections to other countries. You can get anywhere from Nairobi. Plus, the middle class is really growing. More and more people have increased spending power, which is attractive to international companies.
Evans Wadongo was born on March 11, 1986 in the western part of Kenya. Back in 2004, he designed a solar lamp which he called MwangaBora (Swahili for “good light”) and invented the slogan “Use solar, save lives.” In 2009, he graduated from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology with a Bachelor of Science in electronic and computer engineering. Wadongo was voted one of CNN’s Top 10 Heroes in 2010 and received the Schwab Foundation’s Social Entrepreneur of the Year award for 2011. A year later, he was among the finalists for the inaugural Innovation Prize for Africa and received the African International Achievers Award. In 2013, he was named by The Diplomatic Courier as a Top 99 Under 33 Shaper and appeared on the MIT Technology Review’s list of top 35 Innovators under the age of 35.
„Afrika is full of new ideas“
Talking about international companies, is doing business with Europe attractive for people in Africa?
Especially over the last few years, it has not been very attractive because of the economic situation in the euro zone. But I think things are different from country to country—in the same way that it’s hard to generalize about the whole of America or Asia. In most of the countries in this region, people tend to look to the United Kingdom, the U.S. and, of course, India and China. The UK has been able to develop business in the region because we share a common language and there are still strong ties from colonial times. But all of that is changing. For instance, there are a good number of people from Germany who come here. And locals prefer machinery and cars from Germany.
What do you think about the image Africa has in Western countries?
I don’t think the image people have of Africa is correct. There is a lot of innovation going on. New and totally unique business models are developing and revolutionizing commerce. Unfortunately, they don’t get the same kind of attention as negative news stories. I’m not saying it’s wrong to cover negative stories because, of course, that’s what sells. But there needs to be a better balance of good and bad news. I think the situation is improving because people are realizing that you can’t just go on ignoring Africa. It’s a continent with the potential to be very influential. Even the media is changing the way it presents stories on Africa. We have well trained journalists in Kenya who have the skills to work in the international media. We need more of them to present a different perspective on our continent.
Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman and former CEO of Google, has labeled Nairobi the “maybe Silicon Valley of Africa”. Do you agree?
Nairobi is experiencing a lot of tech sector innovation—they’ve dubbed it Silicon Savannah. While this harbors many opportunities, it’s also important to focus on innovation other than just in terms of IT, the kind of innovation that’s able to drive other sectors of the economy. Whether it’s the media or the financiers—everyone is focusing on the IT sector. In our excitement over IT innovation, we shouldn’t lose sight of sectors that need tackling such as energy, healthcare and education, sectors that are essential to ensuring comprehensive, sustainable growth. In particular as regards Nairobi and Kenya, everything revolves around innovations in the IT industry. In my view, the challenge lies in not ignoring the other sectors beyond that.
I hope to inspire children and show them that they can still go on to achieve the best they can.“
Your life has changed dramatically since your childhood days. Does your family still live in the countryside?
Yes, my parents still live in the village and I visit them there. It’s very important for me to be able go back—I don’t want to forget my roots. What’s more, I hope to inspire children and show them that, despite their current disadvantages, they can still go on to achieve the best they can. That’s why I travel within Kenya and around the world.
I spend a lot of time talking to kids in schools and colleges. I want them to know that if they set their mind to it, they can change their circumstances. My parents have always been very supportive and believed in me. I drive myself so hard because I don’t believe you have to be the richest person to help others and create solutions for them. My dad is a very selfless person. We didn’t have a lot of money but we always had all the basics for school. He also supported other kids in the neighborhood, too. I learned from my dad that even if you don’t have much, you should still think of others. You don’t have to be rich to do good.
Interview: Katharina Lotter
Photos: Siegfried Modola