ELumanate project brings electricity to small village in Sierra Leone

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Editor

While many students spent their summers soaking up the rays of the sun, two Carnegie Mellon students have been working to bring light of another kind to a rural village called Yele in Sierra Leone. Engineering and public policy doctoral student Paul van der Boor and junior economics and statistics major Tori Baggio are part of a four-member team called ELumanate that is currently working on refurbishing a hydropower plant that will provide electricity to over 600 households.

The team has been working with the community of Yele since 2007 and spent one month working on the hydropower plant this summer.

The group’s focus, however, is not solely on bringing about the arrival of electricity. Instead, they hope to see to it that the electricity brings long-term, sustainable change and empowers business owners and, as a result, the local economy.

In discussing the team’s goals in Yele, van der Boor said, “We don’t go to Yele and tell them: ‘Do this and this and you will be better off.’ We ask them what they need, what stops them from achieving their goals, and often find that we are able to help alleviate those constraints with the resources we have at hand.”

In order to achieve these goals, the group consulted the local population of Yele, and, with their help, came to the conclusion that a central community market, powered by the nearby hydropower plant, would be a step towards the team’s longterm goals.

This central market, which the group refers to as an “eLuma” (“e” for electricity and Luma meaning “market” in Krio, the local language), will enable local business owners to rent a space that is powered by hydropower, and thus allows access to a wide range of accommodations otherwise not available to small business owners in the region.

The group hopes that providing electricity within these shops will influence the types products available to the community, as products requiring electricity were previously unavailable. This includes perishable goods, medications, and vaccinations that need to be refrigerated, internet access for a study space with lights for students, and potentially a station for buying and charging LED lights for areas still without electricity. The bazaar will be 200 square meters in size, with an initial capacity for 16 shops powered fully by the hydropower plant.

Van der Boor explained the team’s long-term goals: “To provide eLumas in all rural villages in Sierra Leone so they can be empowered to generate their own economic development. Yele is representative of many rural communities in sub-Saharan Africa, many of which face constraints to growth, face rural-to-urban migration of the work force, and are therefore being gutted. eLuma has the potential of enabling the microenterprises of these communities to spark their own economic activity and making them sustainable.”

The team cites the creation of solid infrastructure that uses electricity in a productive manner as one of their primary hopes for the project. “This is not very common after the introduction of electricity,” Baggio said. “We are helping develop solid business practices on the most basic levels. But we are not giving them the ideas. The people there have them; we are just showing them how to make them a reality once electricity comes.”

This focus on developing productive business practices for small business owners in the region is key to the team’s vision. This will primarily be achieved through training and mentoring offered by a local entrepreneurial coach, who will advise shop owners throughout the process, from teaching how to successfully start a business to developing skills needed to run and maintain a successful and productive business.

Van der Boor explained, “With local entrepreneurs we identified their four main constraints to growing their businesses currently: energy services, financial services, business training, and commercial infrastructure. eLuma will provide them with these facilities so they can grow and develop their businesses and therefore increase their income while improving the livelihood of the local community.”

ELumanate’s partnership with Ecobank, a pan-African bank working in the region, will be a crucial step in training small business owners. “With [Ecobank] we will start small loan management as well as simple things like keeping inventory and tracking money spent in notebooks,” explained Baggio.

In only 12 months, the ELuma should generate a positive turnover. Initially, the construction of this community market will be funded by various investors, but the costs of keeping the bazaar up and running will fall to the community. Shop owners pay rent that covers the maintenance, local manager, and electricity costs of the cooling room. In the second operational year — when all 16 shops have been rented and the businesses are stable — the team plans to hire a local manager who, after five years, will run the project after the bazaar is fully turned over to the community.

While handing the project to a local manager may be difficult after all of the group’s hard work, ELumanate has recognized that turning their project over to the local people will greatly influence the potential success of the project. “We cannot chose the shops or run the businesses because we are outsiders. We also want them to take ownership of the eLuma by showing them that our gift comes with a great deal of hard work,” said Baggio.

Van der Boor added, “For example, we don’t go to Yele to build the eLuma and run the businesses inside the eLuma. All we do is ask the microenterprises what prevents them from growing, and seek to provide them with the eLuma, an innovative and holistic platform where they have access to the tools they need to overcome those barriers to growth by themselves.”

ELumanate was among five international finalists in this year’s Dell Social Innovation Competition. The contest received more than 1,400 entries from college students in 85 countries. The competition has received funding from a variety of organizations and companies including the Lion Heart Foundation (LHF), PowerNed, and Dell; however, the group is still currently seeking funding opportunities and donations in the hopes of securing the funds to complete the project.

“The lesson is that we don’t need to know the solutions to the problems of a complex community in Sierra Leone,” van der Boor said as he summarized his experiences in Yele and Sierra Leone. “But we can ask the right questions and facilitate to help them achieve their potential.”