Let there be Solar Fire!

Posted 25 September 2018 by Lorin Symington.

I’m now well into the training here in Gulu, Uganda, training entrepreneur students from the Smart Up program set by Plan International. The students have truly experienced the Solar Fire.

Sharon, who is interested in robotics and fabrication, learns for the first time handling a cordless drill.
Once calibrated, the focal point of the SOL5 gets so hot that it can set sticks on fire!

A smooth start

On Saturday, just before we took a break for the weekend, we calibrated the mirrors on the SOL5 and this group of 12 soon-to-be solar entrepreneurs got a feeling of the power of the GoSOl technology. The excitement in the air was palpable as the students took turns setting leaves on fire in the powerful focal point of the SOL5. I got a glimpse of who might be the group’s chief SOL5 technician when the students were holding the door of the oven open with their hands inside exclaiming that they could feel the rising heat and one young man said ‘if we close the door it will heat up faster’. The door was promptly closed to allow the heat to accumulate.

A country willing to be ready for sustainable challenges

Gulu is a fascinating town. Located in Northern Uganda, about 100km from the border with South Sudan, Gulu and the surrounding region have a colorful and tragic history. Gulu was central in the Lord’s Resistance Army’s fight against President Museveni’s control over the country. Ethnic conflict raged throughout the nineties and into the 2000’s and northern Uganda is still feeling the effects of the insurgency. Many international non-governmental organizations are active, with Gulu acting as a Northern headquarters for several of them. It gives Gulu an international feel, while at the same time remaining quintessentially East African.

The demographic age structure of Uganda is one of the youngest in the world. More than 75% of the population is under the age of 30 and about half are under the age of 15. Unemployment for 18-24 year olds is around 80%. The fact that Northern Uganda is recovering from 20 years of bloody conflict means that the youths have an extremely important role in ensuring the country’s future, though they face many challenges.

Young solar entrepreneurs can play a key role

Our partner, Plan International, is focused on youths as the future leaders of their country. Their emphasis on empowering girls is bold and essential to Uganda becoming a modern country. Plan International created the SmartUp Hubs to empower the youths, to give them opportunity in the face of 80% unemployment and to build the social networks they’ll need for success.

During the lessons on entrepreneurship and in my discussions with the students, it has become apparent that peanuts, or "G-nuts" as they are called here (short for "Ground nuts"), are a staple food for all of their families. In their families, these students are responsible for gathering firewood and roasting peanuts in a saucepan over an open fire. Their estimates range from 2-5 hours to go collect enough firewood to roast 20kg of peanuts, and then about 5-15 minutes to roast each kilo. The prospect of roasting 20kg in 3 hours on the SOL5 got us thinking about a whole new business model.

The "Human Solar Concentrator" excercise: 12 people using SOL5 mirrors to reflect sunlight...
...and each student gets to experience the warmth at the focal point before getting into the assembly.

The students are all very excited about GoSol technology and especially about the prospect of soon having gainful employment. Many of the young women who are participating have previous baking experience which should make the bakery component of the training straight forward. I’m very much looking forward now to facilitating the incubation of a successful business. In our discussions about seasons, times of year, opportunities during different months they told me that December and January are two of the sunniest months of the year and many celebrations happen during those times, including marriages, Christmas, New Years then graduation season in January, meaning that during those months they should be able to bake cakes all day every day.

The students get trained in mirror fabrication, installation and adjustment.
The students clean the fully assembled SOL5's mirrors for optimal efficiency.

Now that the SOL5 is fully set up we are going to learn how to bake delicious solar breads, cakes and cookies.

Stay tuned, as the future is looking bright indeed!


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