Life is being transformed in off-grid villages thanks to an initiative based on education and solar power.
Submitted by DP World
Originally published as part of the “Transforming Trade” custom content series with The Wall Street Journal. Click here to access the original article.
Give a woman living off-grid in rural Senegal access to solar power, and she can have electric lighting, cellphone charging, and labor-saving devices at home. Train her to become a solar engineer, however, and she can go on to improve the quality of life, health, education, connectivity, and the earning and career potential of entire communities. And this is exactly what is happening in the West African country.
As a gateway to Africa with multiple ports and air routes, Senegal has one of the continent’s highest electrification rates: more than 78%, according to the World Bank. Yet, away from the ports and cities, there are many remote parts of the country where households and enterprises are not electrified.
In Ranérou, in northeastern Senegal, a historic lack of energy sources, along with slow economic development, means there were few jobs or business opportunities for locals to exploit. Now, as a government initiative expands electrification nationwide, private investment in a Ranérou solar power project is transforming lives, physically, economically and culturally, connecting some of West Africa’s most isolated villages to each other and the wider world.
It is founded on investment in educating local women, many of whom have had no formal education, let alone any knowledge of digital technology. The Solar Mamas of Senegal, as they are affectionally known, are fully trained solar engineers whose capabilities mean they can influence economic growth and financial stability in their communities.
“I never imagined that I could become a solar energy professional at my age—and without ever having been to school,” said Mairame Ba, 59, at her graduation in 2022. “I can’t wait to return home to bring electricity to my community. Having solar energy in our community will change our lives.”
Futureproofing through education
Ba was among the first group of 10 women from rural northern Senegal to have qualified as solar energy and maintenance technicians last year, after an intensive six-month training course in Toubab Dialao, 260 miles from Ba’s own village. The course is jointly run by Barefoot College International, an NGO based 40 miles from Dakar and global logistics leader DP World.
So, why did DP World, which also runs the container port at the Port of Dakar, choose to work with BCI on this project?
“A key focus for us is to ensure that we develop and empower the communities in which we operate,” says Clarence Rodrigues, CEO of DP World Dakar. “By training women from isolated regions in solar energy, BCI addresses many sustainable development goals, especially poverty eradication, gender equality and renewable energy.”
In BCI, adds Rodrigues, DP World found “a trusted, experienced partner who has convinced us of their approach, which allows women to benefit from technical training that transforms them into entrepreneurs.”
DP World Dakar’s $400,000 donation to BCI in 2021 paid for a training center in Toubab Dialao, as well as the costs of training groups of women to undertake the residential course that would see them become solar engineers, maintenance technicians, educators and entrepreneurs.
The first cohort of Solar Mamas was formed when a delegation from BCI arrived to tell women from low socioeconomic backgrounds across Ranérou about the opportunity. “We all come from rural villages and had never even heard of this program,” says Fatimata Sall, admitting that “some of us were pretty reluctant to participate at first.” Many of the women had never even left their own village at that time.
Everything to gain
Given their circumstances, though, the women realized they had little to lose and perhaps much to gain for themselves, their families and communities—not least the tools and resources to become entrepreneurs in their own right.
“We were introduced to digital technology,” says Hawa Sow. “We learned how to use mobile phones and Google, about GPS and other topics. It’s thanks to all this training that I have a job today.”
That job involves installing, maintaining and repairing solar infrastructure in her community, which is now fully electrified, as are those of the nine women with whom she trained.
“The first 10 Solar Mamas have positively impacted more than 530 families, who can now charge their cellphones whenever needed, and their children can study under bright lights,” says Rodrigues. “With better light, security for people and livestock is also increased.”
Ultimately, this education-based program shows the tangible benefits that meaningful partnerships can bring to people in marginalized communities. A second cohort of Solar Mamas has graduated this year and are, says BCI’s CEO Rodrigo Paris, “the best example of integrity, courage and determination to bring light to their communities and hope for their families.”
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