Kenyan shines his way to CNN awards with solar lantern

Evans Wadongo, Kenya’s finalist in the 2010 CNN Heroes Award. You vote for him at heroes.cnn.com/vote.aspx. Photo/SULEIMAN MBATIAH

It all started in a room at his hostel when he invented the first ever solar-powered lantern back in 2004.

His desire to provide sustainable energy to communities was hatched while studying Electrical Engineering at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology.

As he fiddled with an experiment involving the timing of Christmas lights the idea to provide an environmentally friendly light source for rural homes struck him.

Today, Evans Wadongo’s initiative, which involves supplying solar-powered lanterns at no cost, has transformed the lives of thousands of rural families who have no access to electricity and live below the poverty line. He has received 200 supply requests from countries interested in his lanterns.

“We plan on opening an office in Lagos Nigeria, Sudan, Uganda and the US to meet the growing demands.”

Coming from a poor family of four children, he relied on a kerosene lamp to study at night. At some point he develop poor eyesight because of smoke from the kerosene lamp.

Wadongo, the only African in the finals for the 2010 Cable News Network (CNN) Hero Awards, will be travelling to the United States on November 15 to represent Kenya at the awards ceremony in Hollywood.

The award, which attracted over 10,000 contestants form all over the world, is given to young persons with innovative projects geared towards eliminating poverty and creating sustained social development in local communities.

The 24-year-old will be relying on votes from Kenyans to clinch the coveted award come the finals to be aired on CNN live on November 25. Voting is still under way on heroes.cnn.com/vote.aspx and is expected to close on November 18.

If he gets voted as the finalist he stands to bring home $100,000 (about Sh8 million) which he says would be channelled towards financing production of more lanterns and other economic ventures his organisation supports.

He says part of the cash will finance a project in Migori, Nyanza, that targets to transform the area into a virtual tower.

“I plan to invest the money in setting up an ICT centre, a solar-powered fish processing plant and build more lanterns for distribution to needy homesteads in the country,” he said.

In a media briefing held on Thursday organised by Brand Kenya Limited at NHIF building an upbeat Mr Wadongo urged Kenyans to vote for him at the same time exuded confidence of victory in the competition.

During his visit, Wadongo is expected to hold meetings with top business leaders and tour several States and institutions of learning.

“I intend to spend a month in the US and meet with business executives from Microsoft and Apple, hold media interviews and address students at Stanford University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology,” he said.

His innovative programme dubbed ‘Use solar, save Lives’ produces lanterns at a cost Sh1,600. The production is funded by donors. The solar-powered lamp can light up a home for six hours if it is fully charged by being left in the sun during the day.

The inventor says the life span for the lamp is between six and 10 years. Wadongo says he has designed a new lantern that has a radio and a slot for charging a mobile phone. This one is still in the test stage.

Operating from his office in Nairobi’s South B area, which also hosts a workshop and employs eight permanent staff and over 10 volunteers each month, Wadongo estimates he has distributed 14,000 lanterns to rural communities across the country and hopes to hit 150,000 by 2015.

His group buys excess pieces of solar panelling cut from commercially sold panels and collects scrap metal to make the lamps.
Wadongo plans to train more youths to handle the large orders.

He says his dream of providing sustainable development to the poor has become a reality. “Children can now study, households can buy food with the money they save on kerosene, and carbon emissions have been reduced,” he says with a smile.

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