When Beacher Lisa Oelke turned 50, she wanted to give something back. Friends introduced her to the Majengo orphanage in Mto Wa Mbu, Tanzania, which houses, feeds, and educates just a few of the estimated 1.3 million children orphaned by the AIDS epidemic in that country. Oelke spent a week volunteering with the more than 80 children supported at that remote institution.
Little did she realize then the commitment she would end up making to a small donor-supported organization on the other side of the planet.
Now, Oelke is weeks away from travelling again to Tanzania with a crew of five, to install a solar power system for that orphanage.
“Life is full of funny coincidences and accidents,” she said, summing up what she describes as a roller coaster of emotions.
During her five days working with the children, she realized the buildings were set up for power, but there was no power grid to hook up to.
“I came back and I thought, ‘what can I do?’”
Oelke works in the solar power industry, and started thinking about a possible solution for the orphanage. After consulting with some colleagues she realized the logistics would be a real challenge.
Because of up to 60 possible duty fees that could be charged on donated materials with no sale price, it wasn’t feasible to simply gather donations and ship them overseas, “which would have been so much easier to do,” she said.
Components and labour will be sourced locally in Tanzania, and maintenance training will be done in both English and Swahili. The system planned is a solar array producing 6,700 watts. A 5,000-watt solar inverter will be installed to convert the power to AC, which will be able to power lights, fans, radios, and computers in Majengo’s five buildings.
After design and planning work, a goal of $40,000 was set.
However, most companies in the industry – the donors most likely to pitch in larger amounts – already had commitments to other charities, and the fundraising was slow going.
“I was disappointed and disillusioned with the response,” said Oelke.
But an unexpected approval for a grant of $15,000 got the ball rolling, and suddenly the project was pulling in sponsors and donations.
“By the end of December we had reached our target,” she said. It was good news, even though the original plan had called for a fall 2014 installation.
Although the Solar Majengo project is particularly technical, Oelke is hoping that others might take inspiration and realize that anyone is capable of making a positive change. She points out that she isn’t a true technical expert herself – she simply saw a problem with a solution she knew she could help make happen, with enough persistence.
The five members of the team travelling to Majengo are all paying their own way, and will stay for a little longer than a month to oversee construction and testing.
Once the system is working, Oelke said she’ll take a break before embarking on another project, though she already has some loose ideas for what she calls a “very replicable model.”
“I do see this as phase one,” she said. “It’s just one of so many different orphanages … I would love to see these small-scale community projects take effect.”