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Youth trained up to install solar

The small village at Reichenau

When my fledgling company committed to implementing a solar lighting project for Project 90 in KZN last year, the list of potential challenges was daunting. First and foremost was putting together the right team for the job. We had never attempted a project quite like this before and did not know where to begin finding a suitable local team.

We needed to send components for 50 solar home lighting kits to Durban, get them assembled in one week, and get them installed in two very remote villages in the mountains around the south coast area one week later. The plan was ambitious, some might say it was crazy. Nevertheless, we needed to help Project 90 deliver this essential programme.

As the founder of an engineering consultancy I understand how choosing the right people is essential to the success of a project. We needed to find people who understood basic electronics, were happy to work very long hours and when the going got tough, would be able to stick it out and get the job done no matter what. Wise people would advise extensive reviewing of cv’s, calling references, doing interviews, contacting recruitment agencies etc., but I simply didn’t have the luxury of time. I needed a stroke of luck.

I asked around and discovered an organisation in Durban called Learn-a-Trade, a donorfunded organisation that trains young people from disadvantaged backgrounds in the basics of electronics.  I had hit the jackpot.

Installing the solar panels

What I found was a group of young, ambitious and smart kids, who, despite their circumstances had taken it upon themselves to get trained in a skill that they could use to uplift themselves. I contacted the organisation and told them what we needed. We needed these 50 systems assembled and for two people to come along to the site and assist with installation.

On arrival at Learn-a-Trade I was met by the director of the organisation, and a row of students lined up like soldiers with big smiles wearing their smartest shoes. I was introduced to them all, given an opportunity to chat to each one about what skills they had and what they wanted to achieve with their lives. Their stories were truly inspirational and I couldn’t resist wanting to help them all. So I gave them all a description of what I needed done and pulled out a pre-assembled system.

When my fledgling company committed to implementing a solar lighting project for Project 90 in KZN last year, the list of potential challenges was daunting. First and foremost was putting together the right team for the job. We had never attempted a project quite like this before and did not know where to begin finding a suitable local team.

We needed to send components for 50 solar home lighting kits to Durban, get them assembled in one week, and get them installed in two very remote villages in the mountains around the south coast area one week later. The plan was ambitious, some might say it was crazy. Nevertheless, we needed to help Project 90 deliver this essential programme.

Assembling the lightbox

They had never seen a “real-life” solar panel, charge controller and all the other bits and their imaginations were captured immediately. Chatting amongst themselves, they fiddled with every little part and wire and asked questions incessantly – relevant and insightful questions. I was gobsmacked. I asked myself: How do these guys not have jobs? How has nobody seen their potential?

I set up a little production line in the back room and got four of the younger ones to assemble everything for me. The first day I decided to sit with them, showing them exactly what I needed. After about an hour, I realised they didn’t need me anymore. I asked how long it would take them to do all 50, and the response – “when do you need them by?” I was gobsmacked again. This was a Thursday and from what I had seen they could do ten a day. What happened next? They worked though the weekend and the assembled systems were proudly presented to me four days later. On delivery I was confronted with more questions, and suggestions on how to do it better the next time. The work had sparked their interest in solar energy, and they asked about how they could get access to these systems so they could sell them in their own communities.  It didn’t end there. I now needed to get the systems installed in the 50 targeted households. There were two slightly older students, Bongani and Thulani. Bongani is a part-time labourer, Thulani an ex-driver. They spent every free day they had at Learn-a-Trade to get their engineering certificates. Bongani and Thulani would complete our installation team.

Each day I picked them up from home at 6am and dropped them off at 9pm most nights and never even saw them indicate an ounce of discontent. Some days we didn’t even have time to stop for lunch. The installation team got stuck in, worked hard and did a really good job. Bongani and Thulani impressed me from day one and we have subsequently employed them to carry on maintaining the systems on our behalf and they still go out to the sites regularly to check up and fix what they can.

So, what is the moral of this month’s story? You don’t have to look too far in South Africa to find enthusiastic, hard working and smart young people. Despite what you might hear around braai’s on the weekend, there is hope for our youth. Yes, the education system might be in a bad state and unemployment is off the charts, however, there are organisations like Learn-a-Trade, and there are young people like Bongani and Thulani and the many other young men who assembled our solar lighting kits out there looking for employment and the opportunity to prove themselves.

Gary.

Gary Fahy is the founding director of Grey Green sustainable energy engineering.  The consultancy frequently partners with Project 90 by 2030 on community-based  energy and water security programmes. Gary writes regular feature articles for the Project 90 newsletter on Energy efficiency and simple renewable energy ideas for households.

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2 responses to “Youth trained up to install solar

  1. This is such an uplifting story. Thank you.

  2. this is wonderful story – thank you for sharing it! it is true…you dont need to look very far for people with energy, enthusiasm and capacity, you just need to help create opportunities for people to express such attributes! Well done

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