Mali, West Africa – October November 2017
Sponsor: – Sorpotomists
Aim – to provide Solar Cooking, Lighting and Mobile phone charging capabilities to 20 families living near Timbuktu as a means of improving their quality of life and particularly the role of women in the household.
We were delighted when we received this opportunity to work in the infamous Timbuktu.
We got the go ahead in April and immediately started making plans for shipping and transporting equipment and ourselves to the project site. We, like most people were unaware that Mali is actually in a low level war situation that is fast escalating. Its extremely difficult to find any information on the net. Mali (like a lot of Africa) is not an internet based proving the fallacy perpetuated by people using the net that the whole world is on the web, its still not really part of their Culture. Try establishing local contacts to move 500Kg of Solar Equipment from Joburg to Bamako (the Capital) and then Timbuktu and you will hit a wall.
SunFire is African grown and based and both partners have lived and worked throughout Africa and are not easily put off. However it was challenging in the extreme just to quote our contact based in Wales a correct figure to import goods. Luckily our contacts were very understanding, these kind of issues stop many developed Countries from operating in Africa and other less developed regions. Its unfathomable to comprehend how difficult it is to get a simple price for moving one set of boxes from one place to another. Mali is certainly the toughest cookie we have yet encountered but “they make em tough down South” and we really wanted to go to Timbuktu to rescue Garfield’s nemesis Odi (hopefully some of you know what we mean) and see the legendary sandy city and spread some sunshine to its people.
We finally found a local company to assist and after months of hair and nail pulling established a price. We were going to help no matter what. If a client cares enough about a community to fund Tech for them, SunFire will do our best to not let war or remoteness get the better of project goals. SunFire has a strong foundation of delivering even if we don’t actually make any money on the deal. Solar Cooking is such an invaluable Tech and we are dedicated to giving it all the support we possibly can, that’s the bottom line and full stop of our ethos all wrapped into One.
We kept monitoring the security situation in Mali and it steadily deteriorated month by month, in August we reached the sad conclusion the that 1400 km from Bamako to Timbuktu was a bridge too far. There was a bus ride 600km and then a boat which may or may not be running depending on rain and time of the year (with climate change thrown in for good measure). Most of the info was outdated, most of the company websites did not reply and some that did were difficult to sustain communication with, due the language barrier of French to English. (French people would def have more luck on the net, come to think of it). The war situation was not improving, with most foreigners being kidnapped and held ransom. Neither of us have anyone to pay ransom for us and our Government cant even keep us safe in our homes in Joburg, so not much hope there. With these and other issues we decided to ask recipients to travel to Bamako for training. Turns out it was a very good decision.
Goods were sent by sea freight and so left a good 3 months before we did. We stayed on-top of the situation as we needed to time our flights, travel of over 20 people and arrival of goods as tightly run as a military operation. We decided to keep one example of our clean cooking kit one side just in case there were any hold ups, at least we could still conduct training. Good Idea.
Once we bribed our way through the airport with our “smuggled” Solar Cooker, got in for less than 50 Dollars(supposed to be free according to some rule books) but people always assume White South Africans are from the EU or US so we always start from a tough bargaining position and have to repeatedly explain we are African, after some time they get it, see it, feel it.
The first thing that hits you is the heat, its never really too far under 30 Celsius and we arrived before Summer…!
We negotiated a Taxi to take us to the sleeping camel, even from the net we could tell this was our kind of place. Its situated not far from the Niger River, near the embassies and just across from the CB with all its noise, dust and chaos. A little Serene Island on a cul-de-sac. We noticed big cement bunkers being erected as you came in the door and were told this is to stop anyone being able to just walk in and spray the area with bullets. The previous week a tourist had been shot walking to the local ATM. 2 policemen had been gunned down at a roadblock leaving Timbuktu that morning. This is just to paint a picture. We actually felt quite safe but the situation in Mali is worse than the TV, interweb, etc. lets on. Basically the Govt control doesnt extend very far North of he capital. From our experience the Govt isnt doing much for its people but we are here to spread Solar not politics, would be nice if it was easier to trade – hope some Govt officials in any African Countries read these words. Anyway we landed, we were on the ground and ready to start. We had one days grace to arrange food stuffs and other bits and pieces for training. We also hadn’t told the owners of the sleeping camel that we wanted to use their venue for training, seems very hard to explain on the net. We were going to use the street if they said no. They said yes..!!
We cant say enough good things about the Sleeping camel, they work hard, keep smiling and manage a good “fun level” at their place with activities each night and a great restaurant, really these guys are legends. Fun is very important in war zones. They opened up their doors and let the traditionally clad women and a handful of men in each day for 3 days of Solid Solar Cooker training.
SunFire believes 3 days to be the ideal time-frame for Solar Cooker and related clean cooking and lighting Technologies training.
Day 1 – is just the sheer wow factor, people dont intrinsically believe the sun is able to boil water and cook food so effectively, optimally you need a full day of cooking experience to really tackle this fundamental base consciousness. Day 1 is great for teaching basic use and maintenance but you can see by the eyes, its mostly just the sheer wonder that this magical space age looking device works quite so well AND YOU – get to take it home.
Day 2 – now the questions start, we introduce the Rocket clean wood burning stoves –quick and easy to grasp, then the retained heat bag, far more mystery again, they really are silently and unobtrusively marvellous, every home should have one. Lastly lights, charge times, hours of light at night – no big deal. Complimentary clean energy Tech builds credibility in each other. While we look on, we visibly see learners confidence levels increase, a little light dawns in their eyes as they calculate how to improve their daily lives with these life saving/changing and improving Kits.
Day 3 – The test, each student gets a chance to angle the Dish to the sun and verbally run through the basic but vast info we impart on how to save the maximum firewood and get the most benefit. Students get to cook us lunch and the traditional Malian fare, its delicious.
By now we have touched on topics like poverty, global warming, the energy cartel, deforestation and the coming energy revolution. Trainees are now part of a small but growing Tsunami of people living off of Solar energy instead of fossil fools. Not contributing to the barons and Sheiks of the East and West’s monopoly that’s so deeply ingrained in our current global society and economy most of struggle to imagine how we must drastically
reduce and if possible live without it, in our lifetimes.
Results: – We had a fantastic time in Mali, mostly due to the wonderful people we trained and became friends with and the amazing people at the sleeping camel. Special thanks to the Sorpotomists for undertaking to fund this challenging project in an extremely precarious part of the world – they are always the places that need it the most. 20 Families lives have been improved and thats enough reward for all the partners in this project. The Soroptomists year for Solar theme concluded in 2016 but we really hope to work with them again in the future.