Togo! I had no idea this would be the location for one of the greatest experiences of my student life. I have done my internship for the NGO ‘Jeunes Volontaires pour l’Environnement’ to help them building a minigrid in a secluded area, powered by solar energy. The mini-grid will provide for the basic electric needs of 3 villages with about 220 households.
The start-up phase of such enterprise is a challenge. The cultural differences, development level and language have proven to make it a high-pressure learning environment. I had to talk to government officials on regulations, talk to market people about prices of construction parts, perform ground measurements in the jungle and I organised a workshop with the locals about the possibilities of using electricity. For a suburban boy with low French skills, this was really fun to try and gave me a very strong sense of accomplishment when I achieved the smallest of things.
It is in an environment like this, where a toddler promptly starts crying when he sees his first white man, that you learn the basis of any successful project. You need to engage the community to work with you. It’s their project and without them on board or being enthusiastic about it, it’s like dragging a boulder across the ocean floor. You’ll drown. Whereas when you get them to work with you, it almost feels as if the project is already done (this bubble bursts quickly afterwards). From a technical point of view, it is extremely interesting to find the delicate balance of (high-tech) efficiency, low costs, ease of use and social impact of the design.
Looking back, the project has taught me a lot about the social aspects of engineering: how important is local ownership so the community can build, operate and maintain the solution themselves, long after the project is closed with EWB NL and it can serve as an example for other communities, thus giving them greater chances of development!
I learned what life is like in such a country and I have met some very special people from this completely different culture.
It has been a great experience that I could never have got anywhere else!