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Meet the mamas fighting poverty through solar power

©VSO/Peter Caton

Solar energy has the power to transform lives in Malawi, where just one in ten people has access to electricity. Eight extraordinary women on a VSO pilot project are lighting new paths to prosperity.

Meet the Solar Mamas: Dines, Dines (a common name in Malawi!), Edina, Alines and Lines.

VSO's solar mamas in Malawi ©VSO/Peter Caton

Five of the Solar Mamas, women trained as solar engineers on VSO’s rural electrification programme.

In many ways they are typical rural Malawian women. Most of them work farming maize, cassava or tobacco, aided by their husbands and children.

They live by the sun – since none of their homes are linked up to the electrical grid, which only powers 10% of all Malawian homes.

Woman farming tobacco in Malawi ©VSO/Peter Caton

Emily Kamwendo, one of the Solar Mamas, working the family tobacco patch.

None of the women finished school and illiteracy has held many of them back their entire lives.

But these women are extraordinary, in one important way.

Despite their lack of traditional education, these eight women are solar engineers. Through a VSO project they took part in a six-month intensive course in building and wiring electrical components, at the Barefoot College in Tilonia, in India’s Rajasthan state.

Malawian woman holds up a photograph ©VSO/Peter Caton

Solar Mama Dines Mpinganjira, holds up a prized possession: a photo of her graduation day from the Barefoot College solar engineering course in India

They left behind their husbands, children, grandchildren, and everything familiar, in order to take up the opportunity. The women had to overcome the gossip and fear mongering from neighbours who said they wouldn’t survive the trip.

The course was hard and some of the women wanted to give up. But they persevered, encouraging each other until all had passed.

Women hold up solar lanterns in Malawi ©VSO/Peter Caton

The Solar Mamas (foreground) found they had a new status in their home communities upon their return.

When they got home, the women caused a real stir in their villages. In their Indian tunics and loose trousers, they stood out from their neighbours.

They stood out in other ways too. Having travelled overseas and studied independently had changed them, massively boosting their confidence. Add to that their new engineering skills and the transformation to ‘solar mamas’ was complete.

With the arrival of components to build solar lanterns, provided by VSO, the Solar Mamas got to work.

Solar engineer fixes a lantern with her young daughter VSO/Peter Caton

Emily Kamwendo assembles a solar lantern, aided by her young daughter.

They have since built and installed home lighting systems – solar lanterns and wall lamps – in almost 100 homes in their rural villages, about an hour’s drive from Malawi’s capital, Lilongwe.

It’s not an overstatement to say that the arrival of free solar electricity has been life-changing for many of their neighbours.

Seamstress works by solar lamp at night in Malawi ©VSO/Peter Caton

Tailor Elinati works by solar light

Since solar light was installed in her home Elinati Pattison, 48, can sew long after sunset, which has enabled her to expand her tailoring business, doubling her income.

She says she has more time for her family and children now too.

Woman with mobile phone charging business in Malawi | VSO2 ©VSO/Peter Caton

Lines Nguluwe started a small business charging phones from her home for neighbours without electricity, which saves them costly trips to the nearest town linked to the national grid.

Lines Nguluwe started a mobile-phone-charging business from her house, and also uses the electric lighting to make mandazi [donuts] before sunrise, which she sells for additional income.

Each of the solar mamas themselves receives a salary of about £10 a month, paid by neighbours, in exchange for maintaining their home lighting systems. For many of them, having a regular income (not the norm for the majority in Malawi) has given them more freedom to invest in new side businesses, education and improvements to farming.

Woman with solar lantern at night in Malawi Africa | VSO ©VSO/Peter Caton

Solar Mama Dines Msampha, 42, has managed to build a new house with her increased income.

Children in the community are benefiting too. Edina Livitiko, along with three of the other solar mamas, used their new skills to electrify three classrooms at their local primary school.

The school, Chatsala Primary, is also part of another VSO project, Unlocking Talent, which harnesses the power of education technology to accelerate learning. 

Edina with her grandson in a classrom with ipads in Malawi ©VSO/Peter Caton

Here’s Edina with her grandson Harvey, who has risen to the top three in his class since he became involved in VSO’s Unlocking Talent programme.

Emily Kamwendo has been able to pay her children’s school fees and even to hire people to help her and her husband with the farm work. She’s also sharing her electrical skills with her children, who take a keen interest.

VSO volunteer with a woman solar engineer in Malawi ©VSO/Peter Caton

Volunteers like Miriam, a natural resources adviser, are looking into ways to develop the rural electrification project, building on the learning from this pilot.

VSO volunteers like Miriam Alonso Camarero, attached to our livelihoods programme in Malawi, are developing ways to expand and develop the project.

For example, for the next round, they are looking at tapping the power of the sun for more than just light; many people here would like to power their grain mills and irrigation systems using solar electricity too.

It could mean better prospects for their children, and future generations.

A baby with a solar lantern in Malawi ©VSO/Peter Caton

The Solar Mamas are getting their young relatives and neighbours interested in engineering at a young age.

About the project

VSO, in partnership with Barefoot College, and supported by DFID Volunteering for Development grant funding, is implementing the Solar Mama Rural Electrification pilot project in eight villages in Traditional Authorities Njewra and Kalolo (Lilongwe rural), Malawi.

Eight semi-illiterate women from villages within these communities were selected and trained as Barefoot Solar Engineers in Tilonia, India from September 2015 to March 2016.

VSO provided 200 units of solar equipment to the communities, to electrify 200 homes. Committees were selected to monitor the distribution of the equipment and follow up on the projects. The eight women are responsible for installing and fixing the solar equipment in their villages.

Find out more about VSO's work in Malawi