We travel 15km North East from Nairobi, the bustling capital of Kenya, down a dusty, bumpy road. We pass large houses being constructed among fields of maize. As we approach Starehe Girls Centre, we spot the large solar array, angled on the car park roof at the entrance to the school. This 25KW solar array is the centrepiece of a renewable energy transformation at Starehe; the award of their winning entry to the Zayed Future Energy Prize.
The impact of this prize has as much to do with the inspiration of a young generation of women, as it does with energy saved or electricity bills reduced. As Riziki, one of the wise-beyond-their-years solar pioneer students said to us with a loud laugh: “This project has enabled us to create a difference in our own small way. To make sure we are not part of the pollution, we are part of the solution”.
Starehe Girls Centre is tucked out of the way, next to a lake and a tree canopy that once connected to the famous Karura forest saved by Kenya’s female conservation hero, Wangari Maathai. Starehe’s success though has earned it national and global attention. By targeting economically poor but high-achieving students from all corners of Kenya, the 100% charitable school yields impressive results, sought-after by parents across the country for its quality and discipline.
Sister Jane Soita, the Principal, welcomes us at the gate. A long-time teacher at the school newly promoted to Principal, she greets us with joyous inflections of pride: “Starehe is a school, a centre and a home…in the 520 girls at this school, you see the face of Kenya: all the tribes, all the regions, are represented here.”
Not that she was convinced at first that Starehe was well placed to win such an award. Wilkista, a pioneer student of the school (now studying for a Masters in renewable energy in Australia) alerted Jane to the Zayed Future Energy Prize and pressed her to allow them to apply.
“At first I resisted. I said: ‘How can we as a small school, beat all the schools in Africa?’ They said ‘Sister let us try’, and still I said no. Finally, I gave in, I said yes.”
Starehe overcame those odds and was awarded the 2017 Global High Schools Award for Africa.
So now? “I’m so impressed. I’m so happy for them. I’ve come to believe that poverty is not a hindrance to success. These girls have brains. Everything they put their hands on, they win.”
The impacts of the project are clear to see. The school relies on water pumps to irrigate its on-site farm from the adjacent lake. This farm, tended to by the students, provides for the majority of the schools vegetables. These pumps though are energy hungry, and with the additional solar input, the high costs of their operation have been reduced. In fact, the grid-tied solar system has halved the school’s electricity bill. With the money saved, Jane can offer funded places to 10 additional high-achieving students each year; students that otherwise would not be able to afford a quality education.
The project has also enhanced the learning opportunities at Starehe. Mr Andrew Simolo, the geography teacher, tells us: “In class, we are not disseminating learning in theory, we are doing it in practice. The students can see and touch the solar panels. It has had a great impact on us as a learning institution.”
Perhaps the biggest impact, though, is on the 10 “solar pioneers” themselves: the students who have worked on the project from application to implementation. Nora Magwere, a friend and renewable energy business partner of Wilkista, the ex-student that first spotted the Zayed opportunity, is infectiously enthusiastic about the pioneers. “Through this project I’ve inspired these students to go to greater heights. Many of them want to be engineers, and as a woman in this industry, I am very encouraged. These students are my heroes.”
It’s easy to see why. The bell rings, and students run from all directions. We head to our next session, to watch as the solar pioneers proffer their advice to the younger students that are braced to inherit the Zayed Solar Project. The pioneers are shortly leaving for University. As the younger students ask them how they worked as a team, how they
coped with the extra demands on their already packed academic schedule, one by one the pioneers effortlessly reply with words of wisdom:
“Listen to everyone’s opinions, if you try to see the good in other people, then you learn to appreciate the differences in other people.”
“Sometimes you have hidden talents. This project has allowed me to see that I have a talent in communicating in English. So go the extra mile and try something new, you will discover that there is something hidden in you that makes you outstanding.”
“My biggest piece of advice to you is: be humble, and listen to your heart. Then, you cannot go wrong.”
The legacy of the project will be secured, the pioneers explain, once the solar water heaters are installed, and the new students take up the pioneers’ fledgling Cool Green Campaign – an effort to spread the word of renewable energy to other schools in the region. Effie, a talkative and enthusiastic pioneer, sums it up as she explains to us: “We have laid the foundation, now we ask the younger students to bring their passion, to keep our Cool Green campaign alive. It’s not just about our individual development. It’s about the difference we can make in society.”
A cynic might comment: this is a small solar project, in a small school in Nairobi. What difference does this really make? Yes, there are technical, statistical impacts to report: the school is saving energy, saving on carbon emissions, and will soon be immune to the detrimental effects of burnt fuses and computer equipment (an impact of regular national grid power surges). The real impact, though, is on a young generation of talented women. Both for the extra 10 girls whose education at the school can be funded as a result of the electricity bill cost savings, and for those 10 pioneer girls who have seen the project from inception to implementation, and in so doing, have become ambassadors for clean, green energy in their country.
As we depart again down the bumpy road to Nairobi, we reflect on the words and spirit of the young women at Starehe: humble, collaborative, and fiercely determined. If these young women are given the chance to shine, just as the solar panels now do at their school, Kenya has a bright future, in more ways than one.
Reporting, photo & video content by Steven Bland and Russell Galt of Eco MoJo: Sustainability Simplified. To contact them, email firstname.lastname@example.org