How IEEE is Helping Villages Become Smarter

An IEEE Foundation program believes it has a good model for bringing electricity to communities in need

16 February 2015

Photo: IEEE Smart Village

Mike Wilson [second row, left], senior program manager of IEEE Smart Village, spent three weeks training recent electrical engineering graduates of National Polytechnic Bamenda, in Cameroon, on how to assemble and operate solar-powered charging stations in their community.
This article is part of our February 2015 special report on “Global Development,” which highlights IEEE’s efforts in using technology to help advance developing and underserved regions.

The IEEE Smart Village initiative is working to bring electricity to millions living in remote and underserved regions while also providing jobs in these communities. Mike Wilson, the initiative’s new senior program manager, explains why this type of program is needed and how it works.

With funding from the IEEE Foundation, Smart Village works on projects that provide electricity to the energy impoverished or what Wilson calls “getting power to the people.” Grants seed fund the initial investment for buying the equipment, as well as providing mentoring and training. Volunteers work with local entrepreneurs to help them set up micro-utilities, using renewable energy technology like solar panels to power nearby homes, businesses, and schools. But there’s also an educational component.

“We realized that when you provide electricity, you need to educate the community in many ways; not only on how to operate the electrical deployment—whether it’s power distribution through a grid or battery packs powering light bulbs and appliances—but operationally, from the business side in order to assure a long-lived growing enterprise,” he says.

“There are a number of recent publications that point out how traditional methods to ending poverty don’t work and they testify to how direct handouts—whether from international aid organizations, government programs, or faith-based efforts—largely hinder the development of communities, not promote them,” he adds. “What is observed is that as soon as the funding ends, the project closes down. It takes a financially self-sustaining business operation, regardless of the product and client, for the endeavor to have the stronger legs.”

HOW THE PROGRAM WORKS

The current programs across Africa and India engage volunteers to mentor budding micro-utility startups by local “energy entrepreneurs.” The pilot projects in Nigeria and South Sudan have been initiated by former IEEE student members returning to their communities to launch companies that are now providing electricity to their villages. One such example is IEEE Member Mou Riiny, a recent graduate from the University of California, San Diego, who received seed funding from the Smart Village program to set up 12 micro-utility stations in villages in South Sudan, providing electricity to more than 5,000 community members.

And there’s a stipulation to receiving the funds: The profits derived not only have to go to expanding the project in the traditional commercial sense but also must be used to meet the social needs within the community.

“We don’t tell them what they are going to do with their profits,” Wilson says. “They need to determine what is going to empower and better the community, whether it’s caring for orphans and widows, or helping to build a medical clinic, water pumping station, or a community center.”

Smart Village takes a grassroots, bottom-up approach. “We work hard to engage local folks and give them the opportunity to work with us so we are in tune with the best way to solve their problems,” Wilson says.

He admits that some assumptions about what is needed in a village are not always correct. For example in Cameroon, it was assumed that once villagers got electricity in their home, they would use lights to read books or to study by, says Wilson. Instead, the electricity is highly valued for what he calls “access to entertainment.”

“Sometimes we find villagers still use their kerosene lanterns for evening light and apply the electricity to charge cellphones and portable DVD players, and power radios,” he says. “That’s because many villagers didn’t know how to read, and children didn’t have homework to complete because teachers know not all households have electricity.”

FROM VOLUNTEER TO EMPLOYEE

Wilson has been an entrepreneur for most of his career, working as an international impresario of Chinese acrobat productions, and of major events and attractions at theme parks and resorts. He sold his company in 2010 and became a volunteer for the Torchbearer Foundation, a faith-based humanitarian organization involved in, among other projects, providing electric systems to villages in Cameroon.

In 2011, a member of the IEEE Community Solutions Initiative, now Smart Village, attended a presentation about the foundation’s projects, and the two organizations began working together. Wilson got involved with the IEEE initiative in 2012, and worked as its volunteer program manager in 2013 and most of 2014. He was hired full time on 1 December 2014.

“There’s now full-time attention being paid to the program, and this will really allow the humanitarian initiative to flourish,” he says.

There are many ways members can get involved with Smart Village, including the development of hardware and software needed in the field, long distance and local mentoring of those running the electrical systems, helping to perfect the business model, engaging government representatives, and working directly with the community on a project.

“We are finding that quite a few folks who we’ve approached as financial donors are eager to support international development programs that create self-sustaining business entities that break off and run on their own once mature,” he says. “They are delighted to know that their investment will fund something that supports the local economy and grows into something bigger over time.”

Do you believe the IEEE Smart Village model can help transform communities in need? What ideas do you have on how engineers can help underserved nations?

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