Solar for Sudan – Interview with Rofaida Elzubair

“It’s really amazing to see how they are learning and adapting to things. You’ll find that someone is on their camel, and they are carrying a solar panel to charge their phones – it’s so interesting to see this!”

The solar power based smart village in Barbujat, Sudan is a project funded by EKOenergy and implemented by Practical Action, in partnership with the Women’s Development Association Network. Being the largest project we have funded so far, we wanted to speak to Rofaida Elzubair, Communication Manager of Practical Action Sudan, to get a closer insight into the project.

Ms Elzubair, could you tell us a bit more about the needs of the local community and the motivations for this project?

Barbujat is a small village and there is no electricity grid in the area. Usually, people are sharing resources and there is a real lack of basic needs. This two-year project aimed to ensure that poor households in rural areas have access to safe, affordable and sustainable energy services.

What has been happening, concretely?

We started by giving citizens access to solar-powered units. These have radios in them, can light up to 4 lamps, and have USB readers too. The main things people use are the radio, lighting, and charging mobile phones. In the public health centre and school, we introduced fridges that the whole village can use. Also, a solar mill has been installed and all the people in the village can use this. We also produced some communication materials, posters & manuals, with instructions on how to operate and maintain the units and the solar mill. On top of the posters and manuals there is also training for use and maintenance of the mill.

How has recent instability in the country affected people, in which this project aims to help?

Civil war in Sudan has complicated many livelihoods, with some people now returning back to their villages. Things are getting more stable, but at the same time climate change is making life hard. A lot of men are going to back to cities in which they can find labour work, leaving women with a lot of tasks such as taking care of the kids whilst handling village responsibilities. However, the situation is getting better, with less displacement and people returning back to their homes. But some cannot as their original villages are either too affected by the conflict or by the climate, which makes it too dry to live off the land.

What are some of the direct benefits individuals and the community have felt from this project?

It’s really great to see how this project has affected communities and how their lives have changed with this. It has affected the school, women in their houses, every single life. Things have really changed for them. One midwife told us how it’s really amazing to now have this access to lighting. She will get a call in the middle of the night saying someone is in labour and it is so much easier to go to work and not be afraid, she can see now. Before they were lacking minimum, basic needs and this is really helping them to save lives! For the school, students are now able to study longer as they have light and the school has become an examination centre which others can use; in which they used to have to travel really far to do exams. Children are in one place studying together and things are really changing. Results are improving, it’s really amazing. Also, surrounding communities use the solar mill and the sharing of services means that they don’t have to travel long distances. This is a huge benefit now as the main foods are grains and it has been a huge struggle in the past travelling to the mill in the city.

What are your future plans in the area? Are there plans to expand in neighbouring villages?

Practical Action are always looking to learn and replicate our successes across the country. We have secured support from UNICEF to develop similar activities in Kassala, Eastern Sudan, sharing our experience and knowledge to assist with this. We work with community based organisations (CBOs) to help communities better asses their needs and how to communicate these, even with other NGOs. We also have encouraged them to develop a revolving fund, where they start by paying a very small amount of money that goes to the community group in their village. They collect this money to buy more solar-powered products for the community. This fund gives them the chance to reach as many people as possible. Also, we are working to be more involved in policy within Sudan. With the political situation changing, we hope to have an impact on energy policy in Sudan and to encourage more of the public and private sector to support such projects and to reach as many communities as we can with solar energy.

In terms of your aim to influence energy policy in Sudan, have you had any response and how do you see a potential change in the future?

We are now in a transition of government, so this is in our future plans. In the past it has been very difficult to talk about policy and with this recent transition of government, we see this as our chance to make a step forward. We need to focus and do more work on this. We are even thinking about working on producing some policy briefs out of what we have learnt from this project, so that we can help start such conversations on policy making. There is a huge potential for solar energy in Sudan, it is a huge country and we want to encourage sustainability. We are hoping that our concrete projects and their successes can help inform politicians. The country has been going through tough times, with fuel shortages affecting transportation and water points – so we hope policy can move towards renewables. As we saw with the introduction of the solar mill, transportation is not as essential a factor in the food security of locals if they have access to closer mills.

The project sounds like it’s been a real success, and we hope to help fund similar projects in the future. What are your final words in urging those who can make a difference to help make a change?

One thing that is really important is that we just need to let people know. It’s mainly about them not knowing, and not just about them not willing to do things. For us, it’s more about availability, rather than changing from one option to another – it’s more about the fact that where no electricity exists, micro-solar is the only affordable way right now. We need to do something about this. It may be more expensive now, but over time, there’s more chance people will get a chance to access solar energy. It’s really sunny here, we need to focus on making use of what we’ve already got! We’re really hopeful of reaching as many people as possible!

Thanks, Rofaida Elzubair for the interview! And thanks to Practical Action for organising the (online) meeting!

Posted on 10 December 2019