Mobile, solar schools bring power to the powerless

Four examples show how solar-powered mobile schools can bring computer education to some of the world’s poorest children.

By , Global Envision

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    Students in Kolkata, India, check out their solar sunglasses as they prepare to watch the transit of Venus across the sun. The sun is being harnessed in India and Africa to power mobile solar classrooms for students.
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Beep beep! For some students, hopping on the school bus is hopping into the classroom. Four communities are using solar-powered mobile classrooms to overcome inaccessibility to the power grid.

Last week, we looked at a bus in Chitradurga, India, that brought modern computer technology to students in energy-poor rural schools through solar power. SELCO, a private energy company, engineered the bus with 400 watts of solar modules, 10 laptops, fans, and lights.

Circumventing the area's erratic power supply with its solar panels, this bus provides much-needed modern computer education and exposure to the advantages of solar energy. Motoring through rural villages in Chitradurga since January 2012, the bus has reached “60 schools and 2,081 children,” the New Indian Express reported in early September.

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We found three more pretty exciting examples of solar-powered mobile schools that bring computer education to some of the world’s poorest:

Bangladeshi floating schools

Where there’s more water than land, boats replace buses, and with rising sea levels, low-income Bangladeshi students have difficulty getting to school altogether.

Pushed to inaccessible riverside settlements that lack basic infrastructure, students often can’t get to school due to monsoon flooding. Shidhulai Swanirvar Sangstha, a nonprofit organization started by Mohammed Rezwan, rides the rising tides with his solar-powered floating schools.

Trained as an architect and personally experienced with soggy school disruptions in Bangladesh, Rezwan rode a brainwave that led him to floating schools. Combining the best of traditional boat design and modern sustainable practices, the organization's 54 boats have been operating since 2002 and have served over 90,000 families.

The boats have been outfitted with waterproof roofs, solar panels, computers, high-speed Internet, and solar lamps, which allow students and their families to study or work at night and save money on kerosene lamps, which are traditionally used but smoky and expensive. According to  IRIN, Rezwan gives the lamps as incentives for top students. This doubles as advertising—the sale of these lamps helps fund and sustain Rezwan’s NGO.

The floating schools were so popular, Rezwan added library and health clinic boats as well. As seen in this video, it's not just the school-aged who benefit from this armada of enlightenment.

Women and girls, who are often denied traditional education opportunities, can find out about sustainable farming techniques, health and sanitation tips that they can share with their community. With a little creative thinking, Rezwan has turned water—that once divided—into a channel for knowledge and communication.

Samsung solar-powered internet schools

In Africa, Samsung implements part of its corporate social responsibility initiative in the form of mobile solar-powered internet schools, which come in the guise of shipping containers.

While the containers are not as mobile as the SELCO bus or Bangladeshi boats, these energy-independent classrooms still overcome the energy barriers that keep students from being trained in modern computer technology. These 40-foot-long shipping containers can be transported via truck to various rural communities, and with the durable, rubber-based solar panels mounted on the roof, they can power 21 computers for up to nine hours a day.

As reported by Engineering News, Samsung launched a pilot project in Boksburg, South Africa, a year ago and the company now says that it provides a “technology-rich learning and teaching environment to K-12 classrooms across five countries in Africa—South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, Senegal, and Sudan" and aims to scale into more countries in the coming years.

Samsung has a keen interest in educating Africa’s youths and ensuring a technologically savvy workforce in the future. In fact, Samsung has a “Built for Africa” product range and has signed South Africa’s 39M Pledge, which is a “government-endorsed initiative that aims to encourage a national culture of energy saving for a sustainable future."

Moreover, in an article in the Engineering News RecordSamsung Electronics Africa president and CEO K.K. Park said:

"With the goal to grow our business on the continent, we also know that we have to sustain our level of innovation. This can only be achieved if we invest in education to facilitate African thought leadership and to ensure we have access to a large workforce of skilled engineers in the future.

"The solar-powered internet school is a great example of this strategy at play," he concluded.

Maendeleo Foundation mobile solar computer classroom project

Starting on a smaller platform, but with an equally big vision, two SUV’s bring laptops powered by solar panels to students in Uganda.

In a country where only 9 percent of the population has access to a power supply and only 3 percent can afford it, modern computer education seems like a pipe dream. With an SUV retrofitted with solar panels and five laptops, the Maendeleo Foundation sought to redress this problem. With the help of a grant from Intel in 2009, the foundation now operates two mobile solar computer classrooms, training 15 people at a time and 200 per day.

It also opened an advanced training center in early 2012, where students who show potential and interest can receive further training and education. Through a succession of grants and recognition, the Maendeleo Foundation furthers its mission of “nurturing progress in east Africa through technology training, job creation … and the power of the sun.”

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These four initiatives—SELCO's bus, Rezwan's boats, Samsung's shipping containers, and Maendeleo's SUVs—all consist of simple, solar-powered solutions to a complex and insidious energy poverty problem. Many of these solutions are still in their nascent prototype phase, so it’s difficult to judge whether the intended outcome of trained, job-ready workers has been fulfilled. The sun shines on us all, but not all of us can get our fingers on the technology that will most likely drive our future. And from an article from Next Billion, this is indeed the crux of the matter:

"On one hand, Western universities and philanthropic organizations are encouraging inventors to create technologies for development by offering grants, hosting competitions, and showcasing the solutions in the media. On the other hand, very few people in low-income communities around the world are benefiting from these inventions, let alone know that they exist."

These innovative models can’t do much good until they’ve got a sustainable funding model like Rezwan's floating schools and solar lamp combo, or scaled up with the support of government and other local players. Then we'll start to see the sun shine its way into every classroom.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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