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Minnesota students to build solar suitcases to light up classrooms in Kenya’s refugee camp
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For hundreds of thousands of students living on the outskirts of Kenya’s refugee camps, learning stops at sunset. Afterschool programs, parent-teacher conferences, evening and night classes don’t exist.

But soon that will change thanks to Wells Fargo and We Care Solar, a national program that aims to end energy poverty in developing countries.

Together they are bringing a new program to ten schools and one after-school program in the metro area in the fall. Each institution will build at least a dozen portable, 12-volt solar power systems that will light up the lives of more than 40,000 children living in Kakuma refugee camp, a town racked by crime, illiteracy, malnutrition, water shortages, illnesses and more.

The We Share Solar STEM program is designed to equip students with foundational skills in science, technology, engineering and math fields while also preparing them to become global change agents, said Gigi Dekko Goldman, co-founder of We Share Solar.

“Students who live in these regions of energy poverty, which is a great portion of rural sub-Saharan Africa don’t have electricity,” Goldman said. “Students will build a system that’s actually going to change the lives of their counterparts on the other side of the world.”

Around the world, about 840 million people don’t have access to electricity, according to a progress report released by World Bank and other humanitarian organizations. Meanwhile, about 573 million people who live in remote areas globally are energy deprived, one in two are in sub-Saharan Africa.

Wells Fargo is spending $1 million over a four-year period to support We Share Solar’s effort to end energy-poverty in Africa.

Muzabel Welongo, a native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and founder and executive director of Resilience Action International, an organization based in Kenya and Tanzania, has been working with We Share Solar for the last two years, identifying schools and centers in the camp that could benefit from the program.

Welongo spent eight years in Kakuma as a refugee, but he is now running his organization from Columbus, Ohio, and has a team on the ground in Africa. The goal, he said, is to make sure each school and center has at least one suitcase.

“Providing electricity will really help schools run extended hours,” Welongo said. “It also means that the students here in the United States are just not doing it for the sake of learning, they are also doing it with a mind-set of helping some of the most vulnerable populations like refugees back home.”

During a two-day workshop in July, teachers learned about conditions in the camp, how to build the solar suitcases and how to integrate the We Share Solar’s program into their STEM curriculum. Between September and November, teachers and students will build the suitcases and prepare them for shipment.

A single solar suitcase is durable enough to light up three classrooms and charge computers, cellphones and other electronic devices. Program leaders said they will document the delivery and installation process of the solar suitcases on camera and share the stories with the students who built them.

Lars Peterson, a career and technical education teacher at Minneapolis’ Patrick Henry High School, and Emily Vang, a youth counselor for Girls Inc. at the YWCA of Minneapolis, were among those who attended the training workshop. Peterson said he signed on to the program because it will give his 45 students in engineering classes practical skills and also benefit the lives of Kenya’s refugee children.

“It will be an interesting experience for my students because many of them come from circumstances that are very challenging socioeconomically,” Peterson said. “And for them to learn about other students who in many cases have even less resources than they have been used to and accustomed to, it will help provide some perspective for them.”

The YWCA, meanwhile, will offer We Share Solar as an after-school program through Girls Inc. for girls of all ages for about six months.

“This would totally be different from other STEM activities we have,” Vang said. “This will definitely give the girls more exposure to different STEM careers and just more hands on experience.

 

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