Solar Install: Final Post and Pics


We arrived in the village at about 10am, after purchasing some additional supplies in Chipata. A slight bit of anxiety crept over me as this was the real deal. What if it didn’t work? What if there was a problem we didn’t foresee? Well, worrying wasn’t going to accomplish anything.

We made an immediate assessment of the buildings we’d be working in. There was a classroom that shared a common wall with the head-master’s room. We decided that the batteries would be stored in the headmaster’s room and we’d run a wire through the wall to the lights in the classroom. We then looked at the rafters where we would hang the lights. There were joists running laterally across the room, and we decided to put 6 lights in the room: 2 lights on each joist. The wiring looked like a big “U” starting at the switch on one end, and working around the room with the last light on the other end of the “U.”

Once the hole was made and we had a “hot” wire coming down into our room, we got going. Well, we got going after we had to flush out a

few wasps from their nest with some branches we set on fire. The size of these buggers was a bit intimidating so making sure they wouldn’t sting us was priority number one. The next step was to assemble our makeshift work platform, which consisted of two rather shoddy desks underneath a rusted out 55 gallon oil drum. What made this even better was that the height of our work station was just tall enough that we had to keep a slight bend in our knees every time we were on top of it, lest our heads hit the scorching aluminum roof above. With the temperature and slight squat position we had to maintain, we were essentially doing Bikram Yoga, African village-style.

So that was the bulk of our work: wiring a junction box, bringing a wire down to the bottom and attaching the light socket. Only one person could be on the oil drum at a time, so Erik and I alternated from light to light. In the meantime, Moses had been wiring 2 lights in the headmaster’s room on the same “hot” wire but on a different switch, as well as wiring a second AC system for the laptop(s) to be charged. We both finished around the same time. It was long work, but rewarding, and when the lights came on at the end of the day and the computer ran off the batteries, it was all worth it.

The next day, Moses and a few of the people from the village spent most of the morning securing the panels to the racking equipment. He was concerned about theft, so he chained and welded the panels to the racks. I’m glad this precaution was taken. He then made some holes in the roof, with a hand-powered auger no less, and secured the panels. While this was happening, Erik and I wired another room where the teachers would do their prep work. No wasps, better desks to stand on, and at least one day of experience under our belt meant this work went a bit faster. A little crowd of kids had assembled to watch us, and I let a few of the more eager ones help us out. It was fun watching them become familiar with screwdrivers and junction boxes, and secretly I hoped I was inspiring some kid to become an engineer one day.When we were finished with the wiring, we installed the panel on the roof and all was good.

This is was my third project abroad with Beyond Solar, and every time I’ve completed one, I’ve had to ask myself who was gained more: the villagers or myself? I know that when I made the final connection, saw that the panels were charging the batteries and that the lights worked (and later, the laptop was charging), it was beyond rewarding. Moses had purchased a USB cellular modem and for the first time, this school would have access to the internet. The teachers would have time to prepare lessons outside of school hours. The kids could read at night. And the parents, many of whom are skeptical of education to begin with, would now have access to adult literacy classes.

I only spent 3 days in the village but I saw the potential. On the trip out of Dwankhozi, I spoke to Moses about future projects and how solar power can help them. We spoke of building and lighting a “study room” in each village. This would allow the kids that cannot return to school in the evening (many walk more than 3 miles per day, one way, to attend classes) to study at night. We discussed a solar system that could power a refrigerator for medical supplies that require refrigeration, and a solar powered irrigation system that could support an income producing cotton field. All noble pursuits and I believe we can accomplish them all. Lighting the schools was only the first step.

Solar Install: From Vision to Fruition

I’d like to say that it happened so fast, but in reality, it didn’t. Matt and I had spoken first about collaborating on a project together over a year ago. As I operate Beyond Solar in my free time, outside of my day job, and Dwankhozi Hope is also run by Matt as a side project, outside of his career, our two respective organizations don’t always get the attention they deserve. Persistence and a common vision though have resulted in a successful installation of solar power for the Dwankhozi school district.

While the actual installation of the panels, wiring, lights, and various other electrical components only took 3 days, the project completion itself was a culmination of planning that began a year ago. Matt and I exchanged countless emails about the needs of the pupils and teachers at the school: he gaining insight about my previous projects in India; me learning about the specifics of the environment where I’d be working. We agreed that the hybrid micro-financing model I used in India would not be applicable at Dwankhozi: simply put, the people were too poor to even make an interest free payment on a light. What Matt suggested was lighting for the school so the students could read at night, so the teachers would have more time to prepare lessons, and the parents could begin adult literacy classes.

As I mentioned before, I’m neither an engineer nor an electrician. So before the actual trip, I made a mock-up system at my parent’s home with the help of my dad and Erik, both much more familiar with the movement of electrons across wires. The premise was simple: a solar panel charges a battery during the day and the lights run of the power stored in the battery at night. But we had to incorporate a charge controller that maintains a constant voltage from the panels to the battery (if the voltage drops significantly, say, from a cloud in the sky reducing the sunlight hitting the panel, the battery may be damaged). Then we needed to add a voltmeter to the circuit to know the remaining power left in the battery (they’re never supposed to go below 50% charge). We also wanted a fuse to protect the circuit in case there was a short. We wanted to make sure the circuit was wired so that if one light went out, the rest still worked. Finally there was the sizing: we had to consider battery size, charge controller size, inverter size (for the AC system built to charge the laptops), wire size, and panel size. It was truly a crash course in electricity.

We had all the components except the panels, and the batteries were purchased fully charged, so we were able to wire a system at home. Seeing the lights turned on was quite a relief, and I truly believe that building that mock-up system allowed us to reduce significantly the time it took to complete the work in the village.

So diagrams of the mock-up system in tow, we checked what we could and we made it through London, Lusaka, and then Chipata. We were ready to get to work!

Jeff Olshesky
Beyond Solar 

Solar Installed: A picture says a thousand words

Solar power was installed today at the school. Power is available for the first time EVER! Thanks to Jeff Olshesky and Beyond Solar for travelling all the way to Zambia to install this and thanks to the Chicago Solar Committee and the marathon runners as well as all the donors who made this happen. Check out the first pic…”speaks a thousand words”…


Solar Install: Getting Things Going

I couldn’t wait to get on the plane.  There’s something alluring about the feeling of knowing what the hell I’m getting myself into.  I had made two trips to India to distribute solar lanterns and by most measures, they had been a success.  So going to a developing country to do solar wasn’t entirely new to me but there were some significant differences:  this was Africa, and I wasn’t distributing previously manufactured products; I was going to build a roof mounted solar photo-voltaic (PV) system.  I am neither an electrician nor an engineer, so I may have bitten off a bit more than I could chew.

I did have a few things going for me though:  I am partnering with Dwankhozi Hope, a non-profit organization founded by Matt MacLean and his wife, Beth.  Matt is a college friend of mine, and when I decided to do a project in Africa and looking for an organization that had already established relationships with the people we wanted to help, Dwankhozi Hope was the obvious choice.  Matt introduced me to Moses, who lives in the capital city of Lusaka but whose family owns a farm near Chipata, has been invaluable in helping with logistics and designing the solar system.    It also helps that he’s an engineer and runs a construction company.

We spent the day procuring the rest of the equipment that we weren’t able check as luggage on the flight here.  Goerte, a nice Dutch woman who runs the preeminent solar distributor in Lusaka, provided solar expertise when it comes to batteries, wiring, inverters, and solar panels.  These systems are a little more complicated than I originally expected.

It’s Friday evening now, and I’ve been here 2 nights.  Tomorrow I depart along the Great Eastern Road to Chipata, a 400 hundred mile drive across the country.  I’m riding with Moses and my friend Erik, who is accompanying me on this trip.  Erik too has experience in electricity and has provided a lot of input this novice would have otherwise not considered.

My introduction to Zambia (and since it’s my first time, to Africa in general), has been surprisingly easy.  The area in Lusaka where we’re staying is quite clean and there’s a mall across the street that has a hardware store, restaurants (including a Subway!) and just about anything else you would expect in a recently developed shopping center.  Erik and I have been quite surprised at how little Lusaka seems like a developing country.  Something tells me that’s about to change tomorrow morning.

We’ve got all the equipment.  The logistics have been handled (without issue, I might add), and all we have left is to actually do the work.  Can’t wait to get going…

Jeff Olshesky

2 Fundraisers raise $5400 for Solar Initiative

It’s been a busy and productive month for the Dwankhozi  Solar iniative.   In two seperate fundraising events we raised over $5,000 to fund solar panels for the Dwankhzoi community.    Jeff Chou and Steve Barclay – DH volunteers and dedicated fundraisers – ran the chicago marathon to raise money.  Click here to read more about their amazing efforts.  In addition, a committed group of volunteers  established an official “solar committee” and organized a Navy Pier boat cruise to raise money and awareness to this important cause.   Click here to read more about this initiative and how you can get involved.

Thank you so much for your time and attention.