Even in the sun-drenched islands of the Philippines, access to light can be scarce. Over 20 million people in the country lack access to electricity, including 1.5 million students at 8,000 unelectrified schools. In the dark, these children rely on the dim light of kerosene flames to read and complete homework assignments once the sun goes down; a study strategy that is dangerous both for their health and their homes. Exposure to the fumes from kerosene lamps can lead to detrimental health effects, and homes are regularly set ablaze by lanterns that have been knocked over.
Over the summer of 2014, I worked with Stiftung Solarenergie Philippines, an organization that seeks to fight poverty in the Philippines by providing all off-grid villages with sustainable access to solar energy. Stiftung also works with We Share Solar to provide solar suitcases to populations that lack power. Specifically, I worked on Stiftung’s Light for Education Program, which focuses on providing solar energy to rural schools. I was able to find this opportunity through Princeton’s International Internship Program and received funding through the Office of International Programs as well as the Class of 1995 Summer Service Fund.
Based in Manila and traveling to rural areas for several days each week, I helped design and launch Light for Education’s Solar Library program, the first renewable energy education initiative in the Philippines, at Apia Integrated School. Thirteen teachers live at the school all week in order to teach over 300 local students. Without power at the school, many teachers choose to hold class outside where it is easier to see, and students are often unable to complete their assignments at night.
The solar library program is founded upon a donation of one small solar light for each student, which is then checked out on a weekly basis like a library book. Each student pays 5PHP per week, a cost agreed upon by the parents of the community, for maintenance and eventual repair of the lights. This approach is unique to Stiftung Solarenergie; the students are compelled to take responsibility for their own light and treat it as their own.
With this experience, I have learned the key to making an impact on developing nations, especially with renewable energy technology: it is easy to donate for important short-term impacts, but local involvement and engagement are necessary to create lasting change. While donating solar panels or light bulbs to rural areas is fairly easy, building the community infrastructure to create a long-term initiative that relies upon those donations is quite a bit more difficult, yet leaves a far brighter outcome.