Helping one village at a time
With solar panels, Innovation: Africa – founded by Sivan Ya’ari, centre – is helping bring light and water to African villages. (photo from Sivan Ya’ari)
“Growing up in Israel, we were a poor family,” recalled Sivan Ya’ari, founder of Innovation: Africa. “But the poverty I saw in Africa was true poverty. We can’t compare.”
Ya’ari spent part of her childhood in France, which later helped her land a job with Jordache, a jeans manufacturing company based in the United States that had some factories in French-speaking African countries.
“After spending time in villages and traveling to other countries, I realized that the main challenge in Africa, the main reason why Africa is still in poverty, is the lack of energy,” she told the Independent. “Because there is no energy, they can’t get access to medicine, vaccines – because there is no refrigeration. Because there is no energy, people don’t get access to good education. But, most importantly, people don’t have access to water.”
Ya’ari had imagined Africa to be a continent with little water, but she discovered there is actually plenty of water in Africa. However, the water is located in aquifers and, to get to it, you need to pump it – and to do that, you need energy.
“Growing up in Israel, I remember seeing solar panels on every building,” she said. “So, when I came and learned a bit more about energy, I thought, maybe we just need to transfer some of the knowledge and some of the technology to remote villages to give them a chance to access water and education.”
Ya’ari enrolled in Columbia University’s master’s in energy program and began fundraising to bring energy solutions to Africa.
As a student, Ya’ari started in one village, and then another, continuing to the point that, today, she has brought the technology – a large pump run by solar panels – to about 140 villages, and counting. The water is pumped into a large holding tank and then, with the help of gravity, flows to different taps that are installed throughout a village.
“Usually, we’re putting one tap two kilometres from the water pump system, another tap four kilometres from it and another … in all directions,” said Ya’ari. “So, with one water pump system, we’re able to reach many villages and people.”
Once the concept proved successful, Ya’ari founded Innovation: Africa, which operates in seven African countries. “In every country, we have an office with a local manager,” she said. “In Uganda, for example, we have seven full-time local people working who have all been trained. They are managing and doing the work on the ground.
“We first hire a company that does geological surveys. This provides information about how deep the aquifers are, how much water we can find and where would be best to drill. Then we hire a drilling machine company and have local contractors do the rest – installing the pump, the water tank, involving the community (meaning, the villagers) who decide where to instal the different taps.
“Once this is all installed, sometimes, in some villages, we instal an extra tank – only for irrigation technology (Netafim) that we bring from Israel – and then we provide irrigation pipes to the village.”
Each pump provides 30,000 litres on average per day per system.
Innovation: Africa recently received an award from the United Nations for their remote monitoring system – another technology that came from Israel.
“It’s off-grid, remote monitoring, so, at any point, we are able to remotely know how much water we’re pumping into every village,” explained Ya’ari. “If something breaks, meaning a pump hasn’t pumped water in 24 hours, we are notified about it by the system; not only us, but the local contractors and the local managers.”
Most of the funding has come from individuals and foundations, often with one individual or family sponsoring a village. On Innovation: Africa’s website (innoafrica.org), there is information about how to become a sponsor.
“We have a bar or bat mitzvah … choosing an orphanage to adopt and then they are traveling with their parents to be there when the kids get light for the first time,” said
Ya’ari. “We have families adopting villages. It’s very transparent, personal and concrete. The donors appreciate that they also have access to the remote monitoring. At any point on their phone, they are able to see how much energy was produced or consumed and how much water was pumped. They also know if something breaks. They are connected to the villagers. They go back and visit.”
According to Ya’ari, many children, especially girls, are kept out of schools in Africa so that they can walk the great distances necessary to get water.
“I believe that the best return on the investment is when we bring water to a village,” said Ya’ari. “What we found is that people are spending hours a day looking for water. Most of the time, the water they find is dirty and is not good for drinking. Once we bring clean water, the people are healthier. The changes we see … the children are going to school. We see a lot more girls going and getting an education. We see that they are growing food.
“What inspires me is the number of businesses villagers are able to grow with access to water. They are able to grow food and sell it in the market. They are making bricks and making their homes, no longer made with mud. We see livestock…. They are making more money.
“And, for the medical centres, it’s tremendous,” she said. “Once we provide a little energy and we buy a small fridge, then people come in from the capital to the village to help. The doctor, with energy, she can actually work.”
When it comes to the cost to make this happen, it is about $5,000 to light a classroom and $18,000 to light a whole school, including the homes of the teachers. To bring water to a entire village, it costs around $50,000.
No governments are involved in these projects. It is all about people on one end of the world helping out people on another end.
“Unfortunately, there is no shortage of villages waiting,” said Ya’ari. “In the seven countries that we operate, we have a long list of schools needing light and water centres. It has a lot to do with funding and people to adopt the villages. We have the people on the ground and the technology.”
Rebeca Kuropatwa is a Winnipeg freelance writer.