By: Sierra Fan, February 2015
This January, I took on the ambitious project of distributing 7000 solar lights in West Java, Indonesia with a team from OML and Energizer Indonesia. After 5 years with OML, and 2 years in Indonesia, I was familiar with the type of communities and distributions. However, this project gave me a whole new perspective that reaffirmed my belief in the impact we have. Here is why:
I balance precariously on muddy trail, grasping at the dense tropical foliage and silently swearing at my chosen footwear.
It was the first day of the Indonesia solar light distributions with Energizer, and after five hours of lurching in cars and dirt bikes, we still had a ways to walk to reach our destination village. The early afternoon thunderstorms had washed away much of the narrow dirt trails, and their zigzagging curves on the side of steep valleys were barely recognizable. The local government representatives leading the way had taken off their shoes and were forging ahead ankle deep in mud. I look down at the sharp drop an inch to the right of my flip-flops and berate myself for listening to the locals when they said the village was “an easy 2 hour car ride.”
My hand feels something cold and metallic within the vegetation. To my surprise, it’s an electrical wire, secured on a wooden pole and extending parallel to the trail. I stop the government representatives to look, according to their grid specifications; there should not be anything this far from the main roads.
“It is probably an illegal connection,” explains one of them, “they pay someone grid-connected at the top and extend a makeshift wire down into the valleys.”
In the village, we inquire more about these electrical connections. What we learn about are mostly stories of their ineffectiveness, danger, and the myriad of issues they cause: the connection is overwhelmingly expensive and takes the savings of a few dozen households together; the wire is of such low quality that less than half the wattage arrives at the end households; the unplanned load overwhelms the small grid and causes frequent blackouts; the government extends fines on these illegal activities. In the end, all the effort and savings these family put in for these illegal electrical connections power nothing but one faint, flicking light bulb in each household, that can be used for only three hours a day. Not even that, in fact, as almost all these illegal extensions we saw in the numerous villages we visited were inoperative: either broken, discovered by the government, or too dangerous to continue to use.
Over the next few days, even more heartbreaking stories appear. When asked about the disconnected wires outside one family’s home, the man we spoke to confessed, holding back tears, that his mother had died of an electric shock during a rain storm, and they had been too scared to use it ever since. The illegal, shoddy wiring causes a fair share of electrical fires as well.
After going to so many areas of the world without electricity, this Indonesia distribution provided a whole new perspective. This was the first time I felt the sheer desperation of these people to connect to power. They would pile up all their savings for a dangerous, undependable service, just for one dim light bulb in their homes. Indonesia has over 250 million people without electricity, but in West Java, a rural but quickly developing area, signs of invading commercialization are everywhere: Dunhill posters on straw-thatched porches selling fruit, Coca Cola posters reused as village signs.
These stories imbeds solar lights with a new kind of urgency and necessity. Lighting for these people are no longer a technological novelty, it is something they desperately need. Solar solves all the problems of the illegal electrical connections while providing a much brighter, cleaner light, and using fuel that is absolutely free. Instead of breaking the law and risking dangerous electrical shocks and fires, they can enjoy the benefits of electrical power with such a simple, beautiful device.
Personally, hearing these stories gave me extra motivation to tackle this ambitious project. Arriving in Indonesia, I faced the jam-packed schedule (7000 lights in less than 2 weeks is 700 lights per day) with a bit of trepidation, but knowing how much these people are willing to risk for lighting gave me renewed purpose. One day, we were trapped by difficult roads and the incoming darkness, and knew we could not get back until 3 or 4am. We stopped for dinner at the village chief’s house. We all ate, sitting cross-legged on the carpet, using our fingers to wrap rice and tamarind-spiced chicken with local raw leafy vegetables (a Javanese favorite). Instead of stressing about getting home, I listened to the soft patter of rainfall on the straw roof and the chatter of Bahasa, and smiled at the warm glow of faces, Indonesia and American, all illuminated by solar light.
A huge thanks to Barrett Raftery and Edward Tan from the OML team, who worked with me in Indonesia; the dozens of people from Energizer Indonesia team, especially Iput Andriyanti, Arif Musarif, Bram Prasetyo, and our fearless driver Darwin; and the West Javanese government for making our distributions possible.