Matrons, officials and AK47s

01/01/2016

by Sumi Pascoe

It’s hard to say whether the lowest point was the hour after the rain that became horizontal as well as vertical, finding a way to drench us under our solitary umbrella, or whether it was when a man waving a Kalashnikov who thought he had identified us as smugglers, boarded our boat. It may have been when the first boat didn’t show, the second broke down and the third, which left an hour late, appeared to have been staffed by a captain who placed a spirited attitude above navigational prowess.

Visiting remote communities

I was worried. Aside from being in danger of becoming the first person in the annals of West African medicine to manage to catch a chill, I was concerned about the logistics. I was trying to calculate the extent to which the delay – the choppy seas and rains, the clogged and possibly impassable roads – might affect our VIP’s next meeting. Would his boat overtake ours and throw all protocol out?

This visit was to a trailblazing solar energy programme that has been the centrepiece of my professional life since its inception in October 2014. Both our VIP and I were keen to ensure they meet the programme’s beneficiaries, even in the remotest areas only accessible by the least predictable transport.

The logistics behind an official visit is daunting. My team had been preparing for ten days in collaboration with field staff and government departments and their representatives. We strived for more than a smooth schedule; we wanted to show that our programme was a breakthrough in the sector with results to back it up.

Timing is everything

I need not have worried. We made it to the right place five minutes ahead of the VIP and his entourage who followed in a boat behind. Just enough time to begin to feel a touch of nerves.
When I left a successful career in London, re-trained, went back to university and took a job with Adam Smith International, it was all in the hope that one day I would be able to be involved with a programme like this.

While I am British and my family are Bengali, I grew up in West Africa and believe passionately about the how off-grid solar can play a major part in transforming the lives of millions of people. I had completed two years managing the roads sector of another successful government programme, and wanted a new challenge. From the outset I was convinced this programme could be a game changer.

Now, the timing is perfect. The price of solar panels has dropped dramatically while innovations in solar energy storage technology and performance have advanced. The West African energy deficit will never be met entirely by on-grid solutions given population dispersal, and making solar initiatives work, provides an economical and fast scaling option which can address real needs.

Understanding change

In less than a year the programme has changed thousands of lives. It has dramatically reduced infant mortality at partner clinics and it has enabled these clinics to buy and store medicines in refrigerators that couldn’t have been powered to allow for lifesaving treatments.

It has saved schools over £100,000 that they no longer need to spend on generator fuel and it has taken the best of the technological revolution to isolated, disenfranchised areas where life was short, tough and brutal, despite the best efforts of local government.

Not only did the timings work out, and our VIP came with a very strong understanding of the dynamics of the solar industry. Meeting mothers who had delivered children safely at night under the lights, the matrons who had helped them, the children being treated with medicines which could now be safely stored and their parents and doctors, it didn’t matter how long it took to get there. Everyone got so much out of it that it over-ran by an hour.

For our VIP, the next stop was a state governor, before a roundtable discussion on solar and a reception. As for me, I was going to go and get dry.