A simple source of light can make a huge difference in the world; it can brighten the night of the depressed, save a languishing soul and give a future to hopeless youths. And what would you call the bearer of such light? A life saver and hope giver.
That is exactly what Evans Wadongo has become to Kenyans and indeed Africans. He is a young inventor that has lightened the face of his continent in a most appreciable way.
Evans was born in the Western part of Kenya, where he grew up as the youngest of five brothers. He attended Bisunu Primary School, a rural primary school in western Kenyan.
Like 68 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, Evans grew up without a dependable source of power and other social amenities, which was not a fun thing for the lad.
Evans who had to walk 10km every day to get to school regretted that both his home and school did not have electricity. With a lack of good light to study with, he often had to share one kerosene lantern with his siblings and other family members; he remembers the frustration of unfinished homework, poor exam performance and worst of all, constant eye irritation from over exposure to smoke. But his challenges, though worrisome could not deter him, he braved the odds to join Kakamega High School, where he managed to graduate with top marks, and was listed among the top 100 best students in Kenya.
“Having grown up in a rural village without electricity, I experienced first-hand the effects of energy poverty. My brothers and I used kerosene lamps for studying everyday. We were lucky that our parents could afford kerosene but, even so, the supply was not steady and guaranteed. We also had to travel long distances to access the kerosene. I used a tin kerosene lamp with an open flame, often referred to as ‘Koroboi’ in Kenya, and developed eye problems due to frequent exposure to the smoke from the lamp. A lot of my neighbors were extremely poor and could only afford kerosene occasionally; children from such homes could not study at night. I walked long distances to school everyday, and the school had no electricity, too. Back then in my primary school, corporal punishment was the order of the day. Imagine the frustration of being punished for not doing your homework, and yet it was not your fault but rather an unfortunate situation of lack of kerosene at home. A lot of my friends dropped out of school for this reason.”
Evans knew there was a need for change, his heart ached for his people; the young ones who couldn’t enjoy a sound education because they had no access to light, the women who endangered their lives each time, fanning the flames from their firewood, in a bid to kindle fire for cooking and the men who constantly sustain injury toiling in darkness.
“These families, they are so poor. They don’t have electricity; it’s only kerosene and firewood that they use for lighting and cooking. The amount of money that every household uses to buy kerosene every day — if they can just save that money, they can be able to buy food.”
He knew it was time to step out and be the change he desires, but one thing was certain, he wasn’t sure how to go about it.
“All along I was asking myself if there is anything that can be done to improve this situation.”
In 2004 as a 19 year old freshman at the Jomo Kenyatta University for Agriculture and Technology, Evans found his answer while trying his hands on a dorm experiment involving the timing of LED (light-emitting diode) Christmas lights. It immediately struck him that the environmentally friendly source of light could be used to brighten his community and put smiles on the faces of his people.
“I knew it would have to be sourced by the sun to be useful to people in rural areas,” he said, “but I had never seen a solar panel small enough for individual homes.”
Then, while walking home from visiting a friend, Evans stumbled on a broken-off piece of a discarded solar panel. With it, he was able to light a small number of LEDs, and that was how his project, ‘Use Solar, Save Lives’ was born.
“I immediately knew the impact that it would have on the rural communities,” he said.
With the help of a crafts worker Evans designed a solar lantern, which he calls MwangaBora — Swahili for “good light,” a fume-less light source made of 50% recycled materials that has since been widely distributed throughout the Country sides of Kenya and Malawi.
Less than a decade later, Evans heads the Just One Lamp organization, which he says aims to “directly impact at least five hundred thousand people by 2015 and raise a million people out of poverty by 2018.” He has been featured on CNN and in Forbes as one of Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs.
He is currently the Executive Director and Chairman of Sustainable Development for All-Kenya (SDFA-Kenya), a non-profit, non-governmental organisation founded in 2006. SDFA-Kenya works with rural African communities to bring lasting changes to socio–economic problems including education, environmental sustainability, health conditions and women’s empowerment.
The organization is working in Kenya and Malawi and seeks to expand into other African countries. To date, SDFA-Kenya has greattly impacted the lives of over 120,000 people. It is recorded that school attendance has increased up to 40% and the Mwanga Bora lamps have prevented 20.2 million pounds of harmful emissions from kerosene lamps from entering the atmosphere.
The young change maker has received numerous awards and publicity from the international community over the past few years.
On 30 March 2011, he was named one of three recipients of the inaugural Mikhail Gorbachez Awards for “The Man Who Changed the World.” Other recipients of the prestigious award were Sir Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web and Ted Turner, media mogul and founder of CNN.
In the same year, he was among “20 Men Who Will Shape the Next 20 Years” by UK’s Esquire Magazine in 2011, and also as an Unreasonable Institute Fellow.
Evans was also named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation for 2011. The awards ceremony was held in Cape Town, South Africa, during the World Economic Forum for Africa.
In 2012, the light bearer received the African International Achievers Award and was also named one of four torchbearers to represent Kenya during the 2012 London Olympics Torch Relay. He was a finalist at the inaugural Innovation Prize for Africa held in Addis Ababa in 2012.
Again in 2013, the genius was awarded the Pan Commonwealth Youth Award for development. He was selected to be a featured participant for the Clinton Global Initiative University and was also listed among the ‘30 Under 30: Africa’s Best Young Entrepreneurs’ by Forbes. In 2010, Evans was selected as a CNN Hero of the year.
He was also honored at an All Star Tribute show in Hollywood by Oscar winning actress, Halle Berry. The show was graced by top celebrities in entertainment and was broadcast all over the world.
The man Evans Wadongo has been featured on several media channels like CNN, BBC, AFP, The New Yorker, China Central Television, Reuters, France 24, Discovery Channel, MBC South Korea, Deutsche Welle, German Radio, Russian State TV, Huffington Post among other international media channels.
And in Kenya, he has been featured on KTN TV, K24 TV, NTV, KBC TV, Citizen TV, KISS FM Radio, Radio Jambo, Capital FM, Nation Newspaper, Standard Newspaper, The Star newspaper, The People newspaper, Parents Magazine, Management Magazine, and many online news sources around the world.
Evans has been a speaker in schools, colleges and international conferences in many countries in Europe, Americas, Middle East, and Africa, including the Clinton Global Initiative-University, African Union Youth Forum, African Development Forum, Education Without Borders, among many others.
In August 2013, he was named on a list by MIT Technology Review of the Top 35 Innovators Under 35.
Evans saw a need and met it, today he is celebrated all over the world. You have the same opportunity, use it wisely.