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Let there be light

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Housewives turned engineered set up solar panels in their communities.

For Yangon’s urbanites, power cuts are a recurrent annoyance, but for many in the countryside life without electricity is just daily routine.

Ma Cho Aye, who lives in a remote village with her six children was one of the first one to put her hand up when asked by Ko Aung Kyaw Soe from WWF-Myamar who wanted to learn how to become a solar engineer.

She lives in Kayin Taung Pyaut village. Dawei, the biggest city of the Tanintharyi Region in southern Myanmar is 44 miles away. The village has no electricity and no generator.

When solar panels made their way to the village through vendors coning from Dawei, 15 out of 85 households could afford them. The rest used candles and lamp oil.

Many could not afford the panels and as there were no engineers capable of repairing them they were thrown away after some time.

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Trained solar engineer in action, Dawei township, Myanamar, 29 November, 2017. The Myanmar Times
Trained solar engineer in action, Dawei township, Myanamar, 29 November, 2017. The Myanmar Times

In 2016, WWF-Myanmar went around Tanintharyi Region in 2016 to ask women who would be willing to go to India and learn how to install solar panels a tBarefoot college, a college in India which was created in 1972 to train people all over the world to become solar engineers.

Five women aged 35 to 50 years old were selected to acquire some knowledge about solar energy, but at the condition to bring it back to their village– according to the organisers, women are more likely to commit to their community than men who just decamp to big cities to earn more money with their new skills.

Despite having no basic English, Ma Cho Aye traveled to India together with four other women from three different villages in Dawei.

Life in India was odd, says Ma San San Maw who was also part of the adventure. She stayed in a dormitory and had a chapatti and a glass of milk as a breakfast, she says with a somehow disgusted face.

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Naw Pho Doe instal solar panels in Kyit Hpee Lan village, Dawei township, Myanamar, 29 November, 2017. The Myanmar Times
Naw Pho Doe instal solar panels in Kyit Hpee Lan village, Dawei township, Myanamar, 29 November, 2017. The Myanmar Times

They couldn’t understand a word of what the other students where saying. 53 students from several countries attended the class. Subjects were taught in English but students learnt though body language and colour codes.

Anyway, despite the language and cultural barrier, they completed the course and came back home with a title of engineer. Since then she wired and lit up 235 households in their three villages with solar panels provided by donors.

The busiest days happened when they just returned from India. They went to all the houses to put up the panels. When the first bulbs lit up, so did their pride.

“Each day we finished setting up panels for 10 households. If one house got lit up, the neighbour would request us to set up solar panels at their house,” Ma San San Maw recalls.

“If one house got lit up, the neighbor would request us to set up solar panels at their house” Ma San San Maw, A freshly minted solar panel engineer.

Now they just wish the stuff will last. “I haven’t heard any complaint about the material. We have not done any repair so far,” she says.

Nothing would have been possible without the seed money provided by donors*, but the venture is on a sustainable path. Each household pays K2000 a month to a committee formed in each village to manage the money and handle requests.

About K100,000 is saved in a bank to buy spare solar parts while Ma San San Maw and Ma Cho Aye receives a small monthly salary for their service.

But this is just a quick fix. 40-watt solar panels just give enough light to study and for households to watch portable DVC TV at night. That can’t help cooking and ironing.

“We have been hoping that one day thegovernment will give us electricity,” said Ma Aye Khine, a resident of Kayin Taung Pyauk village. Dawei is geographically remote from the Myanmar electricity grid.

Waiting for a durable solution to be found, Ma San San Maw keeps on installing solar panels. The experience has transformed the life of people around her, but also hers. “I have never thought I would study abroad in my life.” Now she has former class mates in Zambia.

*The project is supported by DANIDA, Indian Technical and Economic Cooperation (ITEC), Energy and Environment Partnership (EEP Mekong), Barefoot College, Myanmar Women and Children Development Foundation (MWCDF) and WWF-Myanmar.

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