In December 2013 the VIP from the University of Strathclyde went again to visit its current installations in Gambia. After several meetings, preparations, vaccines and submission of paper work we finally were on the plane to Gambia. Some of us, including myself, were going for the first time to the Gambia, or in my specific case for the first time to Africa as a continent.
You often read about the life, the people the atmosphere and so on, but unless you have actually visited the continent you might not have a very clear idea at all.
As soon as you get off the plane you start realising that you have just entered quite a different world. Finally the adventure was about to begin.
Personally, I was very eager to start taking in the culture, the people, and to start working and analysing the current situation of the VIP project. The first two days stayed in Banjul, the Gambian capital, to get supplies and solve other issues so that we could make the long trip upriver. Due to unforeseen delays in shipment of the solar PV equipment, trip plans had to be changed once we arrived.
At night we had meetings to plan ahead for the next couple of days. Since the new material had not arrived, we focused on visiting all the previous installations. This gave us a perfect opportunity to speak to more people from different communities to get a broader view.
On the third day we finally started our trip towards inner-Gambia. Halfway through we stopped at Dankunku, where the Engineers inspected a solar system was installed by another group. It had unfortunately stopped working. This gave the first opportunity to speak to people and find out more about the current management structures at school, who provides investment for communities and who takes ownership in different projects. We also found out more about the Gambian everyday-life, challenges, values and opportunities.
Later that day, we finally reached Sambel Kunda, where we lodged during our stay. Over the next couple of days we spent lots of time in different villages, spoke to many people, found out more about the availability and prices of solar systems at local markets, visited several shops set up by entrepreneurs and experienced the Gambian culture as much as we could.
The business students had the task of assessing the sustainability of the VIP project, analyse business practices and look at ownership structures of the systems. Energy is a key economic driver in developing countries and the Strathclyde solar PV systems do their part of helping local communities. Currently the electricity enables schools to generate a surplus that can be used to purchase various things for the attending pupils, e.g. meals, school materials and uniforms, which is a great thing and a big step forward for any community. However, there surely is more that can be achieved over the next years in terms of organisational structure and managerial systems that enable communities to develop the opportunity they have been given into longer lasting, ideally producing inter-generational, economic benefits and sustainable development.
Personally, this trip has been a very mind-broadening experience. On one hand, it was my first time in Africa and there are many challenges and things to see, while on the other, we had to analyse the current business practices to ultimately consult our engineers on how to better use the current resources and what could be done to improve the project further in the future. I have seen lots of poverty during the stay, but also lots of happiness and people who are simply satisfied with much less than a typical European citizen. I will definitely go back to Africa as soon as there is an opportunity and can only recommend the experience to everybody. Last but not least I must say however, that it has been very difficult for me to find the right words to express the experience.