What started as a chance encounter for then graduate student Mary Graham has led to light for hundreds of Malians in the village of Banco.
As a graduate student she had travelled to the Netherlands for
a symposium and heard about an Italian, Loriana Dembele, who has been working
in Mali for 20 years, bringing over 150 wells to Malian villages. Dembele
impressed Graham with the importance and effectiveness of small projects. Both ladies held the strong belief that in Africa, large development projects, often funded with millions
of dollars in aid from western donors, are not effective in dealing with local
This became Mary Graham’s guiding philosophy when
she created the NGO she called Practical Small Projects On her next visit to Mali, she took with her
two solar experts to train a group of local people to build, install and
maintain solar panels, water pumps and batteries.
They built the first solar panel ever constructed
in Mali, which now supplies a local school with all its energy needs through
solar generated electricity.
“The school now has lights, and the
schoolchildren now have clean water for drinking.” says Graham. The project led
to the creation of a local company known as Afriq-Power. It employs several
Malians, many without any education. They learned about solar power and today
can produce up to 250 solar panels a week.
Mali is the fifth poorest country in world and the
average income is less than a dollar a day. “But it is not these sad statistics
that grab your attention…. It’s the capability of the people….”
Taking a comprehensive
development approach that addresses the hierarchy of needs.…
Before they begin an assignment, Practical Small
Projects assesses the needs of a village. Graham calls it a “comprehensive
development approach addressing the hierarchy of needs.… This is something that
a lot of development work has missed. It is a holistic approach to problem solving
that combines elements like infrastructural development, health, education,
energy, etc. “Before you put lighting in a school or
maternity if there is not potable water in the village, you are not going to
have students going to school….”
Graham first looks at health care in a village.
In many of them her organization has started by building a maternity and then a
solar water pump.
The work is not as hard as people may think, she
says. “Most of this work we can complete simultaneously.” She consults with
local leaders to get a better understanding of the environment and needs of the community. And she uses local
labor in all the projects.
“When we go
into a village we hold [a] meeting with the village chiefs [and the] school
director…so we can have a comprehensive representation of the village….”
have been encouraging. Scores have
increased in local schools. Because they have electric lights, students are able
to stay late and read. Previously, only six out of 37 students would pass the annual
national exam. After the solar installation, 36 out of the 37 passed the exam.
“It is clear
that electric lights increase productive hours, allowing students to study in
the evenings, after the chores are finished,” says Graham.
in Banco, and in most villages in Mali, is unemployment. Solar electricity
provides villagers with the opportunity to workand learn. The goal is for them to create a self-sustaining
community and pass on their skills and knowledge to villages in other
parts of the country. That would fulfill Mary Graham’s vision -- facilitating
small-scale businesses that inspire Malians to view themselves as entrepreneurs
who can develop their own communities.