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American Student’s Dream Brings Light to African Village


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 problems.
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….”

The results 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.

Another problem 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.



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