Friday, January 10, 2014

Lighting up Ghana, one playground at a time

By Lindsay Boyle

Many playgrounds bring joy to the children that use them, but the playground at Pediatorkope brings light to them, too.

At first glance, the blue, red and yellow merry-go-round sitting beside Pediatorkope Basic School looks perfectly mundane. But, it’s no ordinary merry-go-round: inside lies a wind turbine where, because of a gearbox, each whirl of the toy translates to 25 spins of the generator.

For residents of Pediatorkope — located a quick canoe trip away from Big Ada in southeastern Greater Accra — the playground, installed by an NGO called Empower Playgrounds, Inc. (EPI), is one of the only sources of electricity on the island.

Students play on one of EPI's playgrounds.
Photo provided by Chris Cannon.
Despite being situated on the Volta River and connected to the Akosombo Dam, which contributes to about 70 percent of Ghana’s electricity generation, Pediatorkope isn’t connected to the national electricity grid. Each day, after the 6 p.m. sunset, tree-lined dirt paths connecting the island’s villages become almost impossible to navigate.

“I spent a few nights on the island and when it’s dark, you can’t move, you can’t go anywhere,” said Isaac Darko-Mensah, country director for EPI. “Activity just stops.”

Once harnessed, energy from the playground travels as AC through an underground cable to a charging unit, designed by Goal Zero, that’s kept in a classroom at Pediatorkope Basic School. There, it’s converted down to DC and charges a 12-volt AGM battery.

That battery in turn charges what, at first, were hand-modified Energizer lanterns, but are now bright, long-lasting LED lanterns designed by Energizer specifically for EPI’s charging system. The battery is sometimes used to charge teacher’s mobile phones as well.

EPI doesn’t provide the lanterns just so there’s light on the island at nighttime, though. The lanterns are for the students.

According to Gershon Kuadegbeku, a teacher at Pediatorkope Basic School, parents typically don’t share lanterns purchased from the mainland with their children because they use them for their businesses or otherwise.

Gershon Kuadegbeku holds an EPI lantern.
Photo taken by Lindsay Boyle.
“Now, as this lantern has come, it’s given (the children) the flexible time to learn on their own,” he said.

Each three-to-six-student study group — arranged by the teachers and often based on the proximity of the children’s homes — receives one lantern. One member of each group, delegated as the leader, calls the students together in the evenings to study and ensures the lantern remains charged.

“The aim is to teach the kids about responsibility and how to take care of things,” Darko-Mensah said.

The students never touch the charging unit; they give the lanterns to a teacher who then plugs them in. While the lanterns take about three hours to charge, they last about 40.

“At a go, they can charge six lanterns,” Darko-Mensah said. “So, on a good day, they will charge 12 lanterns.”

The number of lanterns a school receives is based on its size. At Pediatorkope — where about 350 students attend grades Primary 4 through Junior High School and almost 5,000 people inhabit the island — there are more than 100.

Because of Pediatorkope’s large student body — typically, schools have 150-250 students in Primary 4 through Junior High School — an electricity-generating swing set accompanies the merry-go-round. And, on the roof of the school, a solar panel helps keep the charge going when students are on break.

According to Kuadegbeku, the playground is used often.

Pediatorkope residents play on the swing set. Photo taken by
Lindsay Boyle.
“We have two breaks in a day, and then after break, too, you see the children play on it,” he said. “After church, you see people coming to play on it. It is occupied every day.”

With steady use, Darko-Mensah said, the whole system can generate 500-800 watts in a day.

Since the playground began functioning four years ago, Kuadegbeku said he’s seen great results.

“It helps them,” he said. “It promotes a good reading ability with the children, and then, it has even changed the performance of the children when they are writing their final exam at the end of the year.”

Darko-Mensah, who said EPI collects scores from the Basic Education Certificate Examination (BECE) — the exam students must pass before being admitted to high school — pre- and post-installation, agreed.

“It works because the older kids will teach the younger ones, they share ideas, they solve questions together,” he said.

Before EPI arrived at Golden Sunbeam School in Essam village in 2008, for example, no student had ever passed the BECE. But now, Darko-Mensah said, that’s no longer the case: recently, every single student passed the exam.

“The Empower project has helped a lot,” Kuadegbeku said. “The children don’t pay anything for it. They bring it to the doorstep of the children.”

Pediatorkope study groups share their EPI
lanterns. Photo provided by Chris Cannon.
In addition to the playgrounds, charging units, solar panels and lanterns that are given free of charge, EPI also provides schools with science kits that allow students to learn about the science of the playgrounds in fun, interactive and hands-on ways.

“Our aim is to make children happy, to love school,” he said. “Every school that we go, enrollment goes up the next month, or the next term.”

Since 2008, EPI has installed systems at 35 locations throughout Ghana. While the early models were manufactured in Ghana, materials used, such as wood, weren’t durable. As a result, United States-based Playworld Systems, Inc. now builds the playgrounds. This year, EPI added five new systems and replaced five old ones.

Almost all EPI locations have either no access to electricity — including Pediatorkope’s three neighboring islands, Tuanikope, Azizakope and Alorkpem — or have residents who can’t afford the cost of it.

“We are asking, asking for electricity,” Kuadegbeku said. “Nothing has been done up to now.”

Darko-Mensah cited factors such as high costs as reasons Pediatorkope and the nearby islands aren’t connected to the national grid.

“There has been a lot of promise about electricity coming to the island, but it’s something that I don’t see it happening now,” he said.

Comfort Doeyo Cudjoe Ghansah, Member of Parliament for Ada, was not immediately available for comment.

In January, though, EPI will bring the second ever Light A Village solar energy project to the island. According to Darko-Mensah, the first, located in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, was launched about four years ago and is working well.

As part of the project, EPI will install several solar panels on the roof of the Pediatorkope Health Centre, transforming it into a charging station for about 100 batteries.

Residents will be able to purchase systems for their homes that include a high-power battery, inverters and light bulbs for either 300 or 600 cedis. The former powers a television, radio, fan and light, while the latter powers those plus a refrigerator, an important appliance in an area so involved in the fishing industry.

The Pediatorkope Health Centre, which will soon have many
solar panels. Photo taken by Lindsay Boyle.
Once they’ve purchased a system, residents will only have to pay a small amount each time they recharge their batteries. Because most residents already spend about 40 cedis per month buying batteries and kerosene from the mainland, Light A Village should actually save them money in the long run.

“They can’t wait for the project,” Darko-Mensah said. “Several people have gone to the island to make promises about going to install solar for them, but they don’t go back. But because (the residents) know what we’ve been doing on the island for the past four or five years, they know that we will do it.”

Darko-Mensah explained that while several places were considered for the project, Pediatorkope was chosen because of its good leaders, teachers, assemblymen and otherwise, as well as its location.

“We see Pediatorkope as a place we love,” he said. “The people are ready and they get involved in whatever we do, whatever we take to the island.”

According to Darko-Mensah, though, Light A Village won’t be limited to Pediatorkope — EPI plans to launch one new project each year. And, soon, EPI may take its playgrounds outside Ghana.

‘There are a lot of requests, a lot of requests outside Ghana, outside Africa,” Darko-Mensah said. “We are ready, the train is ready to move.”

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