Power to the People

19 August 2009 at 15:08 4 comments

By Abby Gray, KF6 Togo and KF7 Senegal

How a Kiva Fellow Alumna’s non-profit organization, SunPower Afrique, is shedding light on MFIs in West Africa

“Beep,” complained my laptop, unhappy about its sudden switch to battery power.  The fan above me whirred gently to a stop, no longer drying the beads of sweat incessantly forming on my forehead.  “Page can not be displayed,” grumbled Firefox.  My internet connection was gone, along with any hope I had of uploading my stack of borrower profiles to the Kiva website.

I walked out into the hallway and found the employees of my Senegalese microfinance institution slowly leaking out of their offices as well.  We pulled up chairs in a circle, sat down, and prepared to sweatily twiddle our thumbs until the power gods had mercy on us, whether in ten minutes or ten hours.

An employee at FECECAV, a Togolese MFI, tracking loan repayments by hand. Many of FECECAV's branches operate without electicity.

An employee at FECECAV, a Togolese MFI, tracking loan repayments by hand. Many of FECECAV's branches operate without electicity.

Power cuts are a regular occurrence in West Africa, as in most parts of the developing world. Production and distribution of electricity are unable to meet demand, causing frequent rolling blackouts and interrupted service.  For MFIs (and many other businesses), this means countless manpower hours lost, high overhead costs, low employee morale, a short shelf-life for office equipment and other low efficiencies in daily operations.  These consequences are even more debilitating for MFIs who work with Kiva – the Kiva partnership depends on technology and internet connectivity to successfully fund loans for enterprising clients.  Gasoline-powered generators, the obvious alternative, represent a significant up-front investment and are extremely costly to run and maintain.

So, what can be done to provide MFIs with a reliable source of power??

Enter Kira Costanza, the courageous Kiva Fellow Alumna, galloping in on her trusty steed named Solar Power!

Kira, a Kiva Fellow in 2008, was also stationed in West Africa, at a small MFI called FECECAV, in a small town called Kpalimé, in a small country called Togo.  Kira, like me, experienced first-hand the inefficiencies of an unreliable electrical infrastructure.  Instead of forgetting the problem and escaping back to her comfortable, electricity-abundant homeland, she decided to do something about it!

PanelsKira’s dad, Jon Costanza, is the Founder and President of Sunpower Builders, a US-based solar company where he has been designing and installing solar energy systems since 1972.  Kira saw an opportunity to use the connections forged by her Kiva Fellowship to help bring a reliable, environmentally friendly power source to MFIs in Togo.  Together with her father, she founded SunPower Afrique, a 501(c)(3) non-profit that aims to connect West African MFIs and their clients to solar energy.

Since the end of her Kiva Fellowship in 2008, Kira has been working hard to get the right people connected, to learn about electricity in Togo, and to raise funds for her project.  As a pilot project, Kira plans to install a Photovoltaic system (solar panels that generate electricity!) on the roof of FECECAV’s headquarters in Kpalimé, and eventually to install solar electric systems on all of FECECAV’s branches and satellite offices.  According to Kira, “Many of these offices currently have NO power, and a computer, printer, fax machine/phone, fan and light bulb can completely change the way they work and help them to reduce poverty so much more efficiently.”

Currently, Kira is back in Togo doing market research and project development.  She has raised about half of the funds required to install the solar electricity system at FECECAV’s headquarters. Importantly, Kira plans to train a local workforce to install and maintain the solar systems, thus creating a successful and sustainable model that can be replicated in other countries.  She is also fundraising to help FECECAV offer a new, innovative loan product: solar loans, a long term loan with a low interest rate to help small business clients switch to solar power.  Behold, the never-ending potential of microfinance!

Kira and her Togolese colleagues in front of a FECECAV branch office. SunPower Afrique aims to install solar power at all of FECECAV's branches.

Kira and her Togolese colleagues in front of a FECECAV branch office. SunPower Afrique aims to install solar power at all of FECECAV's branches.

Kira’s work would not be possible without the connections she made during her Kiva Fellowship.  Now, thanks to SunPower Afrique, FECECAV – and, in the future, other MFIs – can manage their Kiva partnerships more efficiently and accurately, thus better serving their clients in the ongoing fight for poverty alleviation.

Kira’s decision to venture into uncharted social-entrepreneurship territory reminds me of some other young people I know: Matt and Jessica Flannery.  Kira’s is the same entrepreneurial spirit that motivated the creation of Kiva, the same spirit that inspires Kiva lenders to risk their hard-earned money, and the same spirit that drives Kiva borrowers to create and run their own businesses.

I am awed and inspired by Kira’s energy, her initiative, and her genuine passion for helping the people that she (and I) grew to love in West Africa.  I hope that you might be as well.

Please check out Kira’s website or contact her at kira.costanza@sunpowerafrique.org to learn more about SunPower Afrique!

***

Abby G

I am a Kiva Fellow Alumna, Class of KF6/7, who served three months in Lome, Togo, and three more in Thies, Senegal. I am now working in New York City as a Research Assistant at the Financial Access Initiative, sharing research-based insights with the Kiva Community.

Entry filed under: Africa, All, FECECAV, KF6 (Kiva Fellows 6th Class), KF7 (Kiva Fellows 7th Class), Togo. Tags: , , , , , .

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4 Comments

  • 1. Jan & John  |  31 August 2009 at 13:57

    Thanks for the link to SunPower Afrique – I think this is an awesome idea and I will also help spread the word. jan (KF)

  • 2. Unilove  |  24 August 2009 at 23:32

    Every post from the Kiva Fellows and alum only show what an incredible bunch of people they are! What an amazing story – how one woman, Kira, is making a huge difference in so many lives! Both she and her father are to be commended! Keep us posted…

    Lisa
    Kiva Fellows fan

  • 3. alisoncarlman  |  21 August 2009 at 22:44

    This is a great story – thanks for the story even as an alum. Please keep us updated – would love to hear more about the “loan product”! Brava, Kira!

  • 4. Suzy Marinkovich  |  20 August 2009 at 11:50

    This is so awesome!!! I am a firm believer in the concept of bringing solar panels to Africa :) This story is so encouraging, thanks for telling it Abby!!


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