It’s not just about providing solar lighting—the Light Up tours provide training for local technicians and could help start up a solar industry in Timor-Leste. Dave Carlos from Timor Adventures describes the company’s latest tour.
Over the years, many of us have taken to gifting a goat, a fuel-efficient stove or even a mozzie net to someone who needs it. While these gifts bring much-needed resources, sometimes I get to thinking about the details: Where does the recipient of the goat live? How will the goat get to them? What did the recipient do with the goat?
The Light Up Timor-Leste tours are a hands-on approach to answering such questions. You travel to Timor-Leste, pick up a solar lighting system, go to a village, take the system to someone’s home, meet them, put the system in, flick on the lights and the questions are answered. This is what I call ‘extreme gifting’.
Timor Adventures is a small Timorese tour company. Our professional background is in community development, and we created Timor Adventures as a means to improve economic development in the outlying areas of the country.
Many people who came on our tours expressed a desire to do something practical and sustainable to support this new nation. In response, we approached the Alternative Technology Association (ATA, ReNew’s publisher) with the idea of doing what have become known as the ‘Light Up’ tours.
The model is simple: we provide all the on-ground logistics and liaison with the villages, the people who come on the tours donate the funds to purchase the equipment, and the ATA along with its local training partner CNEFP Tibar provide the hardware and technical skills.
In 2013, we installed solar systems in two schools, one on the far side of Atauro Island and the other in the mountains outside of Baguia. This year, we installed systems with a solar panel and three lights in 20 homes in the villages of Buibela and Lena, in the Baguia area.
From concept to installation
Moving from the concept to installing the solar systems involves a few steps.
Finding the right villages
Many villages in Timor-Leste are now, or soon will be, on the recently completed power grid. We decided to find villages that are not connected and are never likely to be.
Making sure it is truly sustainable
To ensure the systems are maintained and the batteries can be replaced when needed, it is important that there is a small, regular contribution of funds from the recipients of the systems. Equally importantly, these funds need to be held and managed by a respected person in the community.
Finding people who want to participate in the tour
The idea doesn’t work unless there are people who want to participate and are willing to donate the necessary funds. The 10 people who came on our most recent tour were a wonderful and adventurous bunch. Of them, Roz and Paul came on the first Light Up Baguia tour, Helen toured with us a couple of years ago and has also ridden around the whole country on a motorcycle and, at 15 years old, Violetta was our youngest Timor Adventurer yet.
Choosing a system and getting the equipment
The systems include a 20W panel, three LED lights, a regulator (designed and developed by an ATA member) with three light switches and two batteries. Other required equipment is a box for the batteries, plywood to mount the regulator on, wire to fix the solar panel to the roof, and cables and connectors to wire everything up. The major challenge in Timor-Leste is time; some parts needed to be shipped from Australia, taking three to four months, depending on the shipping schedule.
Learning about the system and meeting the technicians
We commenced the most recent tour with a visit to the CNEFP Tibar training college (a bit like a TAFE), just outside Dili. There, we met the three local technicians who would be leading the installation. This was a significant moment, the first time local technicians, trained by the ATA, would lead the installations on a Light Up tour. We were treated to a tour of the training facility, lunch and then a briefing about the installation process.
Getting there is half the fun
When I hear the term ‘remote village’, I have a mental picture of the destination, but not the journey. The village we were travelling to was indeed remote and we had a lot of people and equipment to get there: 16 people, three 4WDs and four motorcycles.
We first travelled to Baguia and stayed the night. Getting to our final destination, the village of Buibela, was supposed to take another two hours, but, due to weather and the challenges of the terrain, it took over four hours.
When we finally arrived at Buibela, we were greeted by the local villagers with a traditional welcome and dancing. Their hospitality could not have been greater.
Preparing for the installation
We aimed to install a solar system in 20 houses across the two villages of Buibela and nearby Lena. The villages are spread out in small clusters of houses, ranging from a 20-minute to a two-hour walk from where we were staying. Because of the additional time we had spent getting to the village, we only had one day to complete all the installations. We started stripping wires, cutting plywood and dividing up the equipment. People split into three groups, each headed by a local technician, and set about completing a number of installations.
It was a long but fulfilling day. It went something like this: we would go to a house where the owner was expecting us, conduct the installation and be offered coffee and something to eat. At the end of the process, the lights would be tested and the technician would give the handover instructions.
My most enduring memory is of a woman who lived by herself in a small three-room house with a dirt floor. When the technician was showing her the system he showed her one of the lights and its switch. She asked him if she could turn it on again. He explained that you can turn it on and off whenever you want. He then showed her the other switches and each light in turn. He then said you can turn them all on at once and proceeded to show her. “All on at once!” she said.
The story does not end there
I think all of us on the tour grasped both the significance of what we had achieved together and the planning and effort that was required to do it. It was great that there were now solar lights in 20 homes, but our attention quickly moved to sustainability—how to keep the lights on.
There are three kinds of activities to support this: a technician will visit in the next six months to see how the equipment is performing, local people will be trained to do basic troubleshooting, and a system has been put in place to contact the technicians to repair or replace the equipment when needed. I, like everyone in the group, am looking forward to hearing how these steps progress.
If you want to find out more about the work the ATA has been doing in Timor-Leste, see www.ata.org.au/IPG. If you think you might be interested in a Light Up Timor-Leste tour, please see our website: www.timoradventures.com.au.
This entry was posted on Sunday, December 14th, 2014 at 2:17 pm