More Power to... Solpowered
Here, at the Octopus Energy Equality Foundation we’re so excited to announce our £18,938 donation to Solpowered - a brilliant project dedicated to helping marginalised communities build healthy and sustainable lives.
It works alongside local Zimbabwe charity FACE, supporting low-income communities and healthcare facilities to access green energy.
Solpowered is dedicated to empowering marginalised communities and ending energy poverty using sustainable energy. It works alongside local Zimbabwe charity FACE, supporting low-income communities and healthcare facilities to access green energy.
Currently, their main focus is access to healthcare, food and energy as well as empowering the local community. Their very first joint project took place at Rusape General Hospital in Zimbabwe, where they installed solar panels on the roof of the maternity ward, giving this critical service free, reliable access to power for the first time, successfully reduced the child and maternal mortality rates.
Solpowered and FACE then tackled food poverty by creating a nutritional community garden in the hospital, with healthy and culturally sensitive options catered to the community. Their next mission: an agroforestry project connected to the garden, which is all about restoration and planting trees that can be used for architecture, firewood and community revenue. To complete their holistic and thorough approach, they are also working on a fishery project using the water as a natural fertilizer for the garden. The fish will be a source of protein for patients and their family, as well as a community business as the fish can be sold.
In the future, alongside their female empowerment projects, which involve free support and training, they plan to hand out micro loans and teach people within the community to build their own fishery tanks, nutritional gardens and even solar energy projects.
It’s a community oriented empowerment organisation filled with people from the same community that it's serving. Their mission is to respond organically to the needs of the community, providing everything from economic support to health advice.
Hear directly from the people behind this incredible organisation below:
Melanie Rideout is one of the founders of Solpowered, and a previous Octopus employee! I had the privilege of getting to know her, her journey to Solpowered and all about the project.
Samsam: Tell me a little about yourself and what led you to forming Solpowered?
Mel: After I graduated, I joined ICS, a UK project where they send a cohort of young people from Europe to low income countries to participate in charitable projects with the local community. I worked in a hospital in Zimbabwe called Rusape General Hospital and founded Solpowered so I could continue to support this incredible hospital.
Samsam: How did Solpowered originate?
Mel: Through the project, I discovered one of the biggest challenges the hospital was facing was a lack of affordable and reliable energy.
I connected with Engineers Without Borders to create an education program for people from marginalised communities to learn about installing and maintaining solar energy. However, there were some issues with the programme as the solar panels were being sent over from Sweden and they would often fall into disrepair and disuse. We knew a better, more effective solution was needed so we developed Solpowered to install solar panels at Rusape General using local engineers and technicians.
Samsam: What is the vision that inspires you?
Mel: I call it Sustainable Health - At the heart of a sustainable and lasting community, you need to have health. We know all issues that affect a community are interconnected and our aim is to create a holistic approach.
Samsam: How would you best describe Solpowered’s role?
Mel: Our role at Solpowered is to advise, support and empower the people on the ground in Zimbabwe. Particularly, the incredible organisation, FACE which runs the Solpowered project in Zimbabwe. We use our connections, access and networks to help provide ideas and solutions, whilst remaining flexible to the needs of the community. Initially, our Solpowered Team in Europe consisting of Rasmus, David and myself felt like we were running things so we were really determined to transfer that ownership to the team on the ground. This is now the case, and FACE have a lot of autonomy and ownership as they are best placed to know and respond to the needs of the patients and the community. We are never pushing our “own” agenda; we’re there to support and advise.
We are also hyper aware of the power dynamic at play, so we always make sure to be accountable, and ensure people know their voices matter.
Samsam: What is your ultimate goal with the charity?
Mel: I often say, the thing that I want more than anything is for the charity to not exist. In an ideal world, organisations in Africa wouldn’t need to rely on funding from Europe or charitable organisations at all. That is a huge part behind the design of Solpowered. We obsess over how we can empower the local community through small entrepreneurship, education and training.
We don’t want people to depend on us - we want to help them get to a position where they can depend on themselves.
Portipher is the Executive Director of FACE, Family Action for Community Empowerment that started in 2004 as a tiny organisation focused on HIV prevention. It has grown exponentially, and now implements the Solpowered project in Zimbabwe to help create a sustainable, equitable life for all. I had a chat with him to discuss his work and vision for FACE.
Samsam: What is your vision for FACE?
Porthipher: Our vision is centred on an empowered community and our aim is to work with communities to implement initiatives that will help empower people to become all they have envisioned.
Samsam: Tell me a little about the impact you have been able to make with Solpowered?
Portipher: The main purpose of our solar energy project was to counteract the critical energy poverty in Zimbabwe. At the time, there were a lot of power outages that made it incredibly difficult to operate and manage the day to day at the hospital. Women would lose their babies, simply because there was no electricity to operate on them. At Rusape General, there were times we had to operate with candlelight, and patients had to bring their own candles to be admitted. At other times, we were doing surgery using phone lights and torches. There have even been occasions that the anesthesia machine couldn’t be plugged in so patients would be operated on awake. Thankfully, this is no longer the case and we have been able to make a big impact in reducing the high child and maternal mortality rates.
Samsam: How would you describe the relationship you have with the local community?
Porthipher: We consider the local community our allies. We are grassroots based, we train local volunteers to manage the sustainable project alongside experts. The day to day running of our projects are supported by volunteers who also benefit from the project.
Putting power back into the hands of the community is our number one priority so our projects are essentially co-owned by the community.
Samsam: What is your most memorable experience?
Portipher: I have worked for this organisation for many years and many things have stuck with me. One particularly memorable incident was when we were able to support a young girl who was struck by lightning. Amazingly, she survived and went on to get the highest scores at her High School and she has plans to study Law so we may have a future lawyer on our hands. These are the kinds of stories that give me hope.
Samsam: What is one thing you wish would change about the global charity sector?
Portipher: I would like to see a change to the status quo, and have resources go to grass-roots organisations who consistently work within the community, instead of to big international charities or organizations who only show up for a limited amount of time.
Samsam: What is one thing that you would like people across the world to know about the work that you do?
Portipher: We would like them to know that whilst we appreciate the support we have received from people and organisations across the globe, the best thing people can do is allow us to help ourselves. We need resources to bolster our communities so that they will be able to help themselves and don’t have to rely on outside support.
We need resources to bolster our communities so that they will be able to help themselves and don’t have to rely on outside support.
Samsam: What’s next for FACE?
Portipher: I view our Rusape Project as our pilot project in the Health Industry and we hope to take our approach to many other places. Solpowered and FACE are made up of a big group of individuals, who are all dedicated to continuing the work we do.
I often half-joke with my staff saying if you’re doing very well in our field, you should be able to create unemployment for yourself. So, that’s our ultimate aim!
Shuwisai Mashizha is a Project Officer for Face, Family Action for Community Empowerment in Zimbabwe. I chatted with her to find out more about her day to day work.
Tell me a little bit about your background and what led you to FACE?
I am a mother of two boys and a teacher by profession. I have an MA in healthcare, and worked as a coordinator for an organisation that worked with young girls who were the victims of abuse. FACE was a well known organisation that worked to empower women, so I spent some time volunteering with them before I was offered a position as Project Officer.
What is the vision and the mission of this organization?
We try to bring a smile to people’s faces. Our vision is to provide a quality life for the entire community.
In a practical sense, we complete sustainable projects to economically benefit the community. We also support women to create their own income generating projects by providing training in farming, gardening and sustainable health. With our support, some women have managed to buy assets like cars and cattle to further support their families. We also provide financial assistance to community members by paying children’s school fees or offering free medication.
A lot of our work focuses on women, because we believe that to empower a woman is to empower a nation.
How much autonomy do you have to pursue projects that you think are important?
As Project Managers we spend most of our time in the field directly dealing with the community doing visitations or running training sessions. This allows us to have a great sense of what the community needs, and our Director, Portipher always encourages us to always be alert to anything that could require our attention.
We are always thinking of new projects and we get a lot of freedom to develop them.
What empowers you to do the work that you do?
Seeing people get access to the things they need and deserve is what gives me my drive and passion. Immediately seeing the impact of your work is very powerful.
What is it like working with Solpowered?
The support they have given us is fantastic. Even when we are experiencing hard times, they are always the first to encourage us and keep us positive.
What makes you feel hopeful?
Seeing how Zimbabwe is embracing solar energy across the country. Driving through cities and towns, you will see solar panels on homes, farms and institutions as they are all inspired to build a sustainable life.
Fadzie is an advisor to FACE and spends her time thinking of innovative ways to improve the services and better serve the community.
What does your advisor role entail?
Essentially, I utilize my understanding of the needs of communities to give expert advice to FACE. I deal directly with the community as well as our solar service providers and government officials like the Minister of Health. I focus on problem solving as well as thinking of innovative and creative ways we can support the community, particularly during COVID.
Can you tell me a little bit more about the wider context of why the work you're doing with FACE is so important?
Sure, FACE started in a semi-rural area, where most of the people live from hand to mouth. There was high unemployment and because of the patriarchal structure of society many women were unable to excel.
So our organization reaches out to these young people and women to help them become self-sufficient and support their community. The hospital is a huge part of this as we are able to support the poorest and most vulnerable people with a really holistic service.
Once people come to us, we focus on creative ways we can continue to help them beyond their health. We focus on cultivating soft skills, linking them to job opportunities and interesting projects.
Are there any institutional or systemic barriers that you've come across and how have you been able to overcome them?
Yes, there are some institutional challenges in the sector. For example, there are many projects where companies or governments like the UK, send British volunteers with no particular qualifications to work in Zimbabwe. Bearing in mind, Zimbabwe was a British colony, and that history has left many unemployed Zimbabweans who could benefit from opportunities like those.
Of course, the volunteers are often very helpful and there are some great cross-cultural exchanges so there are many benefits. However, it is important that the sector focuses more on empowering and providing opportunities to the many highly qualified locals rather than prioritising people from the global north.
What has been your most impactful project?
Definitely our solar panel programme as it has made a huge difference in the lives of so many. We also run economic empowerment projects called the Rural Women assemblies, where women were given a piece of land to do agriculture to become financially independent.
I've seen a lot of transformations where rural women with very little are now opening shops and building their own businesses and properties, which is just fantastic and motivating.
What is your partnership with Solpowered like?
It's been an amazing journey and they have been so supportive. Despite the distance, we are always in contact and they are always checking we are okay as friends. They have done lots of great fundraising, connecting us with experts and proposing great projects. It feels like a family even though we are continents and miles apart and I can’t wait to see what other amazing results we can cultivate together.
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