Pilot solar charging station project makes it more accessible to charge mobiles and electronic devices in energy-poor communities.
Back in 2018, I wrote an article on “The Insanely High Price to Charge Phones in Orang Asli Villages”. The story came about after we gathered data on energy usage in rural Orang Asli villages, and discovered the exorbitant prices they were paying just for a couple of hours of electricity a night.
It wasn’t just about the fact that the lack of electricity has driven the Orang Asli to resort to unsustainable sources of energy, but the realisation that you end up paying more when you’re poor.
Why We Started the Solar Charging Station Project
“An estimated 1.1 billion people – 14% of the global population – did not have access to electricity according to Energy Access Outlook 2017. Many more suffer from supply that is of poor quality. Around 84% of those without electricity access reside in rural areas and more than 95% of those living without electricity are in countries in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia.” – International Energy Agency
Under the All-Lights Village project, we’ve distributed more than 75 d.light D330 home solar systems to about 15 villages in Pahang and Sarawak. In Kampung Sion, Sarawak, we introduced a high-capacity solar system plan to suit the needs of the villagers there.
While the D330 home solar systems are able to charge gadgets and provide lights, the low-capacity battery pack is not able to support charging and lighting at the same time, especially at night when there is no sun to recharge the batteries.
After distributing the D330 units, we discovered during the monitoring phase that the villagers mainly use the solar system for charging phones. Most families have at least one phone and there could be up to four phones that require charging in a household. This depletes the battery faster and the solar would not be able to fulfil its purpose of lighting up homes at night, while potentially shortening the battery’s lifespan.
- Orang Asli typically use heavy-duty 6V batteries (RM12 per battery) and diesel for electric generators (RM5 per 4-hour use)
- A family can spend up to RM36 a week on energy
- Some travel to neighbouring villages with electricity and leave their phones there to be charged
- It may take two hours on average to fully charge their phones but the total duration is tripled when you take into account the time it takes to travel to and from the nearest village
“We needed a solution that takes into account each village’s unique energy needs. After researching and consulting with our technical partner, SolarNRJ, we came up with a prototype of a solar-powered charging station. We want to make it more accessible and affordable to charge phones in a village with no electricity,” explained Dr. Teh, CEO of Global Peace Foundation Malaysia.
“Mobile phones are an important tool for communication, productivity, and learning. For the Orang Asli that’s living in the interiors, it becomes an even more crucial tool to keep up with the rest of the world.”
Testing the Technology
Kampung Jenit and Kampung Melai in Pahang are the pioneer villages for the solar charging station. These villages were selected based on data we gathered from focus groups, which analysed their energy needs, monthly income, and spending on energy.
It was also important to select a village with strong leadership and community spirit as those are key factors that decide whether a project is successful or not. We identified those characteristics in both these villages and the villagers have shown interest and came to a consensus amongst themselves on having the project in their community.
The project will be led by an elected village representative (station manager), who will manage the book-keeping and look after the station. This person will also serve as our point of contact and will report on usage and any issues that may arise to us. The station manager will also serve as a point of information for the community should there be any questions.
How it Works
- Station consists of a solar panel, battery, charge controller, and USB output for charging
- For the testing stage, we are introducing a power bank rental plan; villagers rent a power bank that can be used to charge their mobile phones and supported devices wherever they are
- The rental collected is used to pay for maintenance and any repairs necessary in the future to ensure that this system is sustainable
Empowering Rural Villages with Solar Energy
Our project is only in the early stages but so far, we have received an encouraging response. An interesting thing to note is that in both villages, the representative elected are women. Suriah from Jenit was chosen because she is one of the few literate people there and stays at home most of the time to care for her children. While she wasn’t prepared to accept the role, she approached it with a sense of responsibility and was very careful with managing the charging station.
Hanis from Melai asked a lot of questions while we were presenting the idea of the charging station and even brought a book to jot down notes. Naturally, she was selected and agreed to manage the charging station.
One of the benefits of becoming a station manager is being allowed to use it for free as recompense. Hanis, however, voiced out that she would like to pay for its use like everyone else. She had incredible foresight and was determined to create a fair and transparent system for her community and us.
We will continue monitoring progress over a period of six months and then assess whether anything needs to be improved or tweaked. If all goes well, we will be introducing the charging station to more villages in need.
This All-Lights Village (ALV) project is made possible by our partner, MBSB Bank. Special thanks to our technical partner, SolarNRJ, for lending their expertise and on-site support.
Yong Joy Anne, Storyteller