Solar Power to the People: An Interview with Edwin Ngugi Wanji

Edited by Jennifer Sunami

Edwin Ngugi Wanji is the founder and owner of Sphere Solar Energy, specializing in residential solar installation here in the Pacific Northwest. I was able to speak with him about his inspiring efforts to make solar power available to underserved communities. The interview below has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us a little about your work.

I grew up in Kenya, and I went to boarding schools with no electricity. I can install as much solar as I want in the U.S., in Washington, but I choose to also give back, and support bigger projects that can actually have a larger impact than a single family home or business here. It’s great that we can build that here, but over there when you work with a school, a community, all of a sudden, it’s affecting 150 people, or 500 people. We are also teaching some of these local businesses to try and make some of this technology accessible for lower income folks or communities that usually struggle to access this technology.

Here in Seattle, I specialize in commercial and residential solar installation. Once a year I choose somewhere to donate a solar system. This year I went to Kenya to work with the Maasai village communities. In this one particular community of about 150 people, with 20 mud huts, they had never had an electrical system before. We installed two solar-powered LED lights in each hut, with a phone charging dock. They do have cell phones, even though they’re way out there in the middle of nowhere in the Rift Valley! The village is named Olorropil, located in the Maasai Mara in Narok County, a big Maasai region.

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We were able to switch them from kerosene lamps, which were detrimental to health and really toxic, to LED lights. The kids can study and do their homework at night. The villagers used to walk about two and a half kilometers to charge their phones and a full charge cost them 30 shillings, which is about 30 cents in US dollars. Now people can actually charge their phones, and trade and exchange money. Ecommerce is via cell phones, and is vital to the villagers‘ way of life, so it helps the small-scale economy. The village all contributed to the installation.

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Besides the  launch of the lighting, I’m also doing a project to pump water to a school.  Previously, kids had to carry water back and forth, but here we’re using solar-powered water pumps.

The Maasai are nomadic, but a lot of them now are settling in areas where they can go to school. Over the last 20 years, more Maasai people are taking young girls especially to school, when traditionally women stayed at home. In this particular village, the nearest school has 1280 students that come to school, all from various Maasai villages. Some kids walk as far as eight miles to get to school, and about 700 are boarders from villages that are too far for them to go back and forth every day.

There is a borehole [for water] that’s really close to the school, but they are sharing a diesel generator to pump water from that borehole to the school. It doesn’t belong to them, so they do go days without water or they have to fill the tanks over and over. The boys rotate who has to go down the river with a bucket. The solution would be to take water from that borehole to the school’s water tanks, which we can do really easily with solar energy. Then they don’t have the recurring costs of diesel fuel and the breaking down of the diesel pump. We will be able to pump about 7–10 gallons a minute—as soon as daylight pops up, we could fill the main holding tanks. We’re also providing them another tank for the dining room and the dormitory, which are without water now—no water for the meals and all that! They’re spending a good chunk of the days just carrying water back and forth with buckets. They wear school uniforms, so sometimes they either go to the river to clean the uniform, or the kids do not have clean laundry.

I also partnered with another nonprofit this year called Solarize Puerto Rico. I’m a consultant for them. Their goal is to help rebuild Puerto Rico, with solar systems. I flew there for a week, where we have a school that will get a solar power system. We’ve been fundraising to help them build a system. If a hurricane hits again, the school can be an emergency preparedness center where the community can come, have electricity, and be able to function.

All these projects, such as the one I did in Kenya, I funded myself. Last year, from all the solar projects I did in Washington, I took some proceeds and put away some money to enable me to fund this project. But ideally, what is needed is a partnership with the right folks. I’m a small operation, so I’m excited to do these things with the right partnerships. I don’t have a 501c division of my company yet—that’s the goal eventually. So I just donate as I take on these projects, under my own umbrella as Sphere Solar.

What excites you about your work in solar energy?

Whether on the residential or commercial side, people are really stoked once they see that they’re running off sunlight. It’s a really good feeling, where people feel like they’ve got a little sense of energy independence. It saves people money too, so people are happy about that! They are very excited—people will call and tell me they didn’t have a light bill this month.

For missions, like with the Maasai people, it’s just the impact it has on communities. Suddenly children can do homework, when they used to struggle with kerosene lamps at night, just to get a couple of hours of light. It’s a very basic need—we’re not out there giving out plasma TVs; it’s just light. It’s not hard, but it’s what makes me really motivated to keep going.

You’ve been doing some work with low-income communities here in this area.

I’ve worked with the BLOCK Project. They find someone who owns a house, and have some backyard space that they share with a tiny home being built there. Then, they go through their vetting process to match someone who is trying to get back on their feet and they give them the opportunity to live in the yard in a tiny home. That way, people are integrated in a normal kind of neighborhood. I’ve donated a system to one of their projects at cost, and provided free labor.

I also do a lot with high schools. I’ve given one-on-one seminars with the Lake City Young Leaders program. I have workshops with the teens and show them how solar works, give them an idea of future potential and career opportunities. Some of these teenagers come on our projects as job shadows, so they can get a little bit of hands-on experience. I believe that the industry has a bright future ahead, and if we can get some of the youth excited about it more, it could be a career path.

Are there other ways that people can kind of support some of this work that you’re doing in the community?

We need people who can get involved, donations, partnerships, and of course, hiring us to do more work! The more work we can do, the more we can have funds to get out there and do these projects. We are also open to including volunteers, so they can actually travel with us and be involved in some of these projects. A lot of them will be around schools and education. The community-based project impact is huge. You’re going to places in complete darkness and giving light!

Read more about Edwin’s work here:

Video profile of Edwin with Chams Media

Blog post from the Seattle City Office of Economic Development

Crosscut interview and article about Solarize Puerto Rico

Article about installing solar with youth in Lake City