Sustainable power empowers community

The Mhlupheki high school was built like any other school, complete with doors and windows, chairs, desks and chalkboards. But unlike the average school, this northern KwaZulu-Natal learning centre ran for several years without electricity. While the necessary infrastructure was in place to utilise electricity, there just wasn’t any. The lights were fitted, but didn’t switch on, and an appliance plugged into the wall socket wouldn’t run.

With a Vodacom base station a couple of hundred metres from the school, the company saw an opportunity to help the community through its Community Power initiative. The mobile operator installed solar panels on the school roof, and the electricity produced by this installation now powers both the base station and the school.

“We were so surprised when we came here,” says Vodacom’s executive head of CSI and sustainability, Suraya Hamdulay. “All the resources were here, they just needed the electricity. We literally just flipped the switch.”

According to Thembinkosi Mkhonto, principal of Mhlupheki high school, the solar panel installation at the small community school has changed how the educators teach and how the students learn. “There are no power lines anywhere here,” says Mkhonto. “If you do not have a generator, you cannot make it here. Without any electricity, things were very difficult and expensive.”

At peak capacity, the panels generate about 40KW hours per day, which is more than enough to meet the needs of the school. The conversion to sustainable energy has saved the school about R15 000 in the year since it was installed.

During the recent end-of-year exams, there was a spike in electricity use at Mhlupheki, something that Maya Makanjee, chief officer of corporate affairs, says is a positive sign. “This shows us that the children are coming to study, they’re using the resources and that is exactly what we wanted to happen.” And hopes are that it’ll show in the students’ results. Mkhonto expects the matric pass rate this year to be as high as 74%, up from 54% last year.

In addition to the solar energy, Vodacom also kitted out the school’s computer centre with equipment that Mkhonto says is used during lessons, morning assemblies and for entertainment. Many past pupils from Mhlupheki now teach computer skills at the school, as there is no permanent computer teacher, according to Mkhonto.

In the past, teachers would write exam papers on chalkboards, and they had to travel into the nearest town to photocopy documents. “Life has changed from rural to urban within the school,” he says. For Mkhonto, the solar electricity has saved the school time and money, and allows teachers to concentrate more on their work of educating the community.

“Now, the learners like to come to the school, because they can see that this particular school is different,” he says, adding that the adult learners who use the facilities at night no longer have to do so by candlelight. “Now these old mamas and fathers can learn how to write and read using the school’s facilities. We are so happy that we have moved from zero to hero.”

The school has become a hub for the community, according to Mkhonto. The local primary school just across the road still lacks electricity, but has access to the high school’s resources. Even the mobile clinic, which visits the community every two weeks, makes use of the solar power. In the past, community members had to travel into town to print or make photocopies, but now they use the school’s facilities. “Anything that the community needs to use the school for, we allow them to do so.”

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