Today's Special Menu

May 3, 2012

It’s a large room with high ceilings; people are seated enjoying their breakfast. Enter, stage left, the white man. Oh, so now I know what it must have been like for Patricia, my Nigerian college mate back in ‘80’s Ireland. I settle into a corner table and try to take stock. Soon I’m greeted by a friendly waiter who tells me its self service, but will I recognise anything I wonder. Porridge, bacon, eggs, sausages, tea, toast….wait a minute shur’  the lads from the neighbouring Island back home spent a few years here also – anyone for a Gin n Tonic?

Dr Sam Duby kicks off proceedings today with an explanation of the term ‘Jua Kali’ which refers to the informal sector in Africa, where people literally toil under the hot sun (Jua Kali) to make a variety of products and services. He explains that 80% of employment in Kenya is Jua Kali or transport. There’s the famous case of the boy who left school and using drawings he found online, he manufactured a wind turbine from scrap to provide energy for his family home.

Sams company, access:energy, ‘is a Community Based Organisation that invests in appropriate technology, health and food initiatives that create a genuine benefit to people’s lives’. He gives us a whistle stop tour of the various wind, solar, biomass products they can supply and manufacture. His own workshop, based in the centre of Kisumu, is powered by a small wind turbine, sufficient even to use welding equipment. Wind is not something I associated with Africa and I even add some new words to my vocabulary before he concludes. Although Sam is an applied scientist and a specialist in renewable energy he explains complex technology with ease to the diverse audience.

As you can imagine, lunchtime conversation is very interesting and ranges from how to construct a solar oven to commentary from the Africa perspective on Carbon Credits – ‘the US use calculations to suit them’ – I listen with interest and little doubt, but am certainly not adept with the knowledge to join in this debate. The open air university restaurant is certainly like none I’ve ever dined in. Ugali (the staple equivalent of the potato, ground maize – bland….very bland!) and Talapia (Fish indigenous to Lake Victoria) are on the menu and we all tuck in with our hands – although cutlery is available, when in Rome etc.

George, the solar power seller

Later, back in class we receive a visit from the solar lights salesman, George. He handles his products like gold and we have to request that he takes them out of the plastic packaging so that we can have a proper look. He bends and twists the small solar panel to prove its durability and explains how it ‘smells the sun’. He tells us about the difference his products can make in the life of the ‘Common Man’, a phrase he uses over and over to our amusement.

However, I readjust my views on this diminutive young man when he says, ‘I have four of these lights in my home’ and begins to explain, from first – hand experience, how his children can study at night and much more. ‘Once the common man has charged his batteries with the solar panel, he will then wonder, what else can I do with my power? It’s free’.  He can charge his phone; have light, radio and all of this without the fumes of kerosene or the 20 bob per night it costs. I’m sold and much to his surprise he does a roaring trade before he leaves, as everyone wants to take one home and test it or dismantle it. Paolo explains that he already has a few which he finds very useful during the regular power cuts in Nairobi city.

I vow that when I return to Ireland I will never take d’electric for granted again….yeah yeah yeah