29 Oct 2019


Camille van Gestel - Founder, WakaWaka

In our Tech for Good section, we are running an interesting Q&A with WakaWaka Foundation Founder Camille van Gestel. WakaWaka provides people off-grid areas in low-income countries with safe, sustainable, and renewable power and light solutions.


What inspired you to start Waka-Waka?

Prior to the Football World Cup, my partner Maurits Groen and I were travelling through South Africa and we thought about the idea of LED lights. We proposed this innovative idea to the SA Government to compensate for the carbon emissions of the World Cup with LED lights. However, on our way to potential implementation projects, we passed several townships, that were not connected, were off-the-grid and realised our LED lights would be useless there. The same holds true for about a billion people worldwide.
SO, we decided to do something about it, but didn't know what. Until I met an old friend, Frans Biegstraaten, who was the co-founder of a Dutch tech company, specialized in making small solar applications hyper-efficient. Together we made what is now called the WakaWaka! The world’s most efficient solar-powered charger and light. Our purpose? Enable sustainable energy access for all! 

What does Waka-Waka mean? 

The name comes from Shakira’s opening song of the 2010 World Cup and can mean many things, but we love that it’s the Swahili translation for ‘shine bright’. It seems kind of right. And actually it is my wife who came up with the name ;) 

Can you please tell us about your concept "Solar Libraries"? 

Firstly you need to understand that around half the people who live off-grid, do not have enough income to afford even the cheapest solar lights on the market. If nothing changes, these 500 million people will still be living in darkness for decades. Seemingly the only way to get light into their homes is to donate it. But doing that would disrupt market-based solutions and if implemented at scale, could bankrupt companies who are doing a lot of good in this world. So the challenge is, how to get light into the households of the poorest, without disrupting markets? Or rather, while stimulating markets? The answer is what we call "Solar Libraries". The WakaWaka Foundation
donates lights to schools that lend these to its students. And, just like the books they read, the lights need to be returned to the school at the end of the school year. Much like a regular library. The immediate impact is dramatically improved school results, lower expenditures of families on kerosene and candles and more productivity for the family in the evening, all because of having a bit of renewable energy at home. Now that families start to understand the impact of having light, they start saving for their own solar solution. 

When did you launch this concept?

We first started tests with schools in Rwanda, with amazing results. We have real stories of a student who was almost expelled because he did not perform and didn't do his homework (simply because he couldn't...), turning into one of the best students of the entire country! This fall we are scaling up the program to reach 90,000 students in Rwanda, Sudan and Ethiopia thanks to supporting from the Dutch Postcode Lottery. Together with parents, brothers, and sisters, this project will impact the lives of nearly half a million people. 

What is the next step?

Anticipating the success of the scale-up, we are already planning for the next phase, where we will further scale the model. I would love to say more about this at this point, but that would spoil the fun of a very cool launch, ha! I believe the project we are currently preparing, will generate global headlines, highly interesting for both NGOs and corporates to get involved as it provides a platform to tell the world what you are doing with regard to humanitarian relief. Once we are ready to launch, I will surely get back in touch to talk about it here. 

How many schools are involved in the project?

In the next few months, we will deliver lights to several hundred schools. For the new project we are aiming at some 1,500 schools.

What response did you get from the beneficiaries (schools, students)?

The results and feedback from the pilot schools are nothing short of amazing. School grades improved, families have a form of livelihood in the evening now, where before all they could do was go to bed early and women feel safer with light in the evening. One of the first schools WakaWaka was involved with back in 2013, was the Mwamtsefu school in Kenya. a year later they suddenly were the best school in the entire district, only because all their students could do their homework in the evening. Sometimes, when I close my eyes, I try to visualize what the African continent would look like if an entire generation would be able to their homework at night... 

Will you be taking this programme to other countries?


Why should governments be part of this project?

Countries with a large off-grid population benefit significantly when this group of people is able to help lift itself out of poverty. Although a solar lamp is not a one-stop-solution, it does decrease family expenses on kerosene and candles. It does help extend a family's day, creating more income-generating opportunities. We have examples of families who are income level increase with over 40% just because they had light in the evening. The long term impact of significantly better school results go way passed higher enrollment ratios, fewer drop-outs and a higher percentage to continue to secondary school. Better school results lead to better job perspectives, or students starting their own businesses. As Nelson Mandela said "The most powerful
weapon to fight poverty is education" and you need light to do your homework in the evening.  The project impacts the work of various Ministry's: Education, Energy, but also Finance.


What is the biggest challenge you face?

We have overcome many challenges already. Finding NGOs who can distribute study lights to schools at scale is one of them, getting donated products into countries without being charged for duties and other taxes is another and to some extent still in process, ha. But for new projects, it all starts with attracting sufficient funding. We want to do projects at a certain scale, which draws media attention, which helps to raise awareness about the work we are doing together with corporates and NGOs.

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