The Power of a Good Book

The Power of a Good Book

Books have played a huge role in the evolution of the Honnold Foundation, and in the evolution of Alex Honnold's approach to the world. 

For the past few months, the HF team has been working with Alex to generate a list of some of the most thought-provoking, influential, and just plain memorable books that he's read over the course of the past several years.

"If you look at all the books together," Alex says, "it gives a pretty good sense of how my brain works now."

Ready to dive in? 

Building a Solar Powered Ethiopia

Building a Solar Powered Ethiopia

By Brittany Gibbons, Director of Programs

 

In the summer of 2017, Honnold Foundation Director of Programs Brittany Gibbons received a grant from Stanford University to travel to Ethiopia and work with the Solar Energy Foundation (SEF), a longtime partner of the Honnold Foundation. During her time in Addis Ababa, Brittany worked closely with SEF Ethiopia’s Director, Samson Tsegaye.

 

 

Rain tapped on the window as Samson, my supervisor at the Solar Energy Foundation, brewed coffee and prepared a plate of kolo, a snack mix made of roasted grains, for us to share. The aromatic coffee roast wafted through the air as I listened to the water collect in the streets and reflected on my experience in Ethiopia. I had arrived three months earlier and this was my last week as a software developer with the SEF team. In addition to learning more about computer programming, my favorite part of my experience was hearing about my teammates' life stories. When Samson returned with the snacks, I realized that I had not heard about his experiences. So as he poured coffee from the clay jebena I asked him, "how did it all begin?" He passed me the warm cup and then graciously told his story -- a journey from engineer, to detainee, to taxi driver, and finally to leader of one of the first pay-as-you-go solar organizations in Africa.

 Samsom Tsegaye, SEF Ethiopia Country Director, at work in Addis Ababa (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Samsom Tsegaye, SEF Ethiopia Country Director, at work in Addis Ababa (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Living in Addis as a child, Samson constantly fiddled with electronic devices, fixing (and sometimes destroying) radios, watches, and televisions. His passion for technology continued when he enlisted in the military and attended civil engineering classes so that he could use his technical skills in a job that protected his country. Before his 25th birthday, Samson excelled and was quickly promoted to an officer role. However, Samson's life and the country as a whole were both about to undergo a drastic change, as the regime of then-leader Mengitsu Haile Mariam began to unravel.

Starting in the early 1970’s, the Mengitsu government murdered tens of thousands of people in the Ethiopian genocide, and stifled unrest via the forcible resettlement of over 700,000 people. By the early 1990’s, the resistance against the Mengitsu regime reached a tipping point, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the government in the Ethiopian Revolution. The EPRDF leaders feared that servicemen remained loyal to the Mengitsu family, so they detained and imprisoned military officers -- including Samson.

Samson was released 8 months later with no documentation to prove his skills in engineering. In addition, the government blacklisted Samson from numerous jobs because of his previous affiliation with the Mengitsu military. To support himself and his family, he purchased a vehicle and started his own taxi business. He continued to drive for nine years until the government relaxed employment restrictions and he found a job at a construction company.

 Abune Yemata Guh, a rock-hewn church in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Abune Yemata Guh, a rock-hewn church in the Tigray region of Ethiopia. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Things were going well -- Samson loved using his technical skills again, and the company leadership was impressed by his work. Several years after he started, the construction firm sent Samson to represent the company at a conference in Paris. Unfortunately, Samson was not a fan of France-- in our conversation, he described its  “unwelcoming environment.” He thought back to his days as a taxicab driver, and remembered a European friend who was more to his taste-- a German who often visited Addis for business, and would call Samson to drive him around. Samson hadn’t seen his friend since he stopped driving his taxi, so-- hoping to hear a familiar voice--he gave him a call. As they chatted about life, Samson mentioned how he disliked France and his friend urged him to abandon the remainder of the conference and to instead visit him in Germany, where an international solar exhibition was happening.

Easily persuaded, Samson took the advice and eagerly made his way to Germany. When he arrived at the expo he was astonished by the innovation and potential of solar energy-- this could be the future of Ethiopia, he thought. At this time, nearly 85% of the Ethiopian population lived in rural regions and only 1% had access to electricity in those areas. He asked himself, was he doing the right thing if he stayed in construction? Or should he make a transition into the solar industry?

Inspired by the expo, but unable to afford to leave his construction job, Samson returned to Ethiopia and spent his spare time teaching himself about electrical engineering and solar technology. One contact at a time, he began reaching out to solar companies, hoping to establish business connections for himself-- with varying degrees of success.

Despite the difficulties of working long hours at the construction firm and advancing his solar business, after several months Samson felt he had learned everything he needed to in order to sell solar systems. He created a business plan, and then set out to execute a proof of concept with the Guji tribe in the western part of Ethiopia, where some of his friends and their families were going to celebrate the Ethiopian Orthodox holiday, Meskel (translated literally as “The Finding of the True Cross.”)

When he arrived, Samson spoke to his friends about how solar lanterns could provide brighter and cleaner lighting and are an improved alternative to kerosene lanterns that emit pollutants that are health hazards. He attempted to persuade his friends to purchase solar kits as an alternative to the traditional Meskel holiday purchase-- a cow for slaughter. Samson told his friends’ families that although this Meskel would be a little different, the benefits from solar would last for years. After Samson gave his pitch, his friends said they were interested in the solar kits… but they also wanted a cow. It took a couple of days of discussions, but eventually five families forewent tradition and purchased Samson’s solar kits to celebrate Meskel.

Samson installed the solar systems on their homes free of charge. When he turned the light on in the house, he still remembers seeing “pure happiness” in his friends’ faces as the bright electric light filled their living quarters. He realized that he had found his true calling -- to promote electrification in Ethiopia with solar energy.

 Women in the town of Rema gather at an SEF-funded solar pumping facility. Before the solar pump was installed, these women walked 6 miles each day to collect water. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

Women in the town of Rema gather at an SEF-funded solar pumping facility. Before the solar pump was installed, these women walked 6 miles each day to collect water. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons)

His solar business began to take off. Along with his full time job at the construction firm, he spent his weekends selling solar and installing the systems himself (at no cost to families) on 52 homes. By 2005, Samson had developed an international reputation for persistence. Dr. Harald Schützeichel, the founder of Solar Energy Foundation in Germany, reached out to Samson, seeking a collaborator for SEF’s work to alleviating energy poverty in Ethiopia. After a pilot project in the North Shewa region,  Dr. Schützeichel asked Samson to join SEF as the Country Founder and Director in Ethiopia. Samson accepted the offer and-- at last! -- quit his job at the construction company.

A decade later, Samson and his team have constructed solar projects in four villages, distributed over 35,000 solar systems throughout the country, and trained over 65 solar technicians. Inspired by Samson’s achievements, the Honnold Foundation established a partnership and awarded a $50,000 grant to SEF in 2017. Today, Samson and his team intend to open additional branches in other regions of Ethiopia (particularly one in Arba Minch) and seek to expand SEF's services in other parts of the country.

By the end of our conversation, with just coffee grounds remaining at the bottom of my cup, all of the struggles that he experienced made me realize how deeply personal the entire SEF organization was for him. He fought for decades to help families in rural parts of Ethiopia gain access to clean electricity-- and he’s still fighting.

 

Exploring Solar in Angola

Exploring Solar in Angola

by Maury Birdwell, former Executive Director & Board chair

Angola is a stark, harsh country in many ways. Like much of the developing world it lacks the infrastructure - both technologically and democratically - to provide equal opportunity across its vast social and physical geography. The capital of Luanda grants a striking visual metaphor: gazing from the rooftops at night one sees mud-brick hovels next door to ostentatious night clubs and five star hotels. The countryside is ravaged of any wildlife, and everywhere we drove it was ablaze with field clearance burning. At first blush its easy to greet this with despondence and pessimism; however, when viewed in the context of a country barely a decade free from thirty four years of civil war things take on a rosier glow.

Pause on that for a second: many Angolans lived a practical lifetime in a constant state of unrest, wherein the present state of peace has become the exception to their existence. For those of us in the western world we cannot and will not ever know what that really means. Our de facto team leader Stacy Bare had spent nearly a year clearing land mines, simply aiming to return the countryside to a basic state of usability. How many times have you scouted what looks to be a promising climbing destination only to abandon it because the approach was too threatened by the possibility of land mines?

On August 30, Alex Honnold, Stacy Bare, Ted Hesser, and myself boarded flights to Luanda with some audacious goals for a two week trip: we sought to sample the climbing, see the state of affairs 10 years after Stacy's last visit, and initiate a pilot program for off grid solar entrepreneurship. Ted in particular (with what help I could offer) had been pushing hard and fast on the latter goal for the better part of six months. We had made great strides but hit many roadblocks - in fact our solar products were still stuck in customs when we arrived in country. Nonetheless, we had come as far as we could from our computer screens and Skype, the only thing left to do was get on the ground and figure out if all the other off grid solar companies who refused to enter Angola thus far were right after all.

This is where the horizon begins to look bright. Not only did we establish a handful of routes from 5.7 to 5.13c, we learned that the HALO Trust (Stacy's former employer) and other similar organizations just passed the halfway mark to clearing the roughly 1,500 documented minefields across the country, and it appears that by importing just 100 home solar systems we've convinced the Energy Minister to order another 3,000 units as part of a broader market test. It is far too early to say whether Angola will see the type of micro-grid solar explosion that is sweeping East Africa, but it's heartening to know that a country with a traditional mono-economy of oil and gas is investigating these kinds of alternatives. Our partners at organizations like SolarAid and Elephant Energy have been eyeing Angola for years, perhaps our devil-may-care effort will remove the mystique and enable them to come in equipped for success.

Solar Install.jpg


These last two weeks were a blur of climbing rocks, spontaneous dance battles with the locals, and late night debates about the efficacy and approaches of bridging the energy gap. There were ups and downs, setbacks, and triumphs. Just like everywhere in the world we learned that at its most basic level Angola is full of good, decent people who see and strive for a better future for their country; except these people are starting the race 10 meters back and without the starting blocks available to many of us. While our impact may be minor in scale, we at the Honnold Foundation believe that only by refusing to accept current realities can we bridge those gaps. More than anything, we hope that you believe the same thing, too.

Huge thanks to partners The North Face, VICE Sports, and Goal Zero for believing in and supporting this trip.

Be sure to tune in to VICE Sports this fall for the feature on Alex, Stacy, and the Honnold Foundation's trip to Angola.

 

A New Partnership with Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs

A New Partnership with Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs

An estimated 18,000 homes on the Navajo Nation in the four corners region of the United States lack access to electricity. Many elders and families use dangerous and polluting kerosene and propane lanterns for light in their homes, trapping in harmful fumes and posing serious fire and health risks. Families spend $20–$40 each month on these inefficient fuel sources–a huge price considering that many survive only on $700 each month. Families are paying up to 6% of their income for a light source that is slowly killing them. Since 2010, Elephant Energy has worked to provide energy access for Navajo elders, families and school children through the distribution and sale of affordable and efficient small-scale solar technologies.

This spring the Honnold Foundation is partnering with GoalZeroThe North Face, and Clif Bar to expand Elephant’s efforts and initiate a solar entrepreneurs project in the Kayenta Region of the Navajo Nation. Through generous solar product donations from GoalZero, fundraising matching from The North Face, and support from Clif Bar, we’ll be able to help bring Elephant’s proven strategy to a whole new area!

 

 

What are the needs?

Access to solar light is life-changing for the elders and families that receive solar energy systems. For example, Bessie Wilson lives in a small Hogan in Bodaway/Gap Chapter with no running water and an outhouse nearly 50 yards away. Bessie has a young daughter and a 15-year-old son who travels to school over 40 miles away during the week. Prior to receiving a Goal Zero home solar system from Elephant Energy, Bessie and her family used expensive batteries to power a flashlight, or went without light at night. In March 2013, Elephant Energy installed a Goal Zero Escape 150 system in Bessie’s home, and additional lights outside her house and on her outhouse. Now, at night, Bessie can weave Navajo rugs to sell to support her family, and with the ability to study at night, her son has started getting A’s and B’s in school, instead of C’s and D’s.

 

What does Elephant Energy do?

Entrepreneurs Program
Solar entrepreneurs form the backbone of the Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs Project. Elephant Energy believes that entrepreneurs must “learn by doing,” and as such, entrepreneurs participate in on-location trainings about pricing, marketing, and sales. This training allows entrepreneurs who are attuned to the cultural norms of the area to make informed business decisions. Trained solar entrepreneurs receive small-scale solar products to sell and generate income for their families. This program increases community economic development in the Navajo Nation and increases engagement in business.

Solar Schools Initiative
Through this Initiative, Elephant Energy partners with the Northern Arizona University to develop and teach a “solar schools curriculum” to community schools, and to provide study lamps that kids can check out from the library, just like they would check out a book. Kids can use these lights to study at home, while sharing knowledge about solar technology with their families.

Elder Installation Program
Elephant Energy partners with Community Health Representatives throughout the Navajo Nation to identify the highest risk members of each community. Through this program, Elephant Energy provides supplies to install solar products pro bono into the homes of sick and elderly community members, reducing dependence on costly and dangerous kerosene for light.

 

What are the impacts?

Elephant Energy’s Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs Project will:

  1. Eradicate kerosene use for lighting in the Navajo Nation
  2. Establish clean energy technologies as viable and accessible alternatives to grid-based electricity from coal-fired power plants
  3. Facilitate rural economic development by creating job opportunities on the Navajo Nation
 

How can you help?

Donate to help support the Northern Navajo Solar Entrepreneurs Project! Curious what your money will go towards?

$25 loans a solar-powered light and cell phone charger to a solar entrepreneur
$50 provides three solar lights in the home of a Navajo family
$100 eliminates kerosene use in the homes of two Navajo elders
$250 provides a solar system to light an entire home
$500 provides kid-friendly solar products for the Solar Schools Initiative

The North Face will be matching donations up to the first $5,000, after which the Honnold Foundation will match up to an additional $10,000; for a total of $15,000 in matching funds!

Honnold Foundation On Sacramento's Fox 40

Honnold Foundation On Sacramento's Fox 40

Honnold Foundation founder Alex Honnold dropped by his local news station after the Thanksgiving holiday to talk to reporter Sabrina Rodriquez. During their interview, Alex discussed about how climbing has given him a passion to channel his success toward improving the world and lives of others. The segment also features some great footage of a few of the projects we support. Thanks again to Fox 40 for the opportunity to help inspire others.

Click here for the interview.