Exploring Solar in Angola

Exploring Solar in Angola

by Maury Birdwell, Executive Director

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.

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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.

Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge

Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge

This summer the Honnold Foundation partnered with the Center for a New American Dream to fund their Get2gether Neighborhood Challenge. Communities from all over the United States submitted video applications for projects to improve their neighborhood within any of the three focus areas: sharing resources, strengthening local economies, and greening communities.

We and the folks at New American Dream were impressed by the initiatives people were undertaking to build local ethos and work towards sustainability. Nine projects from across the US were chosen by the panel, which included guest judge Alex Honnold. They were then provided support and guidance from NAD, along with ioby’s online crowdfunding platform and our matching grant up to $1000.

Here are the winners! Click the name to learn more about each. Get involved if its in your community, or think about starting a project in your area if its not!

NOLA TimeBank Neighborhood Expansion (New Orleans, LA)

Summit County Seed Library (Summit County, CO)

City Share Club (Cambridge, MA)

Asheville Tool Library (Asheville, NC) 

Baxter Community Center’s Garden Lending Library (Grand Rapids, MI)

Chula Vista Community Garden Living Laboratory (San Diego, CA)

Phoenix Tool Shed (Phoenix, AZ)

Local Community Directory (Timonium, MD)

Building Community at the UM Campus Farm (Ann Arbor, MI)