Two weeks ago I arrived to Tororo, Uganda, to a warm welcome from the Plan International and SmartUp Factory teams. My mission was to train Uganda’s first solar thermal entrepreneurs using our Lytefire Oven. Over the short span of two weeks, our education course fully trained the youths in usage, maintenance and entrepreneurial skills, and incubated a solar bakery businesses. The entrepreneurs were not only trained, but were also able to make the first sales of their solar baked goods which generated enough income for them to continue the business on their own! After this training in Tororo I am now moving to the SmartUp Factory in Gulu, Uganda, where I’ll be training the next group of entrepreneurs. I am taking this opportunity to share with you some key moments from the first training course.
On Monday the Plan International team took me to the Tororo Youth Center, a space on municipal grounds, donated by the Canadian International Development Agency and presently run by Reproductive Health Uganda (RHU). I met 12 young people who were selected by Tororo’s SmartUp Hub to participate to this training and become solar entrepreneurs. 7 young women and 5 young men, about half of whom were alumni of the SmartUp Hub, and 3 of whom are now mentors at the Hub.
Back to the basis
After introducing myself and GoSol.solar I took the students outside to concentrate the sun. I presented magnifying glasses to each of the students, distributed measuring tapes and asked them to burn some leaves and tell me the focal length of the lenses. The exercise was designed to introduce the solar concentration concept and “break the ice”. It also gave me an opportunity to observe our students. Some were stronger, some were timid, others outspoken, some were natural leaders. I was pleased to see that they all were eager to learn and participate.
Hands on training
Overall the training covers a lot of ground. I taught business fundamentals; physics, optics and properties of thermal energy and how to measure it; baking theory and practical baking skills; the world’s energy history and contemporary economic and ecologic issues; as well as the practical skills needed to operate and maintain the Lytefire Oven. When we assembled and disassembled the Lytefire Oven multiple times, each student was responsible for calibrating some mirrors, replacing mirrors, and keeping the oven at temperature while their colleagues mixed dough.
Crispy cookies and first clients
Early on the mayor of Tororo and several stakeholders from RHU and other organizations present in the space came to see the machine and speak with me and the class. I presented to them the Lytefire Oven and the goals of the collaboration with Plan International and SmartUp. It was great to see the genuine excitement of the mayor and the stakeholders.
Even before we finished the two weeks of training, word had spread and on several occasions our class got to make direct sales during the course to a customer wanting to try our delicious cookies. We made crispy cookies, gooey cookies, lemon cakes, chocolate cakes, colored cakes, sweet bread, traditional sourdough bread, egg bread and more. One client ordered 35 muffin cakes, and another ordered a birthday cake. The Lytefire Oven really has a magnetic effect which makes it great for starting up businesses. In the marketing class I told the students about the Koptige Bakery in Kenya, which opened a café next to their Lytefire Oven to accommodate the many visitors coming by to see the shiny solar concentrator and have a tasty treat.
Discussing UN Sustainable Development Goals
Not only was I a teacher, but I learned a lot as well from the students. One of my favorite exercises was discussing the UN Sustainable Development Goals. Once the students were familiar with the Lytefire Oven, GoSol.solar and our mission to create the direct solar economy, I gave the students an assignment to go through all 17 of the UN SDGs and bullet points about how the Lytefire Oven can positively impact each goal. Some answers are clear, but others really impressed me. For instance, regarding SDG 16 - ‘Peace and Justice’ one student answered: ‘If there is more economic activity and people have jobs, then men and women will be working all day, then they’ll rest happily at night and men will be happy and won’t beat the women or children.’ As we always have been convinced by the positive impacts of the Lytefire Oven, it was exciting to see the students share in our vision of the direct solar economy.
Future solar entrepreneurs
In the final days of the training I barely had to direct the students, they were so self motivated to maintain the Lytefire Oven and bake. The value of the machine was clear to them as they were already running a business making sales to passers by as well as orders. Through participatory sessions we developed the roles and responsibilities for moving the solar bakery forward. The students did market research in the field and we regrouped and analyzed the findings. We also set up the entrepreneurs with a custom spreadsheet where they can track and plan expenses and sales. Based on my experience with our solar bakers in Kenya and Tanzania, the students and I integrated the students’ market research to create financial projections based on the market in Uganda. As usual we proved that the “0 fuel cost” advantage of the Lytefire Oven pays out.
Finally, on Friday, September 14th, we held the Demo Day where we invited the mayor, honored guests from Plan International and other organizations from governmental and the NGO sector. The proud students were also able to invite friends and family. We were extremely pleased that Ofwono Apollo Yeri, Member of Parliament for the district of Tororo, joined us and applauded Plan International, SmartUp Factory, GoSol and the Tororo municipality for this innovative project and highlighted the benefits to the youth, environment, economy and Uganda as a whole and the importance of scale-up of our solution.
I am now on my way to the second training course at the SmartUp Factory in Gulu in northern Uganda. I look forward to meeting the next group of soon-to-be solar entrepreneurs and sharing our experiences and outcomes.