The Soular Backpack: Increasing Education in East Africa

A few days ago, one of my friends asked me to tell him about the first memory I have about the Kikambala Village. After struggling to pick one, it had to be one night in May, 1996, when I was four years old and was up way past my bedtime making care packages of food and stationary, with some of my toys to give to the children of the Kikambala Primary School. I remember going to the school the next day and handing them out. Over the years, it dawned on me that something simple that I took for granted -- eating three meals a day -- was something that was far from reality for most of my neighbors. As I visited the school more and more often, I realized that out of the 2,100 children, only 10 of them could afford to eat lunch every day.

I detest poverty. I cannot fathom how it still exists because I have witnessed how it strips human beings off their dignity, how girls younger than me who live right beside me are forced into child prostitution by their own parents in order to survive. Throughout my childhood, I tried to do my part in giving people the tools to alleviate themselves from poverty, through feeding programs, de-worming initiatives, mosquito net fundraisers, forming a jewelry making social enterprise, and education.

But, I often struggled with the fact that I couldn't change everything at once. For example, if I worked on an initiative in the health field, a child's education was neglected so I always wished I could find a solution to a problem that was central to a number of issues. Thinking about an innovative solution to this multitude of problems affecting over a billion people has kept me up at night for two years now. Fast forward to June 2014 when I was procrastinating even though I was supposed to be studying. It was like a light bulb moment, and I thought, how can a child harness the sun's energy on the way to school every day in order to study through the night?

Today, kerosene lamps are used, which are detrimental to children's health and are environmentally unsustainable. According to the World Bank, 25 percent of income is spent every month on kerosene and on days when parents cannot afford the kerosene, children cannot do their homework or study past dusk. Further, the fumes from the kerosene lamp are carcinogenic, causing respiratory issues, headaches, and eye problems. This impacts their grades remarkably, which means that a lot of students don't make it into secondary school thereby perpetuating the vicious cycle of poverty. I thought about a solar powered pen, a mobile library, a truck, solar powered shoes, and finally came up with the idea of The Soular Backpack.

The Soular Backpack has a solar panel on it, which stores energy in the battery pack that is attached to it. Later on at night, the battery pack attaches to the LED lamp, allowing children to study, complete their homework, and not have to walk hours to the nearest gas station during exam periods and study under a street lamp. The prototypes have been tested in the Kikambala village, and currently, a crowdfunding campaign is being run in order to raise enough money in order to provide 2,000 backpacks to students in this village as a pilot project. In the future, the cost of these backpacks will be subsidized to a cost that is affordable to students in Kenya and Africa in order to make this project as sustainable as possible. The goal is to also set aside the money that was otherwise spent on kerosene and use it towards a secondary education fund. I also plan to set up micro-franchises in villages all across East Africa, where Soular Backpacks and other solar products will be sold, in order to increase employment.

My goal is that through education, people will be given the tools to empower and alleviate themselves from poverty. I believe in the power of social business as the greatest catalyst in creating sustainable change.