Evans grew up sharing a kerosene lamp with four brothers. There were times he had to give way to them and go to school without completing his homework. Kenyan schools adapt corporal punishment and attending school without completing homework could mean getting hit by the teacher’s good old stick. Not having electricity is a lame excuse. Who has? Simply put, Evans had to live with it.
Abandoning school was not an option. Evans’ parents inculcated the value of education in their children’s young mind. No wonder the five siblings fought over one kerosene lamp just to be able to do their homework. Using kerosene lamps has been a way of life in some areas in Kenya where electrical services are yet to exist. In Evans’ young mind, no children should suffer just because they don’t have access to electricity.
Before he even turned 20, Evans has embarked on an extraordinary journey to change the lives of his beloved people by giving them light. Not only that, Evans found a way to create a livelihood out of it. Evans’ light not only brightened up Kenya’s houses but also the lives of the people he touched.
Imagine having to live without electricity. No way to charge batteries or watch TV. Food will go bad as we can’t use our refrigerator. Homes would be pitch dark. That’s a rather “light” way of putting it, but then we realize just how dependent we are on electricity. From mundane entertainment to significant routines, electricity is there silently making things easier for us.
To some people though, electricity is still a luxury. Evans Wadongo, the youngest child of a couple who are both teachers, spent his childhood using kerosene lamps to study. His town in Nairobi, Kenya is yet to have electrical infrastructure to make electricity available for the people. Evans, like thousands of children, had to make do with using kerosene lamps to complete their homework and study for their exams.
Kerosene lamps emit wan light. This is why children have to put it very near them if they want to clearly see what they are reading. Because of the fumes, Evans developed eyesight problems.
The Effects of Using Kerosene
In some parts of the world like Evans’ hometown, kerosene is the cheapest means for them to carry on with life after the sun has set. But even kerosene is hard to come by if a family is earning less than a dollar a day. Evans’ parents are both teachers so they could pretty much afford buying kerosene every day. Some of his friends, however, were not as lucky.
A large population of kids drop out of school because of not being able to afford daily supply of kerosene. Rather than have light at night, they just use the money for food. With teachers who are not so understanding, children get demotivated and just opt to stop going to school altogether. Evans had to compete with children who belong to well-off families. It was a challenge but he would stop at nothing in the name of education.
Having to use kerosene throughout the evening while studying, his eyes were usually exposed to its fumes. Kerosene also caused their air to get polluted. Some even lose their homes to fire accidents. It was traumatic for someone as young as Evans to hear of children whose lives are lost because of reckless use of kerosene lamps.
Evans Develops Solar-Powered Lamps
As Evans was growing up, he became more and more determined to change their way of life. He thought it was not fair for the kids’ education to suffer just because their parents could not afford buying them kerosene. No child deserves to stay in the claws of poverty just because they don’t have the means to get some light come night time. What makes it even sadder is that those kids who don’t get to finish their studies would not have the opportunity to improve their lives and get stuck in the same cycle their parents had.
In order to improve his community, Evans thought they should begin by making light accessible to all. But for someone so young, all he could do was silently watch and feel sorry for classmates whose faces he stopped seeing as school went by. By the time he reached eighth grade, only another classmate other than himself was left in their class to pursue high school.
The nearest high school is ten kilometers away from home. This means Evans had to walk 20 kilometers every day to and from school. That in itself was a challenge. In Kenya, some students have to work during the day so they instead go to school from the afternoon to the evening. No lamps would mean no school because the way home could get really dark.
Luckily, Evans’s family could somehow afford lamps and kerosene. With sheer will and hard work, Evans completed his high school studies and was even included in the top 100 high school of Kenya. Evans had a natural flair for learning. It’s the idea of learning something new every day that kept him coming back to school. Unknown to him then was the role he would play in changing the lives of his fellow Kenyans.
In 2004, Evans enrolled in Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and pursued a degree in Electronic and Computer Engineering. The following year, while Evans was working on a school project which had them use LED for Christmas lights, the idea of using it in lieu of kerosene lamps suddenly dawned on him. He then toyed with the idea of developing a solar-powered LED lamp so that the people won’t need to incur extra expenses to buy kerosene. On his way home one day, he stumbled upon a chunk of solar panel and did an experiment that yielded favorable results.
At first, he fashioned lamps out of scrap metals that they bought from metal stores. To finance his studies, his families and friends helped get him through to college. For him to shoulder the expenses of producing lamps, he skipped two meals a day and used the money he’s supposed to buy food to buy parts for his lamps.
SDfA-Kenya and Use Solar, Save Lives
But he found out that simply giving out lanterns doesn’t change lives. Yes, it makes it easier for families to have light at night but it does not do anything to change their circumstance. Also, Evans figured that if he keeps at that rate, he won’t reach as many people. When he heard of Sustainable Development for All, he signed up for training in order to learn sophisticated ways of manufacturing lamps. By 2006, he became part of Sustainable Development for All-Kenya and became its project manager. Through the non-government organization he has helped to establish, he introduced “Use Solar, Save Lives.” It’s designed to complement the solar lamps they are distributing.
According to their website:
"SDFA-Kenya’s main program dubbed “Use Solar, save Lives’ is born out of the belief that access to affordable and sustainable energy is one of the key life-changing catalyst needed to reduce rural poverty. Through the provision of locally designed and made solar lanterns and creation of income generating activities in these villages from money initially spent on kerosene, rural communities are transformed with increased access to education and the opportunity to thrive and improve their own livelihood.
SDFA-Kenya is working in Kenya and Malawi and is seeking to expand into other African countries. To date, SDFA-Kenya has impacted directly over 120,000 people." (Source: Sustainable Development for All-Kenya)
When before Evans simply administered manufacture of lamps, using the Use Solar, Save Lives approach enabled him to also address perennial poverty issues in Kenya. Although SDfA is not directly involved in the livelihood programs, they partner with women groups to train people how they can use the resources to find other means of making money. For instance, the money they are supposed to be using to buy kerosene is pooled together and is used for funding income-generating causes. This way, people are accountable and they see past their day to day challenge.
Evans Named a CNN Hero
In 2009, Evans completed his degree from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology and was one of its top graduates. During that time, Evans was both heavily involved in his humanitarian cause and university. Fortunately, everything worked out and Evans was able to conveniently manage his time between school and SDfA.
Finally after college, Evans had more time in his hands. He decided to go to the lamp business full-time. He has his lamps named MwangaBora, the Swahili term for “good light.” It is indeed good light for a number of reasons. One, it’s non-toxic. It emits no fumes because it’s powered by the sun. Second, it’s low-maintenance and hassle-free. Because it’s powered by the sun, it neither needs electricity nor fuel to operate. Third, it decreases pollution and can be recycled.
In 2010, Evans was among the people honored by CNN in their annual event. He made it to the Young Wonder category, highlighting his important work in the communities of Kenya where electricity is yet to exist. He started Just One Lamp the following year. It’s an organization that’s meant to provide poor communities with solar-powered lamps to help them improve their way of life. Their mission is to get a million people in Africa out of poverty by 2018. It’s an ambitious undertaking but all it takes is one lamp at a time to give people a chance to improve their lives and make something of themselves.
Evans’ work in Kenya reverberated throughout the world and has been celebrated by other nations. In Russia, for instance, he was named one of the three recipients of the inaugural Mikhail Gorbachev Awards for "The Man Who Changed the World" along with Ted Turner of CNN and Time Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. It’s such a huge honor for someone who’s barely an adult.
He was also named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation in the same year. Esquire magazine included Evans in their list of "20 Men Who Will Shape the Next 20 Years." It couldn’t get any better when his SDfA-Kenya won the SEED award, which gave them additional funding and more publicity.
In 2012, his project made it as one of the finalists at the inaugural Innovation Prize for Africa. Although they did not bring home the bacon, he was happy to have been the recipient of the African International Achievers Award. During the London Olympics in 2012, he was also chosen as one of the four torchbearers to represent Kenya during the Torch Relay. Just recently, he was included in MIT Technology Review's Top 35 Innovators Under 35 because of his work in SDfA.
So far, Evans has overseen distribution of 32,000 lamps in Kenya and they want to do more. His Just One Lamp is looking into promoting the lives of one million African people. He believes that Africa is the next frontier. When he spoke to thousands of people at TEDxCibeles event in Madrid, Spain, he stressed the importance of using one’s creativity to do his share in society. TED promised to give him volunteers to help in their NGO’s cause. The light that MwangaBora is giving out became the hope that once again sparked young children’s dream—that one day they too can be like Evans: empowered and successful.
Organizations and Programmes Supported
- Rotaract Club
- Just One Lamp
- Use Solar, Save Lives
- Sustainable Development for All-Kenya (SDfA-Kenya)
Awards and Achievements
- 2004: Started making solar lamps
- 2006: Joined Sustainable Development For All-Kenya (SDFA-Kenya)
- 2006-2008: Became SDFA Project Manager
- 2009: Graduated with a BSc in Electronics and Computer Engineering from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology
- 2010: Was one of CNN's Top 10 Heroes
- 2011: Introduced Just One Lamp
- 2011: Named one of three recipients of the inaugural Mikhail Gorbachev Awards for "The Man Who Changed the World"
- 2011: Named Social Entrepreneur of the Year by the Schwab Foundation
- 2011: Included in UK's Esquire magazine's "20 Men Who Will Shape the Next 20 Years"
- 2011: SDFA-Kenya won the SEED award
- 2012: One of the finalists at the inaugural Innovation Prize for Africa
- 2012: Received the African International Achievers Award
- 2012: Named one of four torchbearers to represent Kenya during the London Olympics Torch Relay
- 2013: Included in MIT Technology Review's Top 35 Innovators Under 35
- Listed among the top 100 best students in Kenya
- Chair of SDFA
- Distributed 32,000 lamps in Kenya
- Finalist for Humanitarian Hero Award
- Named among '30 under 30'-Africa's best young entrepreneurs by Forbes
- Recipient of the Pan Commonwealth Youth Award
- Developed the first African-designed and African-produced solar lamp available
- Travelled to Malawi on several occasions to launch @sdfakenya partnership with Jacaranda Foundation to train orphans in making solar lamps
- Featured in China Central TV (CCTV) documentary, Faces of Africa
- Served as mentor at ChangePilotz program for young change-makers in Canada and spoke at Capilano University in Vancouver
- Spoke at TEDxCibeles event in Madrid, Spain
- Included among 3 finalists for the global Humanitarian Hero award.
- Attended the Africa Development Forum by UNECA in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
- Attended the World Innovation Summit on Education in Doha, Qatar
- Presented at the 2nd meeting of entrepreneurs at The Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana in Bucaramanga Colombia
Wikipedia (Evans Wadongo)
MIT Technology Review (35 Innovators Under 35 2013: Evans Wadongo)
CNN ('Saving lives' with solar-powered lights)
World Economic Forum (Africa’s Leading Social Entrepreneurs To Be Awarded At World Economic Forum On Africa)
SEED Initiative (Meet the SEED Winners)
CNN (Solar lamps lifting Kenyans out of poverty)
Linkedin (Sustainable Development For All-Kenya)
Sustainable Development For All-Kenya (Our Story)
Sustainable Development For All-Kenya (Mission, Vission and Focus Areas)
Sustainable Development For All-Kenya (Awards)
Cool Hunting (Evans Wadongo: MwangaBora Lamp)
All Africa (Kenya: Evans Wadongo Listed Among Top Global Innovators By MIT)
Bonfire Heights (Use Solar, Save Lives - Top 10 CNN Hero 2010)
One.org (A personal approach to tackling energy poverty in Africa)
The Last Magazine (Evans Wadongo)
International Business Times (Kenyan Entrepreneur Fights Poverty, Shines Light On The New York City Art Scene)
LinkedIn (Evans Wadongo)