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Bringing sunshine to powerless town

A Ugandan town that is unplugged is about to turn the power back on thanks to some Coquitlam volunteers.

A Ugandan town that is unplugged is about to turn the power back on thanks to some Coquitlam volunteers.

Megin Alvarez and Malcolm Trevena, organizers with a Tri-City group called Meaningful Volunteer, have raised more than $2,000 to pay for a solar panel that will be used in the construction of a school in the rural town of Buyaya and will bring enough juice to power eight laptop computers.

"It is unbelievable," Alvarez said. "It just goes to show you that anybody that is willing to try and help out can do it. People just come on board with something that is positive."

While cables do connect the town to Uganda's power grid, electricity is scarce and expensive. One thing the equatorial country does not lack, however, is sun.

Alvarez believes that once the school is built, it will become a hub for the entire community. Laptop computers will be connected to the internet, linking a town that lacks paved roads and a proper sewer system with the rest of the world.

Buyaya's electricity problem first came to the attention of Alvarez and Trevena when they launched their Mama Pamba program, an initiative that helped Ugandan women receive training and material to manufacture fair-trade clothing items.

There was just one problem: only pedal-operated sewing machines could be acquired because the town had no means to power electrical devices.

That is when the lightbulb turned on for Alvarez and Meaningful Volunteer began the process of acquiring the solar panels. Earlier this week, Trevena left with the panel in hand and Alvarez said she will be joining him in Uganda next month.

Once the town is connected, it will dramatically improve the education of the community's people, Alvarez said. A lack of literate adults is a major problem in Buyaya and Meaningful Volunteer is launching several computer training programs and other classes.

Each night, the panel will be brought down from the roof of the school and kept indoors in order to deter thieves. But a battery system could still be used to power electrical devices long after the sun has gone down, Alvarez said.

If the solar panel initiative is a success, she believes it could spread to other communities in Africa and beyond. There is already a town in Nepal that has approached the Meaningful Volunteer organization about bringing a panel there.

"We are taking notes on what works and what doesn't work," she said. "We have made lots of mistakes but we are learning from them and we are going to share what we have."

For more information about the program and Meaningful Volunteer, go to