Here comes the sun.

In the northeastern corner of Benin, miles away from the grid of electricity, the two rural villages of Bessassi and Dunkassa are beginning to see the light of progress, thanks to an innovative, solar-powered drip irrigation system installed by the Solar Electric Light Fund. A Solar Market Garden was installed in late 2007 and it’s changed the lives of the 10,000 people who live in the two villages, particularly the women and girls who are responsible for agriculture (and carrying water from the river, miles away).

Benin children with distended bellies characteristic of kwashiorkor (malnutrition).

In this poor, dry part of Benin, rain comes only six months a year, meaning that in the dry season food is scarce, hauling water is a full-time job, and life is very hard. With just $18,000 invested in equipment, including a 1.2 kW solar array that powers the pump only during the day (no batteries are needed to store the energy), the Solar Market Garden has dramatically improved both nutrition and income, as the women now can produce enough food to feed their families and sell in the market, earning an extra $7.50/week! And the girls, freed from hauling water, can go to school.

The fields of Kalale today.

But this is just the tip of the sunbeam  – because the Solar Electric Light Fund has made a commitment to a solar electrification project for the entire Kalale District of 100,000 people – with 42 other villages like Bessassi and Dunkassa waiting to come on line. SELF’s plan is to generate solar electricity for Solar Market Gardens as well as for schools, health, clinics, clean water, street lighting, wireless internet access and micro-enterprise centers. The first step is food – but the pilot program has proven to be highly successful, with a payback period of less than three years compared to the use of diesel. In fact, SELF’s Benin Project was just named one of three winners (out of 268 entries from 67 countries) in the Women/Tools/Technology Challenge sponsored by Ashoka’s Changemakers and ExxonMobil.

SELF is an amazing organization that for 20 years has committed to lift people out of energy poverty and bring power to the 2 billion people living without electricity. Working in complex, multi-disciplinary international projects in the U.S., Africa, Asia and Latin America, SELF partners with global innovators like Partners In Health and ICRISAT –in the belief that energy is a human right.

I love solar energy, particularly in light of what’s happening in the Gulf, and I can’t wait to write more about my SELF. But for today, I’m sending $100 to support the Benin project… Grow, women, grow! 

To join me in donating, click here.