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Works That Work, No.2,

A Hole in the Darkness

by Suzanne Wales (1534 words)

Even a simple portable lamp has the potential to improve people’s lives, but only if it is introduced with respect for their culture.

When visitors come to Africa they can suddenly find themselves ‘cracked open’, as the British writer and expert on Africa Richard Dowden so eloquently put it. One of the reasons is that life’s basic demands become more immediate: everyday acts such as work, celebration and education depend on the availability of essentials such as water, light and food, items whose acquisition, at least in the vast rural areas, is rarely straightforward.

This was certainly the experience of Matteo Ferroni, an Italian architect who first visited Mali in 2010. At the time in a relationship with a Malian singer, he went with the intention of building an open-air theatre in the village-nucleus near Segou (ML)Segou, 235km (146 mi.) northeast of Mali’s capital Bamako. Almost immediately he noticed that villagers did not follow Western sleeping patterns. Instead, they would sleep for many hours during the heat of the day and would often get up to work in the middle of the long night (Mali’s night-times average 12 hours), relying on dangerous petrol lanterns and cheap battery-operated torches for illumination. He also observed how these rural societies consisted of networks of collectives defined by traditional cultural roles: women, young people, agricultural workers, story tellers, healers and so on. Possessions and land were not owned by individuals but shared within these social structures, and any innovation Ferroni could offer would also have to function within the context of the community for the common good.

Women gather at the village fountain, which is supplied by a remote pump for one hour each morning and evening. Such exclusively female gatherings are an important source of empowerment for the women, a forum for them to share information and build community. (Photo: Matteo Ferroni)

These observations formed the backbone of a new project. ‘The idea occurred to me straight away,’ says Ferroni from his home in Umbria, Italy, having just made a return trip to Mali. This idea was, in essence, a simply constructed, transportable light post. The principal materials are largely re-purposed items: a bicycle wheel, a water pipe, an aluminium stand, a solar panel and a 15-watt rechargeable LED module, the only piece that needs to be imported. The water pipe becomes the lamp’s telescopic post, while the bicycle wheel provides portability, one of the design’s main assets. Constructing the unit can take a couple of days or months, depending on the availability of materials and the disposition of the local craftsmen.

As simple as the design is, it has many cultural and developmental ramifications. In the spirit of the communal society, the lamp is designed to illuminate human activities, not public places, the very concept of which is absent in the local culture.

For all of the lamp’s obvious design merits, Ferroni didn’t want his invention to be a commodity, but rather a benefit to all the people he made it for. He set up a foundation, eLand, and together with local authorities and volunteer organisations carried out an in-depth study of the work and social habits of rural Malians living off the lighting grid. They discovered (perhaps not surprisingly) that it’s the female and youth collectives that bear the brunt of the work. Women strengthen the village unit through polygamous marriages, entrepreneurship and education, whilst young people pick up technical expertise during their visits to the urban centres. Camaraderie prevails over competitiveness in both groups as individuals strive to contribute to the community.

When a women’s collective first encounters a Foroba Yelen portable lamp, reactions can range from suspicion to curiosity to delight. Lamps are owned by these associations, which elect a committee to manage and allocate the lamps within the community. (Photo: Matteo Ferroni)

A portable Foroba Yelen lamp provides light for a literacy class traditionally run by the village’s ton. The class is for working children and adult women; girls, who often are not sent to school, are the ones who benefit most. (Photo: Matteo Ferroni)

Female and youth collectives were made responsible for the success of the project, which the women themselves named Foroba Yelen, which means ‘common good’. Young people learn how to construct the lamppost at eLand’s Atelier Luminaire (light workshop), take care of the solar charging panel and spare parts, and communicate progress to the foundation via email. Women on the other hand are entrusted with the lamps’ ownership. They create a common fund to buy the lights at a heavily subsidised price, then nominate a group of eight custodians who are in charge of maintenance, recharging and hiring them out to other villages and collectives. Foroba Yelen is in great demand for celebrations such as weddings, baptisms and funerals, the last of which are always carried out at night due to Mali’s high temperatures. But it also lights up milling, bathing, childbirth or any one of African life’s immediate demands. The extra income earned by the women is tremendously empowering and has led to an increase in literary classes, health checks and other activities that couldn’t previously be carried out in the still of the night.

Beef butchered and offered for sale by the village ton (youth collective). Because of the climate, butchering must be done quickly and at night. In the space of a few hours the youths slaughter the bull, portion the meat and call the villagers together by megaphone. The money raised supports the ton’s collective activities, including ceremonies, literacy classes, road repairs and mosque maintenance. (Photo: Matteo Ferroni)

The LED creates a circle of light, a night-time counterpoint to the circle of shade cast by a tree, which is a traditional work and meeting place in rural Mali.

‘I was nearly in tears when I saw how well the project was going,’ continues Ferroni. ‘Whilst I was there it was used for three funerals, vaccinating chickens and the butchering of a cow, something that before was done by flashlight.’ Presently, 56 Foroba Yelen lampposts are in use across 12 villages. The goal is to reach ten more villages before an impact study is carried out by the University of Barcelona. His ultimate aim is for the project to be replicated by NGOs and developmental organisations, and certainly in West Africa, where collective communities are commonplace, it’s a viable option.

At €240 the lamppost is cheap compared to ‘fixed’ solar street lamps, and the LED unit accounts for 70% of the cost. Because the latter is such a key element, Ferroni worked together with Nadlec LLC to develop a special model that casts a glow demarcated by sharp shadows, inviting people to enter, interact and exit again. ‘The villagers call it “a hole in the darkness”,’ says Ferroni, adding that the next steps are to try to get the LEDs manufactured inside Mali, and to adapt the design to pirogues, the long, narrow boats used by local fishermen. Not just a product design, Foroba Yelen is a process that incorporates local craftsmen. ‘With the model for fishermen we will be adding a canoe-maker to the chain.’

The Foroba Yelen project is run by Fondazione eLand with ADM Faso Gnetaà with the support of Haus der Kulturen der Welt.

Suzanne Wales is an Australian writer based in Barcelona. Having lived in rural West Africa, she has seen what a handicap a lack of a dependable light source can be.

This article comes from Works That Work magazine, No.2.
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