Today we say goodbye to the island. We still have some research we did not yet share with you here, but we hope to catch up on that in the coming days.
We had some really good times here, and met some wonderful people. And for sure we will miss working on the beach.
Last Friday we rented a boat to go out onto Lake Victoria in search of water hyacinth. In the villages and areas we were able to access by road, water hyacinth is more of a seasonal problem being carried in by the wind. So we had to go out into more inaccessible areas and lagoons where water hyacinth is truly a plague.
Andrew and Kajuna get our pea-green boat ready.
Happy faces on the boat!
After almost an hour of cruising, we finally had our first water hyacinth sighting. As we approached the area, we could already spot a lot of water hyacinth floating around us.
And finally, we reached the small bay that was full of water hyacinth.
Apparently it also makes a good home for lots of birds and assorted insects. Don’t be fooled by how pretty it all looks, water hyacinth is a serious problem for Lake Victoria. It consumes a lot of oxygen, can trap and kill fish, and in large amounts can even trap boats. Even when cut, it reproduces in less than 4 days. This is clearly a problem for locals, but could be a good asset to our project, which needs a constant supply of water hyacinth to keep the biodigester running.
We also picked one up to take home. Say hello to our pet water hyacinth, Stuart!
Last Thursday we headed back to Nakatiba for a workshop with some of the men of the village. Unfortunately, there was some pretty heavy rain for most of the day, which made our lives a little more difficult.
Even more so as life tends to grind to a halt during rainfall here, particularly in such small villages.
Nevertheless, we managed to get a short interview with the Luvules. They are the owners of St. Luke Fishing Company, who own all of the boats in the village and also sell the fish caught by all of the fishermen here. They do not charge rent for the boats, but pay the fishermen based on their catch, which makes fishing a pretty competitive business in this small community.
They live a pretty comfortable life, spending the weekdays running their business on the island and the weekends in Kampala. Even so, they are not able to have electricity in their home as the mini-grid does not extend to the village, and have to make use of a generator which consumes a large amount of (expensive) diesel.
Despite the weather, we also managed to gather a small group of men for a workshop, focusing mostly on the technical aspects of energy and batteries in particular.
We were able to get a clear picture of their understanding of batteries, how they perceive energy in general and their current needs. Also in attendance was Aziz Kisa, the village technician, who was the most knowledgeable about energy issues. However, he did not have much expertise regarding batteries. Some had already used them for a while before abandoning the idea due to charging problems, but with no awareness of the proper treatment or maintenance required for optimum performance. There was even one participant who saw one for the first time during the workshop.
The most worrying aspect of car batteries is their disposal, and we were pretty horrified to hear that Aziz, the technician disposed of his by cutting off the top, taking out the lead for re-use and simply pouring the acid out onto the ground.
After the workshop, we found out that all the mobile networks were down due to the heavy rain, so we experienced some slight panic followed by extreme boredom while we waited for things to go back to normal and call for our ride to come and pick us up.
All in all a pretty fruitful day, despite the difficult circumstances.
Women of Lutoboka
On Wednesday, we went into Lutoboka to talk to the women there and hopefully invite them to a workshop later on in the day. We decided to tackle men and women separately based on our observations until now, and felt that this would allow them to speak more freely.
We started by stopping at the Nazareth Primary School, the only one in the village, where we were received with great enthusiasm (and even several songs)
We also took this opportunity to talk to Joyce, the teacher/owner/principal/everything of the small community-built school, and invited her to our workshop. We continued to walk around, approaching women with some questions, mainly about their homes, their energy use and their daily lives here.
We had also developed a few basic methods to make it easier for them to talk about their lives, but these turned out to be not-so-successful. The tools we had prepared served more to distract them from the questions at hand. Also, they were all rather open about their lives in the village and the challenges they face, so after one or two tries we learnt our lesson and abandoned our tools for a more no-frills approach.
Among many other things, we saw that people use firewood and charcoal for cooking. Firewood is preferred by some as it is for free, but charcoal is seen as the cleaner (and more costly) alternative. Radios are also extremely popular here, though many cannot afford the initial investment, or the weekly replacement of the two D sized batteries they consume. Similarly, battery lights are also used, but many cannot afford them and prefer to make use of cheaper kerosene lamps or candles instead.
During our research, Daniel had to be a ghost for a day, usually making new friends while we did our interviews.
We managed to get three of the women to attend our workshop, from different ages, professions and backgrounds. We started off by telling them a little about ourselves and our families and offered them pepernoten (!). In the end, we had a relaxed and fascinating chat about life in the community and their concerns for the future. Thank you ladies for a great afternoon!
On Tuesday, we went to the offices of Uganda Electricity Distribution Company, who are a government body in charge of running the generator which feeds the mini-grid currently on the island. We talked with Amos, who is the manager there and shared with us their experiences from the past as well as their plans for the future.
The generator is currently running on diesel, and was already there when the company took over the electricity distribution 6 years ago. They are now having a lot of problems with the poor performance of the generator, which makes the electricity supply unreliable, even though you may be connected to the grid. Their intent is to supply 15 hours of electricity per day, but right now they are barely able to cope with 5 hours (between 6 pm and 11 pm)
They will be installing a second generator, which they are now trying to assemble with parts coming in from the mainland. Amos also informed us of the government’s plans to connect the islands to the mainland grid within the next years, via an underwater power line. He reported a lot of problems with subscriptions. Many people do not have a regular income, and therefore are not connected at all. Those which can be connected are reluctant to pay, and often the company is forced to cut off their power in order to receive any money at all. Banking is also not common among villagers, making transactions even more difficult.
We also learnt something quite shocking about the island (no pun intended) The particular composition of the soil on the island does not conduct electricity well. This creates a problem during thunderstorms - when lightning strikes, the electricity cannot pass through the soil and therefore stays on the ground. This is not only harmful for the electrical equipment, but obviously also for the inhabitants of the island.
After Nakatiba, we travelled to Mwena, another fishing village on the island. It was quite similar to Nakatiba, apart from a few unique features.
Mwena is especially important for us as it is home to the only fish processing facility on the island. This would be where you expect to see fish waste in bulk, as it is the place where fish would be collected, cleaned and transported for sale.
The strange part is that the facilities were built in 2006, fully equipped, but have actually never been used. There is a huge capacity and potential here, with generators to power refrigeration (the fridges have a capacity of two tonnes!) but the money that has been invested here is just deteriorating with time.
The reason for the lack of use is the fact that there is simply not enough fish to warrant opening and running the facilities. The fish population of Lake Victoria has become a problem in recent years due to overfishing, particularly with illegal methods.
Mwena is also special as it acts as a kind of ‘port’ to other islands. We ran into Sam, who was taking goods which had arrived there from Masaka (on the mainland) through Mwena across to another island.
Trip to Nakatiba
On Monday, we took a long and bumpy ride out to Nakatiba village.
We had a special favour from the Deputy District Commissioner, Dominic Tibasiimwa (Thank you!) who lent us his car and driver for the day, complete with guard + AK47.
Nakatiba is a remote fishing village, which makes the conditions quite different to Lutoboka where we are staying. Men rent fishing boats to go out into the lake and are the main breadwinners of their home. Women are mostly involved in housework, but some also farm or run small shops.
We first talked to Henry, a fisherman in the village. He showed us his home, introduced us to his family and then helped us to get to know the village.
They have LED lights, powered by 1.5V batteries and a radio. The radio uses 10 (smaller) batteries, which cost too much so they can only afford to listen to the radio on weekends or special occasions.
The authority figure of the village is the village chairman. He unfortunately was not present, but we were able to talk to his wife. It is difficult to get accurate data about the village as people are moving around a lot, but she informed us that there were between 260 and 300 households in the village. We also found out that there is a public announcement system in the village, and sharing something over the megaphone will cost you 1000 Ugandan Shillings (around 0.25 euros)
The village also has a technician, Aziz Kisa (far left on the photo below) who has a small shop where he works. He is self-taught and owns a generator which he uses to charge cell phones. However, since fuel is too expensive, he first collects all of the phones and charges them all at the same time, once a week.
We also got the chance to talk with a local entrepreneur, Dickson, who runs the TV hall of the village. These are common in villages here, a small shared room with a TV, powered by a generator. In Nakatiba, this housed two televisions, a sound system and also was used for charging phones. Dickson charges 300 Ugandan shillings a head for a movie, and 1000 Ugandan shillings for football games. He has one employee who is paid on a commission basis. Dickson also supplements his income with other activities such as mowing the grass.
We learnt a lot in Nakatiba, and we will be heading back there tomorrow for some more detailed interviews and a workshop with the locals. We also stopped by another village, Mwena, on our way back that day - stay tuned.
We’ve already visited the site for the future digester + generator + battery charging station here on the island. It’s only fenced off at the moment, but it’s good to see things starting to take shape already.
We have been spending a lot of time talking to locals, visiting villages and trying to get an idea of how energy is being used at the moment, and the potential for car batteries as a source of electricity for households. A few days ago, we did some informal interviews in Lutoboka village. Lutoboka village is the closest settlement to the ferry landing and to all the touristic resorts - it also happens to be where our accommodation is. This part of the island is relatively more developed, and they are also connected to a mini-grid running on a diesel generator. However, their electricity supply is still unreliable, which creates potential for car batteries as a backup system for the times when the mini-grid is offline.
One of these interviews was with Kajuna (top picture) who lives with his wife and four children. They make use of batteries as an electricity source, but report problems with the lack of a reliable charging system on the island. Batteries have to travel to Masaka on the mainland, usually handed over to someone else and thıs leads to batteries getting lost or stolen on the way, or coming back not fully charged as they are unable to supervise this process themselves. Their main uses for electricity are lighting, TV and charging their cell phones.
We also talked to Robert (second photo) who owns the local bar/disco* and had invested in a solar charging system for batteries. He actually set up a charging business, for phones and cell (not car) batteries and was able to make a good business out of it, charging up to 40 phones and 40 batteries per day. Unfortunately though he had a problem with his inverter after 7 months, and was unable to find someone to repair it on the island. This meant having to bring in a technician from Masaka (on the mainland and a considerable distance away) and get it fixed, only to have it break down again. He told us that electricity from the mini-grid they are currently connected to is not sufficient - this runs on a diesel generator between 6 pm and 11 pm. And despite technical problems with maintenance, he did state that solar power was cheaper and easier to maintain relative to other alternatives (i.e. biogas)
* - it seems a bit off to talk about bars at the bottom of the pyramid, but Ugandans really value having a good time, and even the poorest of villages here has a bar and a steady supply of alcoholic beverages.