One of the project's aims has been to use locally available components and manufacturing techniques to make the turbines so the locals could build more of them on their own. "This ensures sustainability and stimulates the local economy instead of importing foreign-made components," says Benjamin Koons, 22, a Thayer student set to graduate in March. "HELP could add a fresh way of looking at hydro projects in the area, driven by locally available materials and labor as opposed to small efficiency gains and profits."
The students point out in their blog (which was closed to the public earlier this month due to complaints from some of Rwanda's ministers) that there are areas of the country already using small hydroelectric turbines, but that those machines cost as much as $4,000 per kilowatt to produce energy, a hefty sum for people here, where the average annual income is $260. The Thayer team's ultimate goal is to develop systems that can reduce that cost to less than $500 per kilowatt by using local parts and labor instead of expensive foreign parts that are tough to come by in this rural pocket.
The hope is that Banda will serve as a proof of concept and encourage the building of additional hydropower turbines throughout Africa, which is heavily reliant on kerosene for lighting. Africans consume nearly 3.8 million tons of kerosene annually, making it a significant contributor to climate change-causing greenhouse gas emissions, according to a report by the students.
The Thayer students anticipate the annual cost to run the hydroenergy turbines—including purchasing batteries and compact fluorescent bulbs—will be about $50 per family. Banda families are already paying between $50 and $60 a year for kerosene, "making our system very competitive with kerosene lighting, while providing a much higher quality light," Brand says. "Furthermore, the cost of kerosene is tied to the cost of oil, which will probably rise in the future."
African countries have been the recipients in recent years of a number of low-tech gadgets designed to improve education, provide access to clean water, and protect people there from disease. London-based Pump Aid (a charity formed by three teachers living and working in rural Zimbabwe) developed the $740 Elephant water pump to help villagers gain access to clean water as well as the Elephant toilet, an outhouse sans plumbing that can be constructed using a slab of concrete and other readily available materials for about $30.
Vestergaard Frandsen Group, a Switzerland-based philanthropy organization, makes a number of basic technologies targeting Africa, including the LifeStraw (a powder blue plastic tube with filters that clears typhoid-, cholera- and diarrhea-causing microorganisms from water); ZeroFly (a sheet of plastic laminated with insecticide used to create temporary shelters); and PermaNet (an insecticide-treated curtain that protects against disease-carrying insects). Meanwhile, South Africa's Freeplay Foundation, a group that promotes access to radio broadcasting in remote pockets of Africa, offers communities in Rwanda and elsewhere its Lifeline radio, which is recharged by winding a spring-loaded handle.