The Mwangaza Project: Bringing Light to Darkness in Africa


Two years ago, I fell in love with a small solar light known as the “Pico”. It is the size of a fat cookie—lamp on one side, two postage stamp-sized batteries on the other. Hang it outside in sunlight for a few hours and it will provide up to 72 hours of nocturnal illumination. Attach a cord to an opening in the frame, and the Pico can be worn around the neck, freeing up the hands. Attach the Pico to its stiff wire stand and it provides enough light for 2-4 children to read and do their homework at night. By replacing the toxic kerosene wick candle, the Pico saves the household nearly $1 a week in fuel costs, while liberating family members from chronic lung ailments and eye inflammation. To the village client, this miraculous solar revolution sells for only $4, pays itself in four weeks, and thereafter becomes a savings account that grows by $4 a month.

Since Peace Corps service in 1962, I’ve spent 57 years in the poverty alleviation business. It’s clearly my purpose in life. But, when I discovered the Pico, I realized this was the least expensive, most instantly effective, and most rapidly massifiable poverty alleviation breakthrough ever created. And, since 70 percent of the world’s severe poverty exists in Africa, that is where I decided to focus my efforts, starting in Uganda.

In March 2018, I spent a month in Uganda. There, I had the enormous luck of hiring a Ugandan professional, Christopher Musoke, as my guide, driver, translator and full-fledged partner. We spent 20 days visiting all regions and districts of Uganda, logging over 3,000 km in Christopher’s 4-wheel Toyota truck, fondly nicknamed “The Beast.” Our focus was on Uganda’s 1.3 million organized rural poor—self-managed rural savings groups, predominantly women. We showed hundreds of these women the Pico and they showed enthusiastic interest. Previously working as a consultant to CARE, Save the Children, Foster, CRS and other promoters of rural savings groups, Christopher Musoke was undoubtedly one of the best known and knowledgeable professionals in the country.

In late September 2018, I returned to Uganda to launch our Pico project. Musoke came up with its name—The Mwangaza Project—which means “light” in Swahili. As luck would have it, Uganda has a cluster of private sector Economic Development Cooperatives, chartered by the UN to reach the poorest. Each of these agencies has an outreach of 150,000-300,000 rural households connected to the savings group movement. Musoke worked with and was respected by all of them. We decided to work with them as Mwangaza’s partners.

I finished a second one-month visit to Uganda earlier this year. In its first five months (October 2018 to February 2019) the Mwangaza project has experienced soaring demand, distributing 12,000 Picos to as many rural households, with an estimated total beneficiary population (at least 5 members per family) of 60,000. Here are some of the most common comments from Mwangaza’s clients:

“For the first time my family can see their food and fingers when we eat our supper.”

My children share the light to do their homework and are doing better in school.

“The Pico is wonderful for the elderly; they can safely do ‘short call’ and ‘long call’ at night.”

“I often use the Pico to search for my missing goat that hasn’t returned by nightfall.”

“I’m no longer buying kerosene and that saves us about 30,000 shillings a month.”

I love living in brightness.

“I sell more from my shop because people see the light and come buy from me.”

“We keep the Pico on all night long because it scares away rats and snakes.”

With the kerosene light, we used to worry about our house burning down, or our children getting burned. Not anymore.

“I’m so proud we live in a bright house. We feel more prosperous.”

Blessed with the cooperation of seven partner agencies and nationwide presence, the Mwangaza Project has proved it can grow quickly, but only as quickly as its ability to raise funds. Now averaging 2,000 clients per month, our inventory purchases are running $12,000 per month. Our partner agencies are clamoring for increased stocks.

If you are interested in supporting the Mwangaza Project, contact Colleen Zakrewsky, Senior Vice President, Business Development & External Relations, at [email protected].