(IAP ’12) Emily Lo G

Emily is working with a team of students from MIT and Carnegie Mellon to establish the eLuma Development Center, which will bring electricity, entrepreneurship training, and a new marketplace to the village of Yele in Sierra Leone. This IAP, she will be partnering with the local community and the Lion Heart Foundation to begin construction. She will be training and working alongside local architects and construction workers on the first stages of the project, transforming recycled shipping containers into shops for the center’s first merchants.

Check back for updates on her and the team’s exciting progress. See the e-Luma blog for additional stories.


Update #5 / February 11, 2012 / Staying active, Boston to Yele

The Spring semester has started here in Boston, but I still find myself thinking of Yele often.  In an exciting recent development, one of our team members, Laila, moved to Sierra Leone to manage the project and be our eyes and ears on the ground.  I debriefed her the best I could before her departure, and hearing of her adventures in Yele remind me that the work and growth have just begun.

And yes, I have to keep remembering that this is just the beginning.  Before going to Yele, we had many high hopes about what we would accomplish.  We thought we would finish the construction of Phase 1 and have the first businesses ready for the eventual move.  But that’s easy to say when you’re 6,800 kilometers away.

While in Yele this IAP, we learned to be flexible with our expectations.  Yes, we didn’t complete Phase 1 as hoped, but we were able to complete the concrete foundation, site work, and have all 4 shipping containers placed.  By the time Anna left, the roof trusses and roof sheeting were being installed on site.  People in the village could see that e-Luma had a physical presence, which instilled a greater degree of trust with the community.  The general attitude towards new developments is, “That sounds great, but I’ll believe it when I see it.”  And now they could see it, which was really quite important.  It showed that we meant what we said, and opened more doors for conversations.

These conversations took place around tables with cold drinks in hand, on the construction site, in the middle of the street, under the awning of a local shop.  It was perhaps these discussions that became the most valuable part of our experience.  Yes, interviews and conversations are considered ‘work,’ but they are essentially relationship building.  During lulls in the construction process, Anna and I spent a few days walking around the village to speak with the local shop owners and other community members.  We essentially walked from store to store, carrying a brochure with a visual showing what e-Luma would look like and some details about the services we were providing.

Mr. Magee (pictured above) was one of these merchants.  He owns a shoe store, selling products that originate in China but travel through Freetown to Makeni (the nearest large ‘city’).  Every few weeks, he travels himself to Makeni to replenish his stock and see what new footwear is out there.  He received us with a smile and asked what we were doing, so we explained to him the project and asked him his thoughts.  He, like many others, had a tempered enthusiasm.  It seemed great, but what about his existing store?  How would he benefit?

Mr. Conteh was perhaps one of our sharper critics.  I had spoken with his son the day before about e-Luma, but came by the next day to see if his father – the proprietor – was around and to collect the shop application form.  I introduced myself and started explaining the project, but then he just cut me off and asked, “Stop.  What is the point of this?  What are you people trying to show me?  What is your intention?”  I then backtracked and realized that I needed to be more clear that e-Luma wanted to encourage both new and existing business owners to grow, not just get people to move into a new shopping center.  We eventually got along quite well, but it was this initial resistance that helped me both think through the potential pitfalls of the project and let him and others know that we heard what they were saying.  After all, this is about collaboration and we hope it will continue that way!  Mr. Conteh, Mr. Magee, Mr. Turey, Alex, Barrie, and others became familiar faces in the course of our trip.

Cecilia and Musa’s family – our adopted family – the day before I am to leave from Yele.

And we can’t forget our adopted family.  Cecilia and Musa own a small shop that doubles as their family home.  They sell items like cigarettes, mobile phone top ups, and stationary.  Last year, the e-Luma team worked with them to do a solar lighting pilot, and this trip we continued that pilot with a new type of solar light and a new business model of renting per day.  We visited them everyday to monitor the pilot, but in this time became fast friends.  They are a very smart family with some of the most beautiful kids in Yele!  They also took it upon themselves to teach us Temne, feed us Salone food, and attempt to braid (“plant”) our hair.  Who could ask for better treatment or more hospitality?

All in all, I wanted to express my gratitude to the PSC for giving me the opportunity to go to Yele.  I went expecting to complete a project, but what I got in return was much more than that: lessons learned about flexibility, patience, and collaboration, along with a healthy dose of good humor.  And to top it off, the experience came with an Salone family that I can’t wait to visit with and work alongside again.  Until the next time!

Update #4 / February 01, 2012 / The colors of e-Luma made live

e-Luma is now live in technicolor in Yele!

While in Yele, Paul, Anna, and I did a segment on the local radio station, 93.7 Radio Gbonkolenken. One of the DJs, Florence, interviewed us with questions about the purpose of e-Luma, who it would serve, and our timeline. We weren’t sure who would be listening in at almost 9pm on a Friday, but it ends up that there were many! The radio is one of the primary modes of entertainment and news in a region with few TVs and almost no access to the internet.

One of our first fans was Joseph Turey, who tracked us down on the roadside just to tell us how happy he was to hear about e-Luma. He is an artist from Yele but now working in Freetown as a freelancer for corporations like Nestle and for smaller clients as well, like one of the local bars here in Junction. He happened to be in town, painting a series of murals for a new motel, and wanted to get on board with offering his skills for e-Luma.

Joseph shows us what a final stage painting can look like at the motel

We met with him a few times, but weren’t sure if our project budget would cover the cost of custom painting for all the containers. We did need a sign, though. It was common to have a sign announcing a future development, and this would also help us keep the vision of e-Luma physically present even if our team members were abroad. With some negotiations, we reached an agreement with Joseph about painting a sign that would be present on the streetside. He gave us some preliminary sketches of his vision, which were cool evidence of how a local would interpret the project.

3 of e-Luma’s pillars: education, financial services, and community market

Ok, so we were sold. With the help of Don (our community partner supervisor), we were able to negotiate a feasible price and see how Joseph’s creative juices would really flow. And they did! We had confidence in his skills, but seeing the final result (sent to us by a LHF volunteer still on the ground) made me really really happy. Joseph had become a friend by the end of the trip, and now his work is part of e-Luma as well.


Update #3 / January 23, 2012 / “I de get you”

Sheika and Desmond look at my updated drawings of the roof and make comments on how to improve it.

A typical meeting in Yele often combines drinks and business, although sometimes business just has to take place where the business is – in our case, out on the construction site. Anna and I have been working most closely with Sheika and Desmond who are owner and architect (respectively) of the local construction business, KadShek Enterprise. Just about every single day, we touch base with them to see the work that is going on so far and to plan for the coming days. Since they have both been working in Yele for a few years now and are native Sierra Leoneans, they have been critical for the design process and in mobilizing people to get things done.

We came in with some design ideas in mind, but in every step of the way – from the foundation to the roof and now talking about the doors and windows for the containers – there has been quite a lot of back and forth to refine and transform what we thought would work into what they believe would also be attractive yet suitable for building in Yele. For instance, I knew about the rainy season in Sierra Leone and so Zahraa (the other e-Luma architect, staying State-side) had tried to take into account roof overhangs, assuming that the rain would come in the same direction as the typical northeastern winds. We were hoping that the roof would become the main design element with the most inventiveness to transform architecture in Yele. But of course, the weather doesn’t always cooperate according to meterological models, and what we dreamed up in Boston might not work when made a physical reality in Sierra Leone. Desmond pointed out that once the rain comes in June and July, it can fall from every direction and every angle.

Making notes about the first round of mock-up trusses – the first round of 2 or 3 more to come.

Together we made some full-scale mock ups of the roof truss to see, in real life, what it would look like on the containers. The concept of making iterations or repeated design modifications isn’t part of the traditional construction process, so it was interesting to try and convey the idea that it takes a few tries and prototypes to get it right.

It has also been cool to involve more people in the design process and feel like everyone’s input is important. One day last week, Anna and I were back at the LHF compound for lunch, and Sheika just rushed in unannounced saying, “I have an idea about the roof! Where is a pen?” He quickly grabbed my notebook and started sketching, and promptly said, “Ok now here, you draw it good.” I redrew his sketch to get the proportions right and to understand his idea, and we agreed that this was a good direction. Remembering this makes me laugh because it was the first time I realized that this process wasn’t only fun for us, but that this was also an opportunity for him and the others to be creative. Eventually we came up with a final design that would work with the local climate and local skills, but that also was different enough to maybe inspire some new design thinking.

That’s why the phrase “I de get you” comes to mind. It is Krio – a more general local language, often called broken English – for “I get you” or “I understand you.” Little by little – small small – we’re starting to understand each other and move on the same page.

Update #2 / January 18, 2012 / Emergence of e-Luma

The e-Luma site as we first saw it

Most of the land here in Yele is completely covered by bush – palm trees, impenetrable bushes, and probably a snake or two. It’s amazing to hear how fast plants grow: if not maintained, any cleared land quickly becomes overgrown in a matter of weeks. It was, then, a pleasant but strange surprise to see the e-Luma site for the first time, cleared and flattened in preparation for new development.

The land is located between the primary and secondary schools, right near the main Junction. In the time since the first photo, we broke ground and the concrete foundation and slab were laid and poured with the help of 73 men from the local area. Maybe the new saying should be that it takes a village to build new foundations… This is one of the first projects I’m working on where I’m not doing the physical building myself, which gives me a strange inactive feeling but I guess this is not the point of this trip or this project. If I could come in with a whole team and we did the building ourselves, then what would be the real purpose of e-Luma? Better to provide jobs for people who need them and leave each to do the work they are most effective to do.

Workers mix concrete directly on site for the foundations

We had hoped the next step in the process – the move of the shipping containers – would happen before we arrived in Yele, but we soon discovered that red tape and money both run deep in Sierra Leone. There is one machine – a side-loader crane truck – that is able to move 40 foot containers throughout the country, and it would become only available in Yele if it were moving a container here for the NGO. It was like waiting for Christmas – seemed so close, yet constantly so far away!

The containers were supposed to be moved on site last Saturday, but another customs delay moved that date to Wednesday. Finally, though, we have 2 containers on site! The side-loader shifted 6 tons of steel, driving across some of the bumpiest dirt roads to the site and its concrete foundations. Community members have been coming by to see what has been going on, and we’re getting more questions about e-Luma and the opportunities it will bring. Mostly, though, kids flock around and yell “opoto!”* at us whenever they see a foreign face.

The two containers flanking e-Luma

Yesterday Anna and I spent 3 hours in the Junction, talking with local shop owners about e-Luma and handing out application forms. Despite our lacking Temne skills, we managed to get our point across with pictures and images (thanks to technology like Photoshop and Illustrator to make brochures and renderings). Many were very receptive to the idea of a place for both electricity and new business opportunities, so the conversations were long but productive. We also could see in more detail how people currently configure their shops – how they display their products, what they like about their shops, and what they don’t like. Their survey feedback was valuable for discovering what shopowners and customers actually need and want out of a new marketplace, and so I hope that the e-Luma design will serve their needs.

* opoto = “white man” or foreigner

Update #1 / January 08, 2012 / The heart of Sierra Leone

The Junction, which is the main intersection and center of commercial life in the village of Yele.

Sekke* from the heart of Sierra Leone! Although this is the e-Luma team’s 3rd day, we can already see clear evidence that 2012 will be an exciting and e-luminating one for the people of Yele – and for those of us who are fortunate enough to be here and witness the activity.

For the month of January, I and e-Luma team members Anna Delgado (G TPP) and Paul van der Boor (G ______) are here in the rural village of Yele, working with the local community and the Lion Heart Foundation (LHF) in the building of a community development center. The e-Luma Development Center (EDC) is a marketplace that will act not only as a focal point for commercial activity, but also be the key [location] for distributing the village’s first taste of electricity and providing essential entrepreneurship for economic growth.

When I first got involved with the project in the Spring of 2011, I had to look hard to find Yele on the map. It barely shows up on the road between the capitol of Freetown and the eastern mining towns like Bo, but it is locally known as the symbolic center of the country. Yele is a village of about 4,000 residents who form a tight-knit community. It, like much of Sierra Leone, has struggled with recovery since the country’s 11-year civil war destroyed much of the existing infrastructure – in particular, its energy resources.

Most of the villagers burn kerosene lamps or rely on lights with rechargeable battery power, both of which force them to keep spending their daily income on disposable and expensive fuels. Our community partner, the Lion Heart Foundation, had been working many years to rebuild the area’s hydropower plant in order to provide a more robust and sustainable power source. The group’s first members were involved with this process, and the reconstruction eventually led to the question: “What more can electricity do for a village like Yele?”

Our answer? e-Luma.

Ok, this is not the only answer – but the use of electricity for productive activities contributing to local economic development seemed like the most compelling reason for the team to start a center like e-Luma. “Luma” is the Krio word for “market,” and the “e” infuses the place with education, electricity, and entrepreneurship. Four of our team members were in Yele last summer, asking the local merchants about what they wanted or wished they could change about their current business spaces, and their feedback has contributed to making e-Luma really meaningful and beneficial to the people it will serve.

Anna and I at the site where e-Luma will rise from the ground.

So, what is a petite Chinese lady doing in the middle of the Sierra Leonean bush? My role is to oversee the project design along with another architecture student, working with the local architect and contractor to make e-Luma a physical reality. The task for this January is to complete a significant portion of Phase 1, which is a starter market made out of recycled shipping containers for e-Luma’s first 8 to 10 shop owners. Because this is our proof-of-concept, we saw it best to use our – and the community’s – resources wisely and see how people like it before launching into an intense construction project.

Recycled shipping containers are an ideal starter infrastructure because of their local availability, modularity, and affordability in Yele. LHF and other NGOs use them to import essential supplies like medicines, but can’t afford to have them removed. We have seen examples of successful container shops in other parts of Sierra Leone like Freetown and Makeni, and their robustness and easy modification lend them to be prime candidates for local invention.

The construction is already on its way, so come back for more updates. Also check out the e-Luma blog (www.e-Luma.org/blog) for additional info and fun thoughts on the trip.


* Speak like a Yele native

sekke = “hello” in the local Temne language

momo = “thank you”

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