Exploring Social Return on Investment (SROI) of the Business of Energy in Uganda

Experiencing The World Fellowships

What began last October as an effort to explore a long time interest in sustainable energy and take advantage of the opportunities at Notre Dame quickly developed into far more than I could have imagined. Only months later, I found myself stepping out of a plane in Entebbe, Uganda with an unforgettable summer ahead of me. Throughout the course of the following eight weeks, I was fortunate enough to explore and embrace the unbelievable beauty of the “Pearl of Africa,” connect and engage with the Fort Portal and Uganda Martyrs University communities, and gain a much more realistic understanding of human development issues. Although immersion in a completely unfamiliar environment and culture was challenging at times, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to engage with exploratory research this early in my undergraduate studies.

In the modern world, access to reliable energy is crucial for economic development. To put my field project in perspective, Uganda, where only 15 percent of the national population has access to energy, is consistently ranked as one of the lowest energy consumers per capita in the world. Although numerous efforts to improve this situation are underway, the proliferation of an imported energy economy is stifling a sustainable transition from a developing status to a developed status by boosting the nation’s dependence on foreign parties. Uganda, and many other developing countries, face a multifaceted energy challenge: meeting the basic energy demands of millions of people, following a global trend towards clean energy, and avoiding any potentially harmful dependence on foreign nations.

This summer, I worked with Empower Energy Design, through Dr. Abigail Mechtenberg and the Energy and Sustainable Development (ESD) Research Lab, to explore the growing business of energy in Uganda and gather data for the ESD Lab’s ongoing SROI research. Empower Energy Design seeks to work with Ugandan communities through energy education, training, co-design, and development. Rather than functioning as a non-profit that “serves” others, the organization recognizes the potential of the engineers, technicians, and entrepreneurs in Uganda and aims to facilitate homegrown development from the bottom-up. While in country, I participated in local educational programs, conducted market research with an administrator from Mountains of the Moon University, and worked with a pioneering sustainable energy team at Uganda Martyrs University to co-design and build locally sourced energy systems.

I spent the first few days in Kampala, Uganda’s capital and most active city, where I and two other ESD research students, Brady McLaughlin and Doyinsade Awodele, were given a remarkable opportunity to familiarize ourselves with big city life in Uganda. Luckily, Doyinsade had been in country for two weeks at the time and was more than comfortable escorting Brady and I on day-long walking expeditions throughout the restless metropolitan area. While in Kampala, highlights included our first traditional Ugandan meal, our first Ugandan Catholic mass, and a tour of the Uganda National Mosque. This first week was not only unforgettable, but also gave me a wonderful introduction to Ugandan culture that certainly shaped the remainder of my field project.

After an exciting trip across the country in a matatu – a minibus taxi that our driver filled with excess people, rice, and even a live chicken – Brady and I were quickly welcomed to Fort Portal by Mr. Deo Baguma, Mr. Patrick Nyakoojo, and Fr. John Makanda, Ugandan colleagues who all played integral roles in my summer experience. Throughout the remaining seven weeks in country, I spent the majority of my days at Uganda Martyrs University working with Mr. Baguma, Mr. Nyakoojo, and many other Ugandan engineers and technicians to co-design, build, and test locally sourced and constructed energy devices. These devices included everything from a human-powered bicycle generator to a wind turbine to a concentrated solar power trough. My absolute favorite part about this portion of my field project was the opportunity to work side-by-side with power systems students at the University to build a bicycle generator. It was incredibly humbling to experience the work behind producing electricity, something our own society often takes for granted.

Beyond my and Brady’s involvement at Uganda Martyrs University, I also partnered with Mr. Eric Sekitoleko, an administrator at Mountains of the Moon University and collaborator of Dr. Mechtenberg, to conduct market research regarding commercial energy consumption trends. Initially, we interviewed local vendors, who sold imported diesel generators and solar panels, to investigate the capital and operational costs of imported energy devices. We later refocused our efforts towards Ugandan businesses – including restaurants, grocery stores, bars, hotels, printer shops, and barber shops – to interview managers and examine the business’ daily power load, primary power source, and backup source. This interview process was not only challenging, but also opened my eyes to the value of local partnership. Many of the managers were often skeptical of our intentions and the data undoubtedly would have been altered, or even not provided, had Mr. Sekitoleko not been present to introduce our project and gain their respect.

Although my day-to-day work provided a structured framework through which I was able to experience Uganda, undeniably more valuable was the opportunity to live in Fort Portal. On a weekly basis, Brady and I would take a boda-boda (motorcycle taxi) into town to eat out at local restaurants, visit the Mpanga market to buy fresh produce, play billiards and soccer with locals, or attend English mass at Virika Catholic Church. Some of my favorite memories are candid interactions with the Fort Portal community in which we enjoyed a fresh rolex (egg rolled into chapati) at the market, clapped along with the buganda choir at mass, or waved to innocent kids yelling mzungu (foreigner) as we passed. In addition to this daily community interaction, Empower Energy Design’s Program Director, Ms. Elizabeth Yoder, supplemented my field project with a number of articles and books about international development, which helped relate first-hand experiences to concepts about which I was reading and, generally speaking, better inform my understanding of the field work. Together, these encounters served as daily reminders of the simple pleasures that accompanied everyday life in Uganda, as well as the immense shift in culture from American life that pushed me to confront a broader range of humanitarian questions and grow in ways I could not have imagined.

Uganda never failed to amaze me in unexpected, yet brilliantly moving ways. One of the most fulfilling aspects of my field project was the flexibility I had to travel throughout the country and truly embrace the wide range of people, creatures, and landscapes that call the “Pearl of Africa” home. In Kibale Forest National Park, Fr. Makanda introduced us to a congress of baboons, then took us off the beaten path to tour one of the densest concentrations of crater lakes in the world. We later hopped in a mutatu headed east, where we visited Lake Victoria, ate dinner at the source of the Nile River, and explored Murchison Falls National Park on an unbelievable safari. In early July, with only two weeks remaining in country, Fr. Makanda drove Brady and I south to Queen Elizabeth Park, where we cruised through a river canal crowded with elephants and hippos. Finally, as one last hoorah, a few Notre Dame students joined the Uganda Wildlife Authority to venture through miles of rural farmland and summit Karangura Peak in Rwenzori Mountains National Park.

Although on-campus research taught me invaluable concepts, the field work undoubtedly transformed my undergraduate experience by giving me a much more comprehensive perspective of the energy challenges and human development issues that impact so many millions of people around the world. I could not have completed my field project without the support of Empower Energy Design, Ms. Elizabeth Yoder, Fr. John Makanda, and colleagues at Makerere University, Uganda Martyrs University, and Mountains of the Moon University; as well as consistent guidance from my faculty advisor, Dr. Abigail Mechtenberg, and the generosity of the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and Notre Dame Energy.


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