Could a group of volunteers provide electricity to people living deep in the jungle? Like all great adventures, mine started with a dream.
I had gradually become fascinated with the simple lifestyle led by Malaysia’s indigenous people, the orang asli, as I followed their stories through travel blogs written by visitors to the villages.
As an urban Malaysian, I remember being shocked at first, learning that orang asli communities were plunged into darkness by nightfall, except for some dim fires.
Light bulbs, a convenience that many Malaysians enjoy, are not something they have. I was flooded with guilt upon realising that I had taken this necessity for granted.
Six months later, and with funding from a generous benefactor – Lewis and Clark College in the United States, where I am currently enrolled as a student – I began my adventure.
KampungKu was the platform. This was a project to help orang asli villages run by Ecomy, an ecotourism NGO led by my uncle, Andrew J. Sebastian. He and I were the co-managers of KampungKu and we spent days formulating strategies.
We became aware of projects in the area around Taman Negara (the National Park straddling Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu) that we were considering.
Some projects had good intentions, but they could have been more effective. For instance, why donate a diesel-powered generator when the orang asli would have to keep buying fuel?
For us, solar panels were a better choice. Solar energy is a clean form of energy that produces minimal harm to the environment. It can be used to power up not only lights but also mobile phones and even USB fans. And, of course, the sun is an almost infinite source of energy.
Fans, Phones And Lights
We began discussions with the village chief and people of Kampung Dedari, a village in the borderland regions of Taman Negara.
What we discovered was that they needed something simple and relatively portable. That was when Blitzwolf solar panels came into the equation. Not only was this technology affordable (with the budget we had), it was also highly efficient (21.5%-23.5%).
For us, this was the perfect marriage of usability, efficiency and cost-effectiveness.
The total cost of 12 Blitzwolf solar panels and 12 camping lanterns came to RM4,500. We’re hoping that as KampungKu does more projects, we can negotiate better prices with solar panel suppliers (or perhaps find sponsors).
The system has two steps. Each solar panel charges a camping lantern that doubles as a battery pack. The camping lantern provides 200 lumens worth of light energy (about the same as a 3W LED bulb) for up to 20 hours when it is charged to maximum capacity.
After the solar panel converts just three hours of sunlight into usable electricity, the full camping lantern/battery pack can be taken to wherever it’s needed most. Through the USB port, it can be used to power fans, charge phones or other electronic devices, as well as power lights.
The panels and camping lanterns are designed to withstand the harshness of the jungle environment and should be operational for years.
Our objective for the project was to create an independent system in which Sebastian and I would eventually play a minimal role in maintaining the equipment.
This involves educating the orang asli on how to repair the equipment if something were to go awry. In the worst case scenario, they can consult technicians in nearby towns.
Our renewable energy system is not perfect; however, we believe it can be easily emulated elsewhere.
Neighbours Are Keen
The weeks of planning came to fruition as installation time arrived. We went into the jungle with volunteers from Ecomy.
Before we arrived at the village, we were pleasantly surprised to learn that chiefs and residents from neighbouring villages wanted to observe our installation.
The atmosphere in Kampung Dedari was vibrant by the time we arrived that afternoon.
We were greeted with kindness by the villagers, then waited as our local project partners, the Bird Group of Taman Negara, distributed packs of food.
The solar “farm”, a bamboo and wood platform constructed by the orang asli and overseen by the Bird Group, was where the solar panels would charge up the lanterns/battery packs during the day.
We gave a presentation about the project, and the villagers all showed keen interest and warm smiles under the late afternoon sunlight.
Soon, our installation work was complete, and 12 solar panels attached to 12 camping lanterns lay waiting for nightfall. We took temporary leave of Kampung Dedari to rest and recuperate before returning in the late evening for the finale.
When we come back later, we are greeted at the entrance of Kampung Dedari by a chorus of laughter from kids playing by the riverside. The children’s energy was irresistible, and soon the volunteers and I found ourselves knee-deep in the river, joining in the fun.
As the day began to fade, we proceeded to the grand climax of the project.
First, we demonstrated the lighting functions on the camping lanterns to the villagers. Then the orang asli positioned the lanterns in places they thought were suitable.
We had people positioned at every lantern location, and on a countdown of “tiga, dua, satu! (three, two, one)”, the village was illuminated with bright light for the first time in its history.
The atmosphere was nothing short of, well, electric!
Celebrations were eventually followed by goodbyes. All too soon, we began our long journey back to the concrete jungles of Kuala Lumpur.
As we were walking back, rolling thunder erupted overhead, and torrential rainfall drenched us as we plodded through squelching mud.
Yet I was smiling to myself as I tasted the rainwater on the tip of my tongue – it was a reminder that my dreams to help the orang asli had become a reality.