Woman’s nonprofit brings power, hope to Africans

Monday, July 28, 2008

When someone switches on a light in Banco, Mali, it’s most likely connected to a photovoltaic solar power system in the village. But its original source can be traced to an unassuming house in James City County.

That’s where Mary Graham, who grew up in Northern Virginia, lives with her parents in Kingsmill when she’s not in Mali overseeing Practical Small Projects. That’s the nonprofit she founded three years ago to foster sustainable enterprise in the impoverished West African country.

The organization works on a shoestring budget with almost no overhead but has provided a spark to dozens of entrepreneurs in Mali.

“It doesn’t take millions to make a difference, and sometimes it actually helps if you limit your scope,” said Graham, 29. “When I look at nonprofits in New York, I’m like, ’What are you doing?’ You’re bringing water to Africa, and you’ve got 20 employees working out of an office in Manhattan.’”

PSP has two American employees and a budget of between $150,000 and $200,000. It works with another nonprofit and Afriq-Power, a Malian company that PSP founded, to bring potable water, electricity and infrastructure to remote villages. Together, they’ve installed wells, built maternity wards and brought electricity to dozens of villages in the landlocked nation – the fifth-poorest in the world.

Graham, a former Fulbright scholar with a master’s degree in international policy studies, founded the company after seeing the effect of solar technology on entrepreneurial activities in Nicaragua. She became interested in Mali during an internship there.

Using donations from family and friends, Graham paid to bring two solar experts to Mali to train a group of locals in building, installing and maintaining solar panels, water pumps and batteries.

That was the initial stage of Afriq-Power: A dozen Malians – several of them orphans, many of them illiterate – huddled around a picnic table and a chalkboard, with just a tarp as shelter from the elements, learning about solar power. Today, the company has moved indoors and can produce up to 250 solar panels a week.

Graham and her PSP collaborator, Kristin Johnson, travel across southern Mali, reaching out to village elders and assessing infrastructure needs on a village-to-village basis. When it comes time to bring power to a village, PSP purchases the solar technology from Afriq-Power, which installs it and trains a couple of local villagers in basic maintenance.

Then local entrepreneurs harness the access to electricity to build sustainable businesses, which provide sustenance outside government aid and help keep villagers from flooding the country’s overcrowded cities in search of work.

Businesses that have sprouted in villages served by Graham’s organization include tailors, cold-drink vendors, cell phone chargers and retail solar power vendors.

Graham said PSP succeeded where other organizations that imported amenities failed in large part because the purveyors of the technologies – which she said villagers tended to view as “white technology” – were locals.

“When a Malian explains the situation to a fellow Malian, how they can prosper from the technology, how they can profit from it, they feel like they have a stake in it,” Graham said.

“I hear villagers say, ’You put that together? You made that?’ It gives them a whole different perspective on it.”

For more info

To learn more about Mary Graham and Practical Small Projects, and to see photos of their projects in Mali, visit the group’s Web site at www.practicalsmall projects.com.

Source: Daily Press (link opens in a new window)