Engineer and Renewable Energy Advocate
Photograph by Tom Burrell
Ibrahim Togola is bringing power to the forgotten corners of western Africa. Electric power. Economic power. Community power. It's no accident that the nongovernmental organization (NGO) he founded in Mali bears the word nyetaa, which means "move forward, go ahead, improve your situation." His Mali-Folkecenter Nyetaa (MFC) began with three people, two rooms, and one motorbike. Thirteen years later, MFC is Mali's leading energy-environment organization and has expanded to include policy and advocacy work; microfinance and business development; and myriad projects that inspire sustainability and entrepreneurship in communities too remote to ever before dream of being hotbeds of opportunity.
"Energy production is a precondition for sustainable growth and development," says Togola. "But as a landlocked country, Mali transports imported fuel huge distances and uses limited foreign currency to pay for it." Adding to the problem, 80 percent of the country's energy supply comes from firewood and charcoal, causing nearly a million acres of land to be deforested each year. Already, the Sahara claims two-thirds of the nation's landscape. "We are draining the financial and environmental wealth of our country to satisfy the needs of only 20 percent of the population who live in urban areas," says Togola. Meanwhile, less than 5 percent of the rural population has access to electricity, and many sparsely populated areas will never be a glimmer on the national electric grid. Yet when it comes to natural resources, Togola lights up. "Mali has abundant renewable energy resources like solar, wind, and biofuel that can generate electricity wherever it's needed," he says. "I tell policymakers that the Stone Age didn't end because there were no more stones. It ended because there were better tools. Why depend on coal or oil? We can base energy policy on affordable, sustainable natural resources we have right here."
Today, MFC's renewable energy programs power 23 areas and emphasize technical training at the village level to keep systems maintained and operated locally. Solar and biofuel energy have transformed homes, schools, health centers, drinking water supply, public squares, and farming throughout the country.
By 2007, results impressed policymakers enough to make Mali the first country in western Africa to remove all taxes on renewable energy sources. "People thought we were crazy to try," Togola recalls, "but we achieved it and brought down the cost of renewable energy by 34 percent. This directly benefited poor, rural areas where people have no voice in government and very limited influence on policy. That's why the political dimension of our work is so important to us."
"Connecting with the private sector is also crucial," he notes. Partnerships with companies and banks, along with MFC microfinance programs, have generated jobs, funding, and hands-on business development training and created more than 20 new companies in Mali's renewable energy sector.
MFC success stories abound. One widespread project turns seeds from jatropha plants into clean, renewable oil to replace diesel. The natural resource produces local electricity, provides soil-protecting groundcover, supplies a residue used as fertilizer, and is becoming an internationally valued export.
Electrifying rural areas helps Mali's farmers reap benefits that the rest of the world takes for granted. Without power, harvested grain cannot be dried and stored. In fact, postharvest losses represent over a quarter of the Malian agriculture production each year. "No electricity also means no cold storage," Togola explains. "From farmers milking cows to women growing vegetables to villagers catching fish, we can't preserve our products because we can't keep them cool. We must immediately consume what we can, and sell the rest even if the market is flooded and prices are low." With electricity, the food tables are turned. Farmers can not only dry their grain, but also process it into flour, dramatically increasing its value. Other crops can be safely stored until market prices are more advantageous. Along with power, MFC provides loans so farmers can invest in storage and processing technology, turning new electricity into new economic opportunity.
Other innovative MFC projects raise income for local women while lowering the carbon footprint of villages. To replace the revenue earned by selling firewood collected from the forest, MFC teaches women how to build environmentally friendly cookstoves and sell them. In one pilot village, every household—6,000 people—converted to the new ecotechnology. MFC projects also fight deforestation by planting trees that directly benefit local economies and managing large tree nurseries where seedlings are germinated to replenish forests.
Wind could help lift Mali's next leap forward. MFC recently partnered with a Danish company and the Malian government in a three-year assessment of the nation's true wind potential. Satellite imagery and continuous on-the-ground monitoring analyzed and produced a wind map of the entire country, municipality by municipality. The data show surprisingly strong wind potential in some regions, findings Togola will leverage in upcoming government negotiations.
Of all of Mali's energy sources, what holds the most potential? "People." According to Togola, "We see women, men, young, and old who are natural entrepreneurs, trying hard to do what's best for their communities. But they have no voice, confidence, or training. We have created a Local Economic Development Center that includes everyone, even those with no formal education. It's like an incubator that builds leadership and management skills and provides access to microfinance loans, so local people can return to their villages as champions of innovation and sustainability. They're creating a support network to share problems and collaborate on answers. We need these local solutions that are relevant and appropriate to the reality of rural Mali.
"When we first started MFC, people told us it would be impossible. But we were so convinced, so confident. I believe in Mali. We are building a new generation of entrepreneurs and visionaries for Africa. They will be the drivers for change."
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In Their Words
More than two million people do not have access to light, to a lamp at home. We need an institution which thinks about those who were forgotten by today's energy sytem.
Watch an interview with Togola at the Bonn Symposium.
Listen to Ibrahim discuss how his company and credit union work to promote clean energy products.
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