HDC Solar Panel Charging Station

We are building a solar power installation at a remote ranger camp and neighboring village for Kasungu National Park in Malawi, Africa.

Photo of Sydney Mountcastle
2 0

Written by

Please confirm you meet the following criteria

  • We are aged between 14 - 20 as of February 11, 2021
  • We live in the United States or its territories (Puerto Rico, U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, Northern Mariana Islands, and American Samoa)
  • We are not employed by, or directly related (parents or siblings) to a current General Motors (GM) or Ashoka employee
  • We have been working on this project for at least three months
  • We consent to Ashoka and/or GM featuring our work on their website, social media, and in other materials regarding this Challenge using the information in our application
  • We confirm we have the rights to use and share any content uploaded on this entry form

Website or social media url(s) (optional):


Date You Started Your Project


Project Stage: Select the description below that best applies to your approach.

  • Established (successfully passed early phases, have a plan for the future)

1. The Problem: What problem are you helping to solve?

The community we are working with is located in Kasungu National Park in Malawi. Currently, they pay to charge phones, flashlights, and radios at a Trading Center 10km away. This journey is time consuming and terrain and animals make it difficult for all community members to make the trip. Having a local source of renewable power would save time and money. Additionally, the community would not need to rely on an outside source for electricity

2. Your Solution: How are you planning to solve this problem? Share your specific approach.

We are designing a solar powered charging station in the community so that the members can have easy access to electricity in a more sustainable and cost efficient way. We have several alternatives that we have created, and have yet to decide on a final design. Our solar panels may be mounted onto a pre-existing building in the community, a new structure that we build, or on the ground. We also have several different security concepts such as combination lockers, key lockers, or no lockers at all. On the logistical side, we have had to consider how the community could keep track of use, learn to operate the station, and choose a payment method that works best for them. We conduct interviews with park rangers, administrators, and community members to understand the power and logistical needs of the community. Our project is going to give all the members of the community more access to energy by drastically cutting their commute. Rather than walking 10 km, this charging station will be about 1-2 km from their homes. It will also be much cheaper, as we will not be making a profit. This project will bring easily accessible electricity to about 200 Malawian citizens in need.

3. Please tell us how you are using science, technology, engineering or math to address your environmental challenge.

The environmental challenge of our project is how can we provide electricity to remote locations. A solar energy system is our approach to this problem since it offers a renewable source of energy. We aim to utilize a human-centered engineering design process to develop a solar charging station located in our partner community. By interviewing the community members, our designs are informed by the needs of the community. Incorporating feedback from the users is essential to our engineering process. With the help of technical mentors and advisors we ensure our projects are technically sound and our members are improving their skills. The solar charging station specifically requires calculations to determine how many panels and what size of battery will be needed. Additionally, we incorporate factors such as the amount of sun available and the number of devices the community will need to charge. Finally, components such as wires and fuses must be properly sized to handle the electrical load of the system. The long-term sustainability of this project relies on these parameters being calculated correctly.

4. Personal Journey: What’s the story behind why you decided to start this project?

The HDC is a club modelled after Engineers Without Borders. Our mission is to engineer & create infrastructure at home and abroad, focusing on sustainability and community engagement. Current projects include water systems in Costa Rica & The Dominican Republic, and solar lighting on campus. Our team’s story began with our advisor, Dr. Rollins, and his link to the Kasungu National Park through the Peace Corps. In 2019, he and the HDC learned of a camp for the park rangers lacking power, despite needing to charge equipment to protect the wildlife. We have since designed a solar electric system for them to use. Working on this, we also learned of a village just outside of the park that had its own lack of reliable power. We reached out to the community leadership, who have since taken up our offer on using our prior experience to pursue an even larger solar power facility for their village

5. Video (Keep it simple, your phone on selfie-mode is great): Please upload a 1-minute video to YouTube that answers the following “I am stepping up to be a Changemaker because...”

6. Please highlight the key activities you have carried out to bring your project to life.

Our team meets weekly to brainstorm & design the physical & logistical aspects of the solar charging station. We’ve been documenting our progress including project context, design, budget plans, & community interview notes. Last semester we learned how to make progress remotely; we’ve reached out to a company in Malawi that we’re working with since we’re unable to work on-site. Through ongoing interviews with community members, we have insight into the community’s needs & challenges we may face.

7. The X Factor: What is different about your project compared to other programs or solutions already out there?

Our project is not just electrical, but ecological, making it possible for the park to continue anti-poaching efforts that are integral to its operation. The process itself is a joint effort with our international community, with whom we’ve maintained a long-term relationship. We’ve followed a human-centered design approach that focuses on the direct needs of our beneficiaries. Another distinguishing factor is our intent on making a system that requires no outside involvement after installation, fitting our goal of empowering the community to manage the system themselves.

8. Impact: In the last three months, please detail the impact your project has made.

Our project is currently in the design phase and we are looking to move forward with remote implantation this semester. But in the process of design we made sure to engage with the people we were designing for. We had phone interviews weekly with two community leaders, once including more than 30 members of the community. On these calls our team learned how we could best design our project to serve their community. Once we do implement our project we plan to keep in contact with these individuals so we can find out if we were successful in meeting their needs. We can also use that engagement to reflect on our successes and failures so that we can continue to improve our skills and methods for future projects.

9. What’s Next: What are your ideas for taking your project to the next level?

Our current undertaking is an extension of a solar facility project for a nearby ranger camp that is in the process of being implemented remotely. We are looking to carry over what we learned from that design into the village’s facility. It is a larger project, with many new factors brought on by it being a truly public utility. As such, we plan to develop strong communication and relationships with the community members, as well as getting into contact with authorities in the field of sustainable utilities, to make our solar station more useful, long-lasting, and ecologically beneficial. Unlike our previous project, we hope to be able to conduct it in person as well, which will let us better uphold our mission and improve our designs.

10. Please share how you have influenced other young people to get involved in your project and/or care about environmental sustainability.

Our project has many young members that join early and stay involved in the work throughout their college careers. Even new members can contribute and work on technical designs. Our team lead is a freshman who was inspired to step up & make change despite her age. Throughout the pandemic, we have made an effort to enable team bonding through icebreaker activities and 1-on-1 conversations. As a result we offer a welcoming club environment where students can engage in hands-on design work.

11. How would you partner with other changemakers to make a difference?

We would partner with other changemakers to expand our mission in order to provide sustainable energy sources across the world starting with our local communities. Our team has a vision of a more globally focused education for all students. Our members are encouraged and given every opportunity to apply their education to inspire others beyond the classroom. Through these experiences, we hope to apply our education while also learning to be responsible, culturally aware citizens of the world.

12. How would you engage others who have never heard about your project to get their buy-in?

We believe it’s important that everyone should have access to clean energy. We, as young engineers, are increasing our cultural awareness while making a global impact. Not only do we work with just students in our respective fields, but we branch out and have strengths in other aspects of academia such as politics, business/finance, rhetoric, and international language.

13. Finances: If applicable, have you mobilized any of the following resources so far?

  • Friend support
  • Mentors/advisors
  • Donations between $1k-$5k

14. Which of the following types of expertise would be most useful for you? You’ll be able to select only one option.

  • Communications

Are you employed, or directly related (grand-parents, parents, sibling) to a GM or Ashoka employee?

  • No

How did you hear about this challenge?

  • Email

Referral: If you discovered the Challenge thanks to an organization or person other than Ashoka or General Motors, who was it?

Lynn Rollins

Complete this evaluation to see the results from the rest of the community

The community is currently evaluating this idea.


Join the conversation:

Photo of Matthew Marchyok

I just want you to know how important the human-centered design aspect is here. It seems you are fully embracing that the people drive the need and solutions. Thank you for respecting the process. This is a wonderful demonstration of ingenuity and changemaking. Thank you for your work!!

View all comments