Imagine a day essentially ending at sundown because there is no electricity for lights. Imagine being a doctor and treating urgent patients by candlelight. Imagine being a woman or child and spending six hours a day hauling water and searching for firewood.
Thus is the pattern of life in much of rural Africa today. Figuring out how to help them was a question that obsessed Sivan Achor-Borowich until she put together her experiences and her research and the light bulb suddenly went on above her head, both literally and figuratively.
The answer: Solar power to produce electricity for schools and clinics and to run water pumps.
Borowich, 30, founded Jewish Heart for Africa about 10 months ago and today she has projects running in Uganda, Ethiopia and Tanzania.
Aside from the projects themselves, Jewish Heart for Africa also attempts to improve the image of Jews and Israel in Africa. All the solar equipment is purchased from the Israeli company Interdan as a matter of policy.
Borowich just returned from a trip to Africa two weeks ago, where she was amazed at what a difference the solar panels had made in a relatively short time.
“Four months ago, we installed solar panels in a village in Tanzania to provide electricity for the clinic. Seven thousand people rely on that clinic. We installed 14 lights, 10 inside and four outside. The panels also produce enough electricity to run a 66-liter refrigerator.
“We returned there two weeks ago and the doctor showed us how many kids have now been vaccinated [vaccines have to be kept chilled]. The villagers can find the clinic in the middle of the night because it is lit and the doctor no longer has to work at night by candlelight.
“Candles are twice as expensive in the village as they are in the city because there are no roads, so transportation becomes an added cost,” Israeli-born but New York-based Borowich explained in a telephone interview with The Jerusalem Post this week.
The relatively small sum of $4,270 covered the costs of the project, Borowich explained. She raises similar sums for schools and clinics, although a water pump and 10,000-liter storage container runs close to $20,000.
Borowich and her 17 volunteers run the organization for free, without an office, to ensure that 100% of the funds go toward the African projects.
Borowich was born and raised until age 12 in Rishon Lezion, then moved to France with her French-speaking parents, who opened a pizzeria on the beach in Nice. Arriving back in Israel at age 20 for a short stint of volunteering in the army and on Kibbutz Kinneret, she made her way to New York to learn English.
Now based in New York, Borowich has made many trips to Africa, starting at 22 with a job as a quality control manager for a French ginseng company with factories in Madagascar, Botswana, Kenya, and Morocco.
“It was in Kenya and Madagascar that I saw poverty for the first time,” she said.
Borowich’s path to solar energy began in graduate school when she worked for the United Nations Development Program on their Senegal project. Borowich had just graduated from Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs with a degree in international relations and energy, management and policy.
“I started thinking about [how] internal combustion engines run on fossil fuel and that’s when I realized they were not the solution,” Borowich explained.
“Most of Africa lives on $1 a day, they don’t have the money to buy fuel – the operating costs are just too high. So I began to look at alternatives.
“[With] solar energy, on the other hand, you always have sun. There is basically no maintenance and no operating costs – the sun is free. And it’s sustainable,” she continued.
Borowich was particularly moved by a photo of the African continent and Europe at night. While Europe is ablaze with light in the photograph, Africa is predominantly dark. (The photograph can be seen on the Jewish Heart for Africa Web site, www.jhasol.org.)
So Borowich came to Israel to look into solar energy and hooked up with the Interdan company. Her professor at Columbia suggested Tanzania as a good starting point for a project, so she set up a meeting with Tanzania’s water minister.
“He was very supportive from the beginning and has been one of the organization’s biggest supporters throughout,” Borowich said.
Since then, Jewish Heart for Africa’s Project Sol has spread to Ethiopia and Uganda. In Ethiopia, they brought power to a school for lights, a radio and a TV.
“Now the kids stay after school because there are lights,” she said. They are eager for news of the wider world and radio and TV has opened it up to them, she asserted.
At the Shangaroo village in Tanzania, a new solar-powered water pump has changed the lives of the villagers. Instead of spending six hours a day bringing muddy water to the village from far away, the women now draw water from one of three taps around the village.
Jewish Heart for Africa, using local contractors, dug for water and found it 30 meters deep. The pump brings the clean water to the surface for the taps and a new 10,000-liter storage container eliminates the endless hauling.
“The women used to haul water from a hand-dug hole far away. It was barely enough to grow a little rice, for cooking and drinking, certainly not enough for washing or agriculture,” she said.
Agriculture is the main source of food and income in Africa, Borowich explained, but there is rarely enough water for a farm to prosper.
Jewish Heart for Africa is even helping a group of Jewish converts in Uganda. The community’s rabbi, Enosh, contacted Borowich and asked for assistance; he wanted lights in the chicken coop, to help the hens lay eggs, and electricity for the community center. A $3,000 donation sufficed to supply the panels.
“It’s hard to conceive until you see it,” Borowich said. She visited Rabbi Enosh and participated in a brit mila and spent a Shabbat with them on her most recent trip.
Borowich holds fundraising events in New York. The next event, on November 15, will feature an African dance performance, kosher Ethiopian cuisine, and solar panels on display. Many ambassadors of African countries will be in attendance, she said.