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Lighting the Future in Cambodia – EWB’s Appropriate Technology Initiative

Rebecca Watts, Project Facilitator for EWB Australia’s Appropriate Technology Initiative in Cambodia has a simple thesis, ‘access to energy can transform lives.’ In the remote Ta Ping village in Kep, Cambodia where she works. She sees this transformation daily.

Becky, a recent engineering graduate who was named ANU Undergraduate student of the year, manages the project, which provides the community with access to affordable, and importantly, clean energy through the introduction of solar technology . The project, a joint partnership between Engineers Without Borders Australia and BabyTree Projects, and with funding from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has already caused significant changes in the community.

“Access to electricity underpins all areas of development. It’s hard for communities to thrive without it,” she says, “only seven out of ten people in rural Cambodia have access to grid electricity so I’m excited by the huge potential for solar energy technologies to provide off-grid electricity in remote areas like Ta Ping.”

Becky is also interested by the opportunities the project has created for the local community, ““It’s not the technology that is the reason for the growth and success of the project, but the community involvement and leadership. All the initiatives have been led by community members and what they identify as priorities for income generation.”

The project symbolises EWB Australia’s development philosophy, ‘the collaboration of engineers, industry professionals and local partners develops innovative, sustainable programs far more effectively than transactional aid partnerships,’ said James Ayers, EWB’s Communication Manager, ‘we believe that working with communities using education and two-way knowledge sharing to address the challenges they face has a deeper and longer lasting impact on the community itself.’

Becky agrees, “already, an education initiative has been started by a community member Sambath Srey, a teacher who can now run English and Maths classes in the evenings. Which was impossible before there was solar powered light. We are also employing and training a local entrepreneur to create employment and foster local capacity.”

“This project is not just about increasing access to electricity, which on its own has huge benefits for health, education and safety, but taking an integrated and holistic approach to creating sustainable livelihoods for the the community.”

While collaboration with the local community has ensured the solar technology is sustainable, appropriate and meets the communities’ needs, Becky is now working to ensure it is implemented in an innovative, community-centred way that promotes accessibility, educates the local community about use and maintenance and builds local capacity.

She believes “It is important to capture and respond to community feedback.  The people of Ta Ping are encouraged to provide feedback by voicing their stories of most significant change.”

A number of stories have stood out. Community member Jahn Vee, her husband, and four children live in a household next to the salt fields where she cooked using a torch over a dangerous open wood fire before disposing the batteries in the salt fields each week. Thanks to solar power, she now has a ceiling light to cook with and leaves one small light on all night for her youngest child who is afraid of the dark.

Likewise, Grandfather Bun Dy lives in one of the most remote households in Ta Ping. Solar lights mean his daughter, pregnant with her third child, can now climb safely up and down the ladder to the house at night and no longer needs to carry the heavy car battery the family used for power to the battery charging station.

It is these small shifts in the life of communities that continue to inspire and energise Engineers Without Borders Australia and it partners. As projects like this one scale and create greater opportunities in communities that have often lacked them, there builds an optimistic feeling for the future in Ta Ping, and there should be.