Bringing Solar Power to Kenya

Boniface Njuguna with his solar-powered device.
Boniface Njuguna is a former sustainability fellow at the IU South Bend Center for a Sustainable Future. Photo by Shannon Zahnle.

Boniface Njuguna thought, “I know how I can help.”

The IU South Bend graduate had a bright idea for solving a dual problem in his home country of Kenya. In many rural areas there, people live mostly off the electric grid. However, they still depend on mobile phones—which need to be charged—to communicate with family and to conduct business.

What’s more, they use kerosene lanterns for light, which often spew toxic fumes and smoke into their homes. “I lived with that,” says Njuguna, “so I wanted to help spare others from it.”

Njuguna’s bright idea was to create a solar-powered device that could serve as both a phone charger and an LED lamp, eliminating the need for those kerosene lanterns. To create the device, he used almost all recycled materials.

In his first effort, Njuguna was able to send more than 100 of these devices to families in rural Kenya. But he wanted to do more—so he turned to IU.

Each year, IU South Bend’s Center for a Sustainable Future invites two to four community members to participate in its Sustainability Fellows Program. The goal of the program is to connect environmentally minded problem-solvers—like Njuguna—with IU expertise.

“We’re breaking down the boundaries between campus and community,” says Mike Keen, director of the center. “Sustainability is about bringing economic, social, and environmental needs into harmony,” he explains.

Since the center’s founding in 2008, 20 people have taken part in the fellows program. Many former fellows have gone on to establish ongoing, nonprofit initiatives like community gardens, sustainability conferences, and programs that distribute rain barrels. One even launched a nonprofit that links sustainably grown, locally sourced food production with employment for young adults with autism.

Fueling all these efforts are IU faculty members and students, who help the fellows refine and advance their ideas. “This is a chance for IU students and professors to conduct applied research that will help our fellows improve both the local community and communities around the world,” says Keen.

As for Njuguna, the fellows program began to bear fruit in summer 2014, when he partnered with IU Professor Terri Hebert, who operates a partnership with the campus and the South Bend School District. The result? An additional 50 lamps were constructed by district teachers and students.

And that’s just the start of Njuguna’s partnership with IU. He hopes to someday send his lamps to additional countries beyond Kenya. “This opportunity will be an eye-opener for me,” he says. “I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m really excited to find out.”

Supporting IU’s sustainability fellows program is an investment in grassroots innovation that leads to a better world. To learn how you can help this up-and-coming program, contact Dina Harris, director of development at IU South Bend, at 574-520-4131 or

This article was originally published in the fall 2014 issue of Imagine magazine.

Written By
IU Foundation Staff