Junior football player constructs solar panels in Ghana

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Author: Kevin Liu

A van carrying students rattles along a potholed road. The van is on its way to N-Kpaguni, a small village in Ghana. Upon arrival at the village, Michael Consunji, a junior football player at Occidental, steps out of the van and gets right to work. He is a field representative with Saha Global — a nonprofit that focuses on creating sustainable sources of energy and water in Ghana — working in the village of N-Kpaguni to construct a solar center. This solar center will serve not only as a source of sustainable energy for the village, but also as an entrepreneurial venture for women.

Consunji and his fellow field representatives spent three weeks training and later assisting with the construction and monitoring of the solar center project. After undergoing training and orientation for a week, they built the solar center and trained female entrepreneurs to manage the solar center. In the final week, students and villagers celebrated the solar center’s opening day while also monitoring its functioning.

Before his academic path led him to Ghana, Consunji started his first year at Occidental debating whether to major in biology or kinesiology. That is, until Consunji took his first Urban & Environmental Policy (UEP) class — 101 with Professor Polanco — in which the ideas of sustainability and empowerment sparked a new passion.

“I liked the ideas of sustainability, entrepreneurship and empowerment,” Consunji said. “Empowerment, to me, is giving the necessary resources and tools to people that don’t necessarily have the means to empower themselves yet.”

He knew that he wanted to take this newfound interest and apply it in the real world, so he began looking at both local and international opportunities. That’s when Consunji stumbled across Saha Global.

Consunji actually discovered Saha (then called Community Water Solutions) in his first year at Occidental but chose not to apply because he was still unsure about his career path. In his sophomore year, when he decided to commit himself to the UEP department, he applied for Saha Global’s Summer Global Leadership Program.

“When my sophomore year came around, I began to realize that sustainability and empowerment were two issues that I knew I was committed to,” Consunji said. “I was committed to doing a service trip with those ideals in mind.”

Saha Global focuses on providing clean water and implementing solar-sustainability initiatives while also fostering entrepreneurship and empowering women. The summer program provides an opportunity for college students to work on a sustainability project through advocacy, monitoring and fundraising. Rather than providing all the resources for the village, the company covers the cost of starting up the solar center and then leaves the management of the venture to the village. The transitional aspect resonated with Consuji.

“I like the approach of coming in and teaching people how solve their own problems,” Consunji said. “You want to empower people to solve their own issues.”

To reduce its dependence on donors and foundations, Saha requires its summer field representatives to fundraise the cost of the trip and the cost of starting up the solar center. Consunji raised over $2,950 — to reach that amount, he relied on the help of almost everyone he knew, ranging from his old supervisors to his father’s friends and colleagues. Still, Consunji experienced little stress during the fundraising process because he had no doubts about Saha’s mission of creating empowerment through financial independence.

“The reason why this is so important is that [the villagers] are two to three hours away from the nearest city, so if they want to access power it becomes difficult,” Consunji said.

Yet the project still had its challenges. The disparity between what the villagers wanted and the realities of what Saha Global could provide proved one of the biggest obstacles.

“They asked us, ‘Can you build a school for us first,’ and to get around that, we would just have to tell them that that was not what we did,” Consunji said.

Additionally, Consuji and his co-workers struggled to take care of themselves because of their rigorous schedule; 5:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. days were common over the course of the three week program. For Consunji, the workload particularly affected his athletic training.

“I tried to train … I ran laps around our facility, and did some pushups,” Consunji said. “I just did what I could.”

The trip’s challenges, however, did not reduce the overall experience for Consuji.

“I was able to be enriched by their culture, and I made a point to talk to as many of the locals as I could,” he said. “It was great experience, I learned a lot and I was able to get the hands-on experience with sustainability and empowerment on that trip.”

Some of Consunji’s teammates have noticed how his experiences in Ghana have changed him.

“The trip definitely changed him. He changed the way he looks at life in general,” Consunji’s teammate Bryan Scott (junior) said. “His work ethic has totally changed. Going on such a humbling trip can change your priorities and find how truly blessed you are in the life you live … He has become one of my best friends and I am super excited for the way this has changed his life.”

The lessons in sustainability, empowerment and community collaboration were paradigm-shifting for Consunji. His involvement with Saha Global taught him the importance of patience, cooperation and appreciation. But the most important source of inspiration for Consunji came from the people of Ghana.

“I honestly believe that Ghanaians are the most genuine hard-working people that I’ve ever met,” Consunji said. “What really inspired me was that the people that don’t necessarily have the most seemed to care the most and have the most to give.”

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