There Are Other Options

In amongst my frustration (and later concern) at the Invisible Children “#Kony2012” video I have still been working, and this post is about a fascinating day I spent this week with Shelter and Settlement Alternatives at one of their projects in Kisenyi III slum, Kampala.
SSA’s mission is “to address issues and challenges affecting human settlements in Uganda, through advocacy, networking and information sharing”. They do a lot of advocacy and lobbying, but they also focus on the lives of slum-dwellers and try to look for original and sustainable solutions to problems which affect this section of Ugandan society. You can read all about them on their website ( if you’d like to know more.

A view down into part of Kisenyi III slum.

The project I was going to visit was Jen King’s Solar Bottle Lamp program. The idea, also to be seen in the Philippines, Brazil, Indonesia, Kenya and Tanzania, is that by putting a plastic bottle through a piece of corrugated iron and putting that into the roof of the average slum house (which, owing to structural constraints, seldom has any windows), the house will effectively have a 60w lightbulb which runs for free whenever the sun is shining. It’s a pretty simple idea but it works beautifully. Good did a great article on it, which you can read here. The project is supported in part by the Congressional Center for Hunger.

Bottle units lie on a table as Jen King prepares the session's materials.

Jen saw the idea being done by Isang Litrong Liwanag (A Litre Of Light) amongst others, and saw that it could easily be applied in the slums of Kampala, where the darkness of the houses is constant. The darkness has many effects, among them the inconvenience (and risk) of having to light the house all day as well as at night, usually using naked flames. In addition children must go outside in order to study, which exposes them to risks, and there is a high rate of electrocution as people try to connect their houses to mains power by means of illegal hookups.

Edward Barinda, the local Chairperson for Development, stands outside the entrace to a building which houses the local branch of the Slum Dwellers Association in Kisenyi III. In his hands he has a solar light unit and a file containing the records of the Slum Dwellers Association savings. The group is saving to buy the land they live on, in the hope of preventing eviction.

Jen has been doing sensitisation and preparation for the past few months, and today is the day that the first unit is to be installed. Her enthusiasm for the project is, she says, a source of amusement for her family. “Yep, so my whole Christmas list was ‘A Drill.'” she grins. But she and her program assistant Martin Agaba have been working with the Uganda Slum Dwellers Association in Kisenyi III and the little group have made a unit each, ready for installation.

Salome Kakuliwemu, popularly known as "Jajja" ('grandma') sits waiting for the morning session to begin. Her hat, incidentally, is a promotional piece made by Aftershock, the teenage bad-decision fuel. Strange how these things move...

Jen King (program coordinator) and Martin Agaba (program assistant) explain the importance of correctly sealing the bottle to the corrugated iron.

Sylvia Mbabazi chats to Fatima Kagoro as they sit in the session. The Christmas decorations add a strangely festive air to the proceedings.

The group consists of people who live in the surrounding slum, young and old, make and female, and the pride they take in the solar units they have created is tangible.

Martin Agaba.

Hadija Nabwewo.

Kambugu Labusalensi.

Sanita Nakanawaj.

Salome Kakuliwemu.

Margaret Kahindo.

Issa Lukwago.

John Harera.

Sylvia Mbabazi.

Edward Barinda.

Fatima Kagoro.

The start of the day was making sure the bottles were ready for installation.

Issa Lukwago adds final touches of sealant to his solar unit.

The slum exists in a limbo, and I had a sense that the enthusiasm of the group was driven partly by a desire to work on DIY projects to promote a feeling of stability in the chaos.

Hadija Nabwewo looks out of the window while clutching the solar light she has made. In recent months evictions in the slum areas have stepped up greatly due to the increased appetite for land for development, and the residents of areas such as this live with a daily fear of eviction as they try to save up to buy the land they live on.

There’s a lot of get-up-and-go in the group, and the intention is that once people see how simple the idea is they will begin to do it themselves.

Examining instructions on the proper construction and installation of solar bottle units. Each unit can be made for around $1-2, and they have a lifespan of approximately seven years.

An example of a project which has truly taken root is that of the reconstituted charcoal:

Reconstituted charcoal balls dry in the sun. By binding together charcoal dust which was previously thrown away, fuel bricks are made which work very well for cooking. Small initiatives like this take minimal setup, and once begun they spread fast.

Simple, cheap, effective. Brilliant.

An alphabet chart on a wall in Kisenyi III.

And so, bottles in hand (each full of water and with one capful of bleach added to stop the growth of algae) the group sets off to install the first solar unit.

Issa Lukwago carries a ladder into the slum in preparation for the installation of the project's first solar bottle.

The lucky recipient was Salome, who lives just inside the slum in a house decorated with pictures of all sorts of things, including a picture of the head of President Museveni photoshopped onto the torso of Rambo, and this bleak gem:

A poster inside Jajja's house.

And so the whole thing began…

Issa Lukwago draws around the base of a bottle to mark the area he will cut from the roof to allow the bottle to be inserted.

Jen King explains the drill to Issa Lukwago.

Jen King passes the drill to Issa Lukwago.

On the side of a safe tied shut with a drinking straw.

Issa Lukwago makes the first hole in the roof as he begins to cut through the corrugated iron sheet.

Margaret Kahindo watches the hole being cut in the roof.

Martin Agaba watches the bottle unit being installed.

The hole appears.

Issa Lukwago admires his handiwork.

Then to the roof, for installation!

Martin Agaba relays instructions from Jen King to Issa Lukwago as they begin to fit the bottle unit into the roof.

Issa Lukwago drops the bottle unit into the roof.

A child watches the proceedings with interest.

Issa Lukwago seals the bottle unit into the roof.

And suddenly, there’s a lightbulb.

The bottle glowing. Each bottle produces light equivalent to a 60w bulb in sunlight, and while they only function in daylight, the houses in which they are installed often have no windows whatsoever, so a light during the day makes a big difference.

Martin Agaba looks up at the newly installed bottle.

Mother and son enjoying the new lightbulb.

News, of course, spreads fast.

As soon as the bottle is installed and clearly works, people who were not involved in the project begin arriving to enquire about getting them fitted in their houses. The answer is always the same- buy the materials and we'll help you out.

The man at the left of the image above is the father of the baby below, who is called Gaddafi.

Baby Gaddafi watches the camera cautiously.

So there you have it. A project which gives free light all day every day for seven years, for the cost of two dollars and a hole in your roof. If you’d like to know more or donate, their website is

In other news, Rocca Gutteridge and Nikki Elphinstone, under the umbrella of their awesome organisation 32° East, are fundraising for a new art library on Indiegogo. The link is here- rather than buying a bracelet and a poster, how about donating to something which will actually make a difference!


About Muzungu

I’m a Uganda-based freelance photographer (and occasional writer) working for a broad range of clients including NGOs, newspapers and magazines and development agencies. My work has taken me across East Africa, South America and Europe, and previous clients include USAID, the World Bank and the East African. I also work on personal documentary projects in my spare time. If you’d like to hire me or to know more, please feel free to get in touch.
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11 Responses to There Are Other Options

  1. Beautiful photos, magnificent colors. Keep up the amazing work.

  2. Excellent photos and great to see such simple ideas really making a difference to people’s lives.

    Thanks also for all the info to make a real difference. Will check it out.

  3. Wonderful photos of such inspiring work. Thank you!

  4. Agaba martin says:

    Agaba Says
    It is one thing having a great idea but another thing having a creative and skillful writer to drive the point home. Great work Boase!

  5. Clare Pain says:

    Beautifully photo journal of a clever project – thank you++

  6. phil says:

    Interesting article, i’ve seen articles with this idea in projects elsewhere int he world, so it is great to see the idea spreading.

    Has there been much interest in the Gobar Gas concepts. Came across it in a Michael Yon article which he wrote about extensively here ( . Another project that has spread once people see their neighbours benefiting from it.

  7. Helen Cherry says:

    What a brilliant idea.. thanks for sharing..

  8. Cathy Watson says:

    So great, Will. And to think I met you when you were first in Uganda. You are doing great work. xx

    • Muzungu says:

      Everything I’m doing now is all as a result of you and William’s kindness in helping me when I first came here. Thank you both so much! xx

  9. Pingback: Making the Village Pretty | The Mzungu Diaries

  10. Such a great story and photos. The people of Zimbabwe are so kind and friendly.

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