The NRECA International program has many goals, depending on the country they’re working in, the resources they have available, and the political will of the host country’s government. Ultimately, it all boils down to a single, overarching aim: to improve lives.
And not just the lives of the people who live in the town electrified through the program’s efforts.
We talked to two people who have been impacted by the reach and mission of NRECA International: Bobby VonBokern, a volunteer lineman from Owen Electric in Kentucky, whose work in Haiti opened his eyes to how his unique skills and compassion can make a difference in the world; and Benon Bena, the off-grid renewable energy development a manager in Uganda’s Rural Electrification Agency, whose dream of providing power to his country’s rural citizens is beginning to take shape thanks to his agency’s work with NRECA.
Here are their stories.
*Originally published in RE Magazine, November 2017.
Owen Electric Cooperative
NRECA International Volunteer
The email went to all staff, but Bobby VonBokern knew it was calling to him. Managers at Owen Electric Cooperative were seeking volunteers to go to Haiti to help with an NRECA International project.
“I wanted on that plane,” says VonBokern, 29, who started at the Owenton, Kentucky, co-op the day after high school graduation 11 years ago and worked his way up to lineman. “I saw an opportunity to put my skills to work for a good cause.”
In January 2015, VonBokern boarded that plane and spent three weeks in Haiti. A year later he did it again. They were experiences he will remember “until the day I die,” he says. He wasn’t expecting Beverly Hills, but what VonBokern found in Côteaux, Haiti, was still a bit jarring. And that was more than a year before Hurricane Matthew hit there.
“The houses there were pretty unimaginable. They were either made from sticks and packed mud with a tarp-covered rusted metal roof, or they were made of very brittle handmade concrete blocks with old metal or wooden roofs. One in particular had a McDonald’s tarp. I have no idea how that made it there,” he says.
If the residents walked around depressed all day, you wouldn’t blame them. But it was just the opposite.
“We were greeted by the friendliest of people and had a crowd around wherever we went,” VonBokern says of his time in Côteaux, a southwestern community where the Owen Electric team worked on an electrification project that was half solar and half diesel.
“We basically set poles for forever, it seemed. One right after another.”
VonBokern says this not as a complaint, but to paint an accurate picture of what the work was like in Côteaux. Six days a week they toiled 10 to 12 hours a day.
“The people there had no idea what to expect or how long it was going to take for them to get power, but I knew we were paving the way to a lot of smiling faces in the future.”
In the Lap of No Luxury
We stayed in a fairly decent place,” VonBokern says, giving “decent” a lot of leeway. “We had electricity from a generator from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. There was a TV in my room, but it never worked. It was just for looks, I assume.
“There was zero hot water. And the water itself was gravity fed from the tank on stilts at the back of the building. I found that out the hard way after twisting the knob to the hot side and noticing the water went even colder.”
Need a wakeup call? The neighborhood rooster provided that. Want breakfast? That’s an adventure all its own.
“Two plates of eggs over hard with a full chopped-up raw onion on top,” VonBokern recalls. A cup of instant coffee helped wash it down.
“Basically we ate that five or six times a week. One day they brought out plain noodles instead of the eggs, and we thought we hit the gold mine.”
Lunch and dinner consisted of fish, chicken legs, or goat—“the most cooked goat meat you’ll ever see,” VonBokern says.
But no one grumbled. Quite the contrary.
“We never sent anything back. We just ate it and thanked the staff for everything we had. We were just happy to be there.”
Smiles Speak Louder Than Words
Creole is the language of Haiti, and VonBokern learned what he could to try to communicate with people and “become part of the community.”
“I learned the basics, and I could get a laugh out of a few of them with my terrible language skills, but that’s about it,” he says.
Fortunately, a translator was around during the day so the Owen Electric guys could speak with their Haitian counterparts.
While language can be a barrier, sometimes the best sentiments are left unspoken.
“One thing I’ll never forget is all the smiling children. They had the most simplistic toys, often made from an old can of food and caps off of a bottle with a string to pull it behind them,” VonBokern recalls. “You would see them running around laughing and playing with the other kids.”
Three weeks went by before he knew it. The Owen Electric crew had paved the way for the next group of NRECA International volunteers to come in and give the townspeople what VonBokern calls “a gift that they’d never had before: reliable electricity.”
He knew there was a lot of work to be done in Haiti, one of the world’s poorest nations.
“I had to go back,” VonBokern remembers thinking.
In January 2016, he did.
Owen Electric sent another team, this time to the northern part of Haiti, and VonBokern says his name was the first on the sign-up sheet.
And this time, he would get to see the lights turned on.
Ready for a Life Changer
It still wasn’t the Ritz-Carlton, but conditions were somewhat better on trip number two.
VonBokern was sent to Caracol, which is more developed than Côteaux. The hotel had around-the-clock electricity, plus hot water. The menu had less goat, more chicken, and “tons of rice.”
A clothing factory in town was already powered as the result of NRECA International’s work, and most people in the community worked there.
“They were shipped in from all around the surrounding areas, bus after bus. They were school buses about 20 years old with about 100 people packed as tight as can be in them. It was a sight to see,” VonBokern says.
Many of those passengers lived in homes without electricity. They wanted to change that—which became clear when the Owen Electric crew set out for work on day one.
“I’ll never forget how they made me feel as our work truck pulled up for the very first time. I got out and grabbed my climbing gear. And three people came out and took my tools off of my shoulder and packed them to the pole for me,” VonBokern recalls. “They were ready for something that was truly life changing.”
Most days the Kentucky crew ran service wire to houses, which is fairly routine work. But one task gave VonBokern particular pleasure: “teaching the young crewmen how to do their jobs more efficiently and safely. They all had so little experience.”
Finally, the lights came on.
“I walked in a concrete one-room house to just see one light hanging from some old wood boards going across the roof,” VonBokern recalls. “That’s when it really hit home for me. All the big problems I thought I had weren’t problems at all anymore.”
You Will Never Forget
Despite accolades like the hashtag #ThankALineman, VonBokern says he doesn’t want any thanks. He gives thanks.
“It was a very humbling experience,” he says of his trips to Haiti. “It made me feel very proud to call myself a lineman. Any opportunity I get to better the life of someone else, I will give my best to do so. That’s what cooperatives are about. It’s all about the member.”
He may not be a rich man by bank balance standards, but volunteering in Haiti made VonBokern realize just how rich he is.
“People here complain about a streetlight being out for a night in their driveway, but those folks would build a town around a streetlight just so they can work and sell in the light at nighttime to make a living,” he says. “I often think back and realize how blessed I am to live here in a more developed society. We all take for granted what those folks pray about having.”
Those folks left an indelible impression on him.
“No matter what, you will never forget all the smiling faces. Those people had so little, yet they were so happy and loving towards each other,” VonBokern says. “I knew we were paving the way for a better future. Reliable electricity would bring so many jobs to the people. Most of them made fishing nets for a living or worked in the factory. Now electricity has opened up a whole world of opportunities to make a decent living. From refrigeration of foods to a steady income—everyone wins.”
Would he go back?
“In a heartbeat,” he says. “God gave me a great set of work skills. It would be a shame if I didn’t use them to my full potential and help anyone and everyone I could if I got the chance.”
Uganda Rural Electrification Agency
Off-Grid Renewable Energy Development Manager
“Without electricity, you cannot be productive.”
Benon Bena has made it his life’s work to bring electricity to the rural parts of his country, Uganda.
“Electricity is an enabler of development and improves the quality of life,” he says.
Now the off-grid renewable energy development manager in Uganda’s Rural Electrification Agency (REA), Bena says “the passion” started back in 2000. At the time, he was a young energy officer in Uganda’s Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development. He’d been tasked with turning around a failing solar project intended to provide power to a rural town. When he was finished, power was flowing and the ministry adopted every aspect of the revamped project—equipment and installation standards, grid connection, financing, training, and consumer education—as the model for all future solar-based electrification work.
“I saw the difference I could make,” he says.
Reaching Rural Uganda
Bena says the slow and intermittent progress was frustrating, but his outlook began to change in 2010, when, as part of a World Bank initiative, NRECA International started work on rural electrification strategies and master plans for all 13 electric service territories in Uganda. Now funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the NRECA team has completed six plans and will finish the remaining seven by early 2018.
“With the master planning, NRECA has enabled us to move on to the next step,” he says. “When it is complete, we can map out the whole country and see where we can improve access.”
NRECA International leaders are optimistic as well.
“The Ugandan government has made a bona fide commitment to rural electrification,” says Dan Waddle, senior vice president for NRECA International. “And having a passionate advocate like Benon at the Uganda REA is an invaluable resource as we build our electrification plans. It’s people like him that ultimately make the difference in a massive project like this.”
Bena says the electrification plans and his government’s commitment are already having an impact on development.
“You’re able to see the growth of the trade centers when people know electricity is coming,” he says. “The land prices go up. The building boom starts. … The opportunity for economic development appears.”
‘A Very Exciting Time’
Bena was fortunate to have had electricity growing up in his hometown of Mbarara in southwestern Uganda. But just a few miles away, his family’s farm wasn’t electrified until 2015 when Uganda’s national grid was expanded to the area.
“We are lucky that access has improved,” he says. “I have relatives who still don’t have electricity.”
Experiencing the benefits of electrification and seeing the limitations of life without it, Bena decided early on to work toward bringing development to rural Uganda.
He studied agricultural engineering at Makere University in Kampala, Uganda’s capital city, and earned a master’s degree in engineering from the University of Melbourne in Australia. In 2000, he joined the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development and moved to the REA in 2008.
“My whole career, I knew I wanted to help bring electricity to the Ugandan people,” Bena says. “With the progress we’ve made, it’s a very exciting time.”
But even with the best plans in hand, the hurdles working in impoverished areas of sub-Saharan Africa can be daunting.
“Affordability and ability for consumers to pay for electricity is a big challenge,” Bena says. “But it is most important for them to pay for connections. We must make the business of electrification financially viable.”
He says limited government resources and rural Uganda’s geography and settlement patterns are also impediments, but NRECA’s use of geographic information systems (GIS) in their planning is a major step toward solving the puzzle of connecting Uganda’s rural communities. Using the platform, they are able to analyze which unconnected areas can be most easily linked to the existing grid and which communities will need local generation infrastructure.
“NRECA’s GIS platform will provide us with the data we need to help us understand better where the rural populations are,” he says. “With this, we can map out the whole country and conduct economic analyses to help us make the investments to expand access.”
“I’m not doing this alone,” Bena frequently notes when discussing rural electrification efforts.
He lavishes credit on Uganda’s top officials as well as his REA co-workers and other leaders, not only in Kampala but in the states and villages as well.
But like most people who have worked to bring systemic improvements to impoverished nations, Bena tempers his optimism.
“My hope and dream is for electricity access to increase, everyone to have electricity in their houses, and for their lives to improve,” he says. “But we must be willing to use different approaches to achieve our electrification goals. We should also take advantage of the changes and advances in technology, and we should do it rationally.”