Why is the world’s best rock climber setting up a solar project in Angola?

It's alive!  The first SMART solar system in Southern Africa

It’s alive! The first SMART solar system in Southern Africa

Every good expat aid worker loves nothing more than filling in new countries on their travel map: new visas to stick in their passports, new local cultures to teach the locals about, and new characters to write home about.  The past two weeks in Angola certainly did not disappoint; the best part of this job is still the fascinating places you get to go and ridiculously interesting people you get to meet: guys who climb the hardest rock faces on earth and in their spare time set up solar projects, de-miners (as in people who go out into fields of landmines and blow them up), Vice Media producers and incredibly skilled freelance photographers, like-minded off-grid solar professionals, and some of Angola’s top business and government leaders.  And after two weeks, it appears the solar revolution is safely under way in Southern Africa.  Plus there should soon be a pretty rad Vice Sports documentary about the whole thing!

Waku Kungo, Angola

Waku Kungo, Angola

I found out I was going to Angola about 5 weeks ago when Laurent, one of BBOXX’s co-founders, approached my desk and asked in his deep Belgian voice, “so Andrew, do you want to go to Angola to help set up a Vice documentary?”

Angola?  Vice Media?  That sounds like something I’d say yes to.  But tell me again, why are we going to Angola again?

It turns out that one of the world’s best rock climbers wanted to set up a solar project in rural Angola, and we’d been selected to do it.

I didn’t see that one coming.

Alex Honnold is known for doing incredible—some might say incredibly dangerous—feats that no one else does, like climb El Capitan with no ropes.  I don’t know if it quite compares to riding a motorcycle on Entebbe Road in terms of danger, but it’s still pretty hardcore.  Alex has sponsorships from The North Face and many other companies, but still lives simply (he lives in a van, for example, so he can travel the world climbing).  As a result, he earns more money than he actually needs, and has used this money to set up a foundation in his name.  But while you might expect based on other athletes’ charities that this foundation would be focused on setting up climbing gyms in inner cities, the Honnold Foundation has its sights set on bigger things—indeed, the biggest issue facing mankind today: climate change and the urgent adoption of renewable energy.

This looked really hard

This looked really hard: Stacy Bare belays Alex Honnold who seems to enjoy climbing upside down like this

To this end, the Honnold Foundation had given BBOXX a grant to lay the seeds of a solar business in a country far from anywhere we’d tried to do business before: Angola.  At a minimum we’d be able to get solar energy into 100 or so homes.  But in the best case scenario, the project would help kickstart a much bigger business that could bring solar electricity to millions of people.  And a bit of this, hopefully, would be captured on film to bring attention to the issue to the world.

Why Angola?  It turns out that one of the other key members of the climbing crew, North Face athlete and Sierra Club ambassador Stacy Bare, had formerly worked for HALO Trust removing landmines in Cuanza Sul Province – he knew the need, and coming to Angola was his idea.  More on the energy need in Angola in later posts.

Angola is not a country you just walk into and set up shop – it’s almost as hard for a European or American to get a visa to Angola as it is for most Africans to get a visa to Europe or the United States.  (Interestingly, I hear these restrictions have been put in place fairly recently because so many Europeans have been fleeing austerity and seeking opportunities in Angola.  How ironic!)  You can’t get the visa on arrival, but you also can’t get a visa in Uganda or Rwanda since there is no Angolan Embassy in either country.  Instead I had to fly to Nairobi to apply for the visa.  It took five days, but with assistance from the surprisingly helpful consular staff, I finally got the visa—the first step (and biggest project risk) was out of the way.

Visa in hand, I arrived in Luanda on a Sunday, with a suitcase loaded with a BB17 SMART and ready to find someone willing to set up a solar shop somewhere in this vast country.

Check back soon for more updates.


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