CWRU senior lights family’s night near African desert

Joe Toth
Joe Toth, center, directs his colleagues from the University of Botswana as they install solar electricity in a traditional hut in rural Botswana.

Joe Toth’s research and ingenuity, with help from fellow students in Botswana, provided electricity to a widow and her three children in their hut at the edge of the Kalahari Desert.

The mother, Tlhabologang Mosadi Kebopetswe, through an interpreter, said she was happy her children could now do their homework after dark.

Toth, a senior chemical engineering major at Case Western Reserve University, calculated the amount of power a solar system would need to generate, the battery to store nighttime energy, the wiring and more as part of the Sustainable Energy in Sub-Saharan Africa research program sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Funding was obtained by Case Western Reserve chemical engineering professors Daniel Lacks and Mohan Sankaran, who designed the program as a companion to the Engineering 225 course they have taught with faculty at the University of Botswana since 2011.

Toth, 21, from Champion, Ohio, has studied electrostatics—the properties of stationary and slow moving electrical charges—with Lacks and Sankaran for more than a year. They asked him to apply to the program.

In Mmanoko, a village of a few hundred people, Kebopetswe’s home usually went dark with the sunset, except when she saved enough money to buy a candle.

Tlhabologang Mosadi Kebopetswe
Tlhabologang Mosadi Kebopetswe, a widowed mother of three, was pleased her children could now do their homework at night.

“It has always been our way of life, but I’m glad it is about to change,” Kebopetswe told a reporter from her local newspaper, The Midweek Sun,as Toth and the nine other members of the sustainable energy group installed the solar system. “Now my family can be like other people.”

Nearly a month earlier, Toth, Lauren Weston of Smith College, Mich’a Gary of Tuskegee University, Alexandra Stern of the University of Notre Dame and Lauren Bustamante of the University of New Mexico, and the University of Botswana’s Lefu Maqelepo, Kabelo Gabanekgosi, Moses Holonga, Modiri Morolong and Thabo Ramosesane were given different sustainable energy research projects.

Toth was assigned to calculate the power needs for three to four lights, a cellphone charger and a radio—which most residents in the rural villages use for news—and put together a solar system that would fill the needs.

Each project was limited to a $600 budget. Toth scouted hardware stores and solar panel dealers in and around the capital city of Gabarone.

“As a group on the weekends, we would accompany him going around the city, talking to different solar suppliers,” said Stern, a junior civil engineering major who documented the work with photographs and helped with installation. “But Joe was the driving force behind the project.”

On excursions in the city, Toth and some of the other Americans sampled impala and oxen at local restaurants. They spent free time watching the African Youth Games Botswana hosted and the closing ceremony. The Kenyan team stayed on campus. Often, the Americans just hung out with their peers from the university—peers Toth would like to return to visit, and whom Stern called fast friends.

Because of the tight budget, a modest rural home in Mmanoko, a village about 25 miles northwest of Gabarone, was chosen over an urban home for this project, explained Clever Ketlogetswe, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Botswana and a leader of the program. The university approached the Village Developing Committee and Welfare Office, who identified a family who would benefit.

Toth thought he was good to go until a couple of days before they were to install the system. Then he discovered the panels would be installed on a thatched roof.

“The biggest challenge was to mount something strong enough to hold the panels on thatch,” he said. “And we had to ensure there was space between the panels and the roof. The panels can get very hot, and we needed to reduce the risk of fire.”

In the end, he placed metal strips beneath the panels to boost them off the thatch, while long bolts anchored the panels deep in the roof. The panels were wired to a regulator and battery and the house was wired with lights and outlets.

Kebopetswe’s children arrived after school to see the last of the construction and electrical work.

“Watching the kids, they were very curious, like all kids, and the mother was very pleased with how it turned out,” said Weston, a senior majoring in engineering science who helped make some of the parts, gather tools and install the system. “She was truly proud when she turned the light switch on and off and saw the results.”