Solar power boosts struggling Tunisia school – Middle East Monitor

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Ten years ago, the Makthar Residential School in northern Tunisia had little clean drinking water or heat, poor food and almost 570 students had no electricity.

But now, solar water heaters ensure hot water for showers and solar panels produce enough electricity not only to power the school and three others nearby, but to feed the national grid, providing a small income towards costs pay another school.

Lotfi Hamadi, a Tunisian entrepreneur who helped finance the renewable energy installations, hopes that they can be expanded to more schools, make them more efficient to operate and more conducive to learning – and limit the rate leaving the country.

“I hope that the successful experience of this school as a social enterprise can help save the deteriorating public school sector throughout Tunisia,” the 46-year-old said in an interview.

Hamadi, the founder of “Wallah (Swear to God) We Can”, a non-profit organization, grew up in France and moved to Canada but returned to Tunisia after the late President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali was ousted in the 2011 revolution.

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Aware of the problems at the school in Makthar – in the Siliana Governorate – Hamadi started collecting money from corporate donors to help with the aim of the problems that had caused about 526,000 students to leave the school in five to mitigate the past year. 22 percent of the student population.

With 100,000 Tunisian dinars ($32,250), he bought 50 solar water heaters and photovoltaic panels capable of producing 45,000 kilowatts (kWh) of power, four times more than the school needs to operate.

While some of the surplus is provided for free to other nearby schools, a minority is sold to Tunisia’s national power grid, generating about 6,000 dinars ($1,915) a year in revenue, which has been used to pay off school debt. reduce and finance other costs.

The project comes with the Tunisian government’s drive to achieve at least 4,000 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy by 2030 – both solar and wind – covering 35 percent of the country’s electricity, as it seeks to import reduce natural gas.

In recent years, Tunisia has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in renewable energy projects from solar plants to wind farms, and its officials have met with global financing institutions, such as the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation to discuss the strategy and investment of to present a country. expectations.

However, renewable energy currently accounts for 3 percent of Tunisia’s energy mix, according to the government, and some analysts are skeptical that the country will be able to meet its 2030 target.

“Red tape, political instability and cabinet reshuffles are hindering Tunisia’s plans to carry out renewable energy projects and boost production,” said Abdessalem El Khazen, a renewable energy consultant based in Tunis.

Green pressure

Today, students at Makthar Preparatory School – painted in white, green and red – study in classrooms that are warm even during the town’s bitter winter, with lights provided to enable them to work at night.

An electronic board in the schoolyard shows how much solar energy is used each day, and school staff have been trained to carry out repairs and maintenance of the solar systems.

Chaima Rhouma, a former student at the school who is now a spokesperson for “Wallah We Can”, said that students have seen big changes since the days when classrooms felt brutally cold in the winter.

“After the project was implemented, we were able to take hot showers and have hot rooms,” she said.

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Not only do students directly benefit from green energy, they also learn about it during extracurricular activities, such as permaculture classes, according to teacher, Donia Msihli.

“I teach them how solar panels can be used for heat and fuel on farms. They are also being taught how to maintain such solar systems,” she said. “​​​​(It) would be useful for the students in any relevant positions in the future.”

The clean energy installation is just part of a wider green push at the school – including an 8-hectare (20-acre) farm that provides vegetables for the school and jobs for half a dozen parents who were already unemployed at the school.

Surplus produce is sold on the market in Tunisia to raise extra money for the school.

“It is a rescue project for us and our children,” said Habiba Baradi, 41 years old, a mother who works on the farm, and whose two children attend the boarding school.

Schools under pressure

Tunisia’s public schools today face a range of challenges, particularly as a result of the economy losing “a decade of growth” since the 2011 revolution due to over-regulation, less trade and low investment, according to the World Bank.

In September, the Ministry of Education said 75 percent of 10-year-old students and 83 percent of 13-year-old students were “semi-illiterate”.

Hamadi, the entrepreneur, said that there is not much funding available to upgrade schools and most of the Ministry of Education’s budget is tied to staff salaries.

At Makthar Preparatory School, the benefits of having extra income to help pay for upgrades are obvious.

A former student, Amany Ben Ammar, 16, who graduated two years ago, said the mixed-gender school now offers a dozen clubs dedicated to things like entrepreneurship, robotics, web design, watching cinema and football. the girls.

“The entrepreneurship club was the best for me”, said Ben Ammar, who launched a website to promote tourism in her hometown of Makthar.

After Ramadan, in March and April, Hamadi’s organization will begin work to replicate the Makthar project in three other schools in the provinces of Bizerte, Gabes and Kairouan, he said.

Improving schools is essential to give hope to Tunisians – weary after years of economic and political woes – that life could get better, he said.

“I believe it is possible. The children in this small poor town (of Makthar) can get an education similar to the education given in New York or Paris,” he said. “And this generation can bring about the change we have long hoped for.”

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The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.

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