Photograph — McGill News

Early this year, Salima Visram made headlines for her humane ingenuity; the final year college student of McGill University in Montreal, Canada, launched a crowd-funding for ‘The Soular Backpack’, an early-stage social enterprise.

Over a 6 month period, Salima designed and put together ‘The Soular Backpack’, which would allow kids in rural areas to leverage the power of the sun on their long walks to and from school every day. The backpack has a solar panel on it, with a storage battery to be connected to an LED lamp. This enables school children in rural areas, who have no access to electricity, study through the night, as a three to four hours walk in the sun would result in seven to eight hours of light.

Salima surpassed her crowdfunding goal of $40 000; instead $50,051 was raised by 501 people in two months. Two months ago, the business delivered its first 500 backpacks to students of Kikambala Primary School, a government school in Mombasa, Kenya.

Growing up in a home near the village of Kikambala, a place “where 22 000 people live below the poverty line,” just to the north of Mombasa, Kenya, Salima witnessed the effects of poverty and the lack of electricity on school children, and was determined to do something to address it, hence the idea for the Soular backpack.

Kenyan students with the soular backpack Credit - BBC
Kenyan students with the soular backpack
Credit – BBC

Though the idea for the backpack came during her study at the at McGill University, Salima credits her leadership skill to her secondary school, the Aga Khan Academy Mombasa, saying it helped her grow her community development skills, and improve her leadership skills. “I received an educational experience beyond the classroom that helped me learn about the real-world implications of what I was studying.”

Each backpack, including the LED light is made at the cost $20, which is not affordable for rural dwellers. To subsidise production cost, Salima looks to partner with UNICEF, the UNHCR, and the Kenyan government to expand the project to schools in Kenya and the rest of Africa.

Most rural households in Kenya can only afford kerosene lamps, this forces school children to rely on the toxic and expensive fuel to study at night. About 25 percent of monthly household income is spent on kerosene; those who can’t afford it don’t get to study at night.

Besides tackling the issue of poverty, education, and electricity, the soular backpack also tackles health issues. According to the World Bank, 4,000 deaths occur daily as a result of kerosene-induced illnesses, therefore, studying with a solar powered alternative would increase the health levels of millions of children.

Salima Vikram with the villagers of Kikambala Credit - Canadian living
Salima Visram with the villagers of Kikambala
Credit – Canadian living

Salima Visram also plans to make parents save money that would have been spent on kerosene, for secondary school education. Additionally, there are plans to sell the backpacks in America, using a one-for-one model; for every backpack bought, the company will provide one for a child in need in Africa.

“If successful, I want to expand the project to a hundred schools in the county within the next year and a half. This is in direct alignment with Kenya’s Vision 2030 “Masomo Bora”, which is the nation’s effort to ensure that all children are educated, and realize their full potential,” said Salima.

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