Life-Changing Co-op in Tanzania

Written by Gianna Scioletti, a fourth-year student at Northeastern majoring in Electrical and Computer Engineering. At Northeastern, she plays ultimate frisbee, is a public relations officer for the IEEE student chapter, and enjoys hiking and ballroom dancing when she’s free. Outside of her interest in engineering, Gianna is passionate about making music and learning foreign languages. She has the soul of a traveler and therefore chose to complete her second co-op in Tanzania at a solar energy startup called Sikubora.

Life-Changing Co-op in Tanzania

I didn’t plan to end up in Tanzania for co-op, but I’m overjoyed that I did. When I was sifting through the international job descriptions on COOL, I held the attitude that it didn’t matter much to me where I chose a co-op, and that I was looking with an open mind for any international engineering experience. After hearing from the companies I applied to, I felt pulled to the one opportunity that reached slightly beyond my comfort zone, enticing me toward an area I’ve never visited. I knew at the moment that I was accepted to a position at the solar energy company Sikubora that I wanted to live in East Africa for six months.

Before arriving in Tanzania, I tried imagining what life would be like on another continent in a different hemisphere. I knew I’d encounter a culture entirely different from my own, and I craved this experience for months until I finally arrived. I had read that the national languages of Tanzania are Swahili and English, so I figured I would be able to communicate with ease. As it turns out, English is taught in primary and secondary schools, but just as an American who took Spanish classes during high school might not continue speaking proficient Spanish beyond, many older Tanzanians do not speak much English. I’ve been learning Swahili since my arrival and have welcomed this challenge in communicating effectively with residents. Before arriving, I worried a lot about mosquitos, but so far there haven’t been too many, and certainly not exceeding the amount in my hometown outside Boston at this time. I completely forgot to consider the opposite season cycle, though this held little consequence as the climate 5000 feet above sea level and 3 degrees latitude below the equator turns out to be fairly moderate. Winter, the season during which I arrived, means 50 to 60 degree Fahrenheit and cloudy mornings, with the sun usually emerging in the afternoon and early evening. Other than these minor thoughts, I honestly had no idea what to expect.

Now that I have spent almost two months in Tanzania, I am loving my co-op experience here. Sikubora is a solar energy startup located a little outside of town. (It’s worth mentioning that “siku bora” in Swahili means “a better day.”) The company, founded by Northeastern alumnus Jeffrey Hollister, aims to fill the energy supply gap, as 75% of Tanzanian homes are living unconnected to the electricity grid. These residents are currently using kerosene lamps, battery-powered flashlights and radios, and other unsustainable energy solutions. Sikubora makes it possible for rural homeowners, shopkeepers, and farmers to power their lives with renewable energy by financing their purchase of a solar energy system. My favorite part of working at Sikubora is the startup feel. By this term, I mean that Sikubora is small and at an exciting point in its development as a company. In a working environment with about 15 other people, there are opportunities to take responsibility for a variety of tasks and projects. So far, I have helped at a solar home system installation, analyzed data from the charge controller in order to predict system overuse, and—my favorite—have had the opportunity to develop android apps to improve the efficiency of company processes. (I apologize that this post is beginning to sound like a resume.)

The first android app-ortunity came to me as more of a surprise to me than that pun might just have to you. Never before coming to Tanzania had I tried developing for android, mainly because I currently have an iPhone. Sikubora’s IT developer mentioned that it’d be nice to have an android version of the site evaluation process and that I should give it a try. I then downloaded an android developing environment and started teaching myself. This kind of opportunity can most certainly be attributed to Sikubora’s flexible environment and small size. Without prior knowledge, I would probably not apply to any job with a description that includes “android programming,” but in this new learning environment, I don’t need to feel inhibited by skills I don’t know. I can instead remind myself that I simply don’t know them yet.

Inside the office life is good, but one part of work outside the office that has provided me with such a rich sociocultural experience is the solar installation. Sikubora travels far outside its office in the area of Kisongo in order to reach customers. The first installation I went on was over an hour’s drive outside the center of Arusha, far into a Masai village. I was breathless over the beautiful scenery, countless livestock, and vastly different culture from my own. In the village, I was able to see how solar energy can change lives. We were in the middle of nowhere, with no electrical grid in sight, yet people were conducting their lives with the same needs as all people have. I saw a school near the installation site, and I imagined children returning home to the boma without light to complete work in the evening. I saw the shop where we were installing, that it was a central place in the village where people could come to buy goods, and now to hear news of the outside world on the newly installed television of the solar home system. After having sat in the office all week, attending the installation was not only a nice change of pace, but it also gave me a genuine sense of the company’s impact.

Beyond work, life in Arusha satisfies me every day. In Tanzania, the motto is practically “polepole,” which means “slowly,” so tardiness isn’t chastised the way it is in America, and people simply take their time. My only problem with this motto is walking in the streets. I walk pretty quickly, at a speed that must be about five times the national average walking pace; however, this annoyance is a tiny price to pay for the rich experience that is living in Arusha. So much of my favorite produce is grown nearby and available in the local markets, such as cassava, taro, avocado, passionfruit, and sugarcane. When my mouth isn’t watering, I like hiking and outdoor adventures, and around Arusha there are many national parks, including the one home to Mount Kilimanjaro. It’s a blessing to be surrounded by such splendor every day. I also feel thankful to have found a community of ultimate frisbee players here. I worried that I would lose a lot of the practice I had put in last year, but now I am playing with the Arusha Ultimate group every weekend. If you think the good times end here, you should know that my roommate and I also found a guitar to borrow here. A very kind woman also from America heard that we were looking for one, so she offered to let us take hers and return it before we leave. Coming home from a long day at work, I feel at peace when there’s a guitar waiting for me. I never expected it, but everything I love at home followed me to Africa.

They say not to count your blessings, but in my environment it would be impossible to count them anyway. Tanzania has welcomed me with open arms and offered an unforgettable learning experience that I will hold close for the rest of my life.

Related Departments:Electrical & Computer Engineering