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Sikubora – A Better Day

girl in jogging clothes with hands on him on road looking out at sunset

Written by Linnaea Cahill, a fourth year BS in Civil Engineering student.


From Rafael Landivar in Guatemala, Linnaea is involved in the Latinx community on campus, the Engineers Without Borders Guatemala program, NU American Society of Civil Engineers Chapter and the NU Culture and Language Learning Society. Off campus, Linnaea may be found skating on a pond, running, biking in all weather, cooking, and dancing.

She completed her last co-op at a Sikubora, a Tanzanian social enterprise.

Sikubora (A Better Day)

It is dark at night here. Walking down the dirt road through my rural neighborhood at 7:30pm, I can barely see the movement of a person walking in the opposite direction, the shape of a girl and her mother in the glow of coals under a pot of mandazi – a donut-like snack that they sell for 10 cents – and two young men with a candle to illuminate their game of checkers; besides that, it is dark and I need to lift my feet to not trip on the uneven ground.

My neighborhood is one of few that is actually connected to the grid, but power outages are so frequent that this has become a typical evening. Most people (70% of the population) don’t have electricity at all, they use lamps fueled by expensive kerosene or live in the dark after sunset.

Siku bora means a better day in Swahili, and the objective of the company is to bring just that to many families, one solar home system at a time. During the first month of my co-op, I went on an installation trip for a family not far out of Arusha. The customer, Mrs. Furahini Singano has a typical homestead for this area: an adobe house with chickens running around the yard and a garden with banana plants in the back. Using the little Swahili I knew, I started a hand clapping game with her daughter and she told me how excited she was to be getting the TV that comes with the 80 Watt system we were installing. The mother was more concerned with her older son having light to do homework and power to charge a cell phone. No matter what each of them was looking forward to, there is no doubt that the solar home system would improve their health and wellbeing.

Sikubora was founded by Jeff Hollister, an ’80 Northeastern graduate, five years ago with the goal of making solar energy available to the nearly 70 % of Tanzanians who are not connected to the grid. The company has since grown to have fifteen full-time employees, mostly graduates of a local technical college. It has developed package products to meet the power needs of families, schools and clinics in and around Arusha, a city of 400,000 located in the north of the country between Mt Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti, making it the tourism capital of Tanzania. Families are given affordable payment options, by financing their solar home systems over a three-year period and free service and maintenance to their systems.

As one of two Northeastern co-ops at Sikubora, I reported directly to the managing director and had a variety of responsibilities and projects to work on. Tasks included the management of the Enterprise Resource Plan, coding the interface between the database and user-friendly web pages using SQL, PHP and javascript. Working on the business strategy, financial model and product pricing as well as designing improved components for package solar home systems.

I enjoyed having a level of responsibility and independence in completing tasks that allowed me to significantly contribute to Sikubora’s operations and hopefully have brought me to leave it in better shape than when I started. The working environment was very relaxed, everyone is friends and there is plenty of conversation across the open office and laughter. We take an hour-long lunch break in the shade of trees in front of the office and some of my coworkers that I became closer to would help me practice Swahili and make me feel like part of the team. I was always busy, but not pressured as typical of the Tanzanian pole-pole (slow-slow) lifestyle. All my coworkers speak English, but it is still an interesting experience to communicate in formal and informal context.

The office is located about 10km from the Arusha-town, accessible by public 10-passenger vans (that fit up to 20 people and a couple chickens) for TSH 500 (USD 0.20). I liked to bike to work instead of taking the crowded bus, although traffic was crazy, I enjoyed the liberty of taking detours and getting around town without depending on bus routes.

Outside of work, I enjoyed living in Arusha very much. There is always something going on, streets are busy with pedestrians, bikes, motorcycles, carts of produce, goats, and buses. You’ll hear music playing, people yelling, buying and selling wares. Markets spill onto the streets with an endless supply of fresh produce, depending on the season there may be more mangos or more avocados, all prices can be haggled and by speaking a bit of Swahili the market ladies would call me their little sister and throw in a few extra oranges. Some typical foods are chapati and chai for breakfast, ugali (a stiff porridge) with meat and cooked greens with a pineapple avocado juice for lunch and chipsmayai (french-fries fried in scrambled eggs) with grilled beef skewers for dinner.

Tanzanian Swahili culture is a mix of Bantu (typical across sub-Saharan Africa), Indian, Arab a little bit of European. The Indian culture is especially visible in food and in a significant minority population. I knew a little bit of Arabic before going to Tanzania, so it was nice to find some Swahili words with Arabic roots and hear some Arabic expressions used mostly among Muslims. Arusha also has a large expat community; mostly Europeans, also Australians, Americans and people from across Africa working for the UN, safari companies, travel agencies, NGOs and farms. There are many volunteers, interns and people with short contracts that make the ex-pat community very open, diverse and easy to fit into and make friends.

I tried to make the most of my weekends, traveling to national parks, going on wildlife safaris to see lions, giraffes, zebra, and beautiful birds, climbing mountains a few mountains, and Oldonyo Lengai, an active volcano. I fell in love with Mount Meru, the extinct volcano that Arusha sits at the base of, and would often bike up to the edge of the forest or hike the pock-mark foothills and craters with friends. If I stayed in the city over the weekend I would play pick up soccer and go out to eat, dance and enjoy Tanzanian nightlife.

It was very hard to leave Tanzania, good friends and too many places left to explore. I am definitely more homesick for Tanzania being in Boston, than I was for Boston being there.

If you would like to read more about my Tanzania experience, check out my blog:

Related Departments:Civil & Environmental Engineering