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Not-So-Renewable Resources

There is a downward spiral of destruction to our Mother Earth escalating daily throughout the world. Fortunately for us all, countries like Mali are facing these challenges in a brave new way. Have you ever wondered where the flame on your stove comes from? You can turn a knob on your stove and like magic a flame will rise and disappear when you're finished cooking. The fact is that even though they are often times invisible, there's nothing magical about gases. What you can't see when you turn on your stove is the gas released to light the flame. People who live in villages, like the Tuaregs we visited, cook outside without the use of major appliances like stoves and refrigerators. Other villagers build ovens out of clay and mud that burn wood to create the fire. They even use the wood to build their village tents. Where does the wood come from? Once you cut down a tree, can it grow back or be replanted?

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Village oven made of clay and mud
These are all questions I had before I met Ibrahim Togola at the Folkcenter for Renewable Energy here in Bamako. He explained how simple necessities like creating gas to light a stove, chopping timber to burn in ovens or to use to build village huts can permanently damage our land. Once you cut down trees, for example, the ground can be used for farming during that season. But once the rains come, the fertile soils are washed away because there are no trees to hold in the ground. That soil then flows down into the river, contaminating the water and killing the river life, leaving the ground permanently stripped of its fertility. In order to survive the village must move to a new area where the resources are once again plentiful, only to start the same cycle all over again.

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Natural splendor -- do we really want to destroy it?
What happens when there are no more resources, when you can't just move to another area because all of the land has been depleted? People like Ibrahim have been asking that question for years now, and have successfully discovered ways to create the energy we need using resources that can be replenished or renewed, without permanently damaging our land. It's called renewable energy.

For centuries indigenous people have relied on the land to provide life's basic necessities. Over the years, some of these small groups evolved into the great nations of the world. And today countries like the US continue in the tradition of taking from the land, despite their knowledge of readily available technologies that provide simple, yet extraordinary alternatives. To adopt these new technologies would allow us to put an end to the vicious cycle that's ravaging our earth. After seeing the damage one village can do over extended periods of time, I can only imagine how detrimental an entire country, a large country like ours, has been on the land. I wondered why this technology isn't sweeping the nation back home in the US. The fact is that even though larger nations consume more resources in one day than small villages do in a year, they can afford to ignore the problem just a little while longer. When local resources are depleted in developed countries, like the US, we just import the materials we need - an option small villages don't have.

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A Tuareg woman cooking in her desert kitchen.
That's where people like Ibrahim and his co-workers at the Folkcenter for Renewable Energy come in. The Folkcenter for Renewable Energy is an independent non-governmental organization (NGO). It was established in 1983 to pave the way for renewable energy by developing, testing, and demonstrating technologies designed for manufacturing in small and medium sized industries. The Folkcenter is organized with technical division for wind energy, solar energy, and biogas/co-generation. The center is active on three major fronts: in the development of renewable energy systems, as a consultant to manufacturers and consumer groups in the production and erection of systems, and finally, in disseminating information on renewable energy and ecology. The center is based in Denmark and funded by the Danish Parliament and other local authorities, so how did it get all the way to Mali?

Over the years the Folkcenter realized that the same technology initially used in industries could be helpful for agricultural villages like the ones here in Mali. So they began to form international networks including partners in Western and Eastern Europe and in many third world countries. They have conducted projects for large-scale wind power in Poland, Brazil, Russia, and Siberia. Small-scale renewable energy technology from the center can be found in several African countries, in India, Mexico, Greenland etc. It sounds simple enough to spout off a list of countries that host Folkcenter offices but the sheer energy it takes to open each office could use a technology of its own. In this case it's been the personal motivation and energy of Ibrahim Togola that is bringing these resources to the people of Mali.

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Poor use of resources -- how many trees did it take to make this skylight?
A native of Koulokoni, a small town north of Bamako, Ibrahim went to school and unlike many children in Mali he continued all the way through. He eventually graduated number one in his high school class and received a full scholarship to a college in Russia. After seven years of studying abroad, he earned a Bachelors degree in Electromechanics, a Masters degree in Environmental Policy and Economics, and a second Masters degree in Non-Traditional and Renewable Energy Sources. In addition to Bambara, his native language, Ibrahim speaks fluent Danish, Russian, English and French. He learned about the Danish Folkcenter while completing his Masters programs and has been working with them ever since. Upon completion of his studies he could have easily chosen to work abroad and continue his career in Denmark but he knew how much the technology could benefit his country, so he decided to return to Mali. After a year of coordinating meetings between the Folkcenter, the Malian President and the different Ministers of the country, he successfully got approval and funding to open a Folkcenter office in Bamako.

Now as the Regional Director of the NGO Mali-Folkcenter for Renewable Energy, Ibrahim focuses all of his energy on creating change. His passion was inspirational and I was touched by his faith in his country. "Mali is full of potential!" he said with serious eyes and a caring smile. "And I hope to teach people how to better utilize their natural resources to improve our standard of life." Thus the Mali-Folkcenter plans to address the specific needs of the Malian people. Mali imports most of its fertilizer, for example, but it has a large livestock industry. Composting technologies teach farmers how to cultivate better farms and gardens by creating their own fertilizer from the animal waste that is already readily available. By using very inexpensive composting techniques families can also setup systems that create gases, called bio-gas, from the manure that can be used to light stoves. These household bio-gas plants can be easily constructed in about 1 to 2 days for about $50 US dollars. This would save trees, land, and money.

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This village is made of sand and mud -- a great use of natural resources
There are even natural resources of energy in the sun and wind. The sun is very bright in Mali, so the Folkcenter shows people how to turn solar energy into electricity; electricity that would provide light in clinics making local treatment possible. The electricity would also preserve vaccines and medicines that need to be refrigerated. The wind can power wind mills and wind pumps that can penetrate water supplies beneath the earth's surface. This simple solution goes a long way for people who have no source of uncontaminated water for cooking, eating, bathing, and drinking.

While a lot of time and energy go into developing local technologies, self-development is also a top priority. The literacy rate for Malians is 29% (15% in the countryside). Ibrahim realized that before people could make changes in their country, they would have to be educated to understand the world around them. He hopes that this education will strengthen pride in aspects of Malian culture that people look down on. Signs of wealth, for example, are apparent in they type of house you live in. If a family can afford it, they would choose to build a cement home or a home made of exquisite wood framing which is a far greater drain on natural resources than the mud houses commonly built by the poorer people. The fact is that it's a far better use of resources and energy to use local materials like straw, mud, and clay to build. Buildings equally as strong and elaborate as any cement structure can save money and help to preserve the land. These are the types of solutions the Folkcenter hopes to share with the people of Mali - solutions we can benefit from as well.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Abeja - Abeja gets M.A.D. - She's Making a Difference!
Kevin - Beam Me Up, Scotty! Life in Mali
Abeja - Water, Water Everywhere, but Not Enough to Drink!
Monica - Corps des Volontaires Maliens: Young People Make a Difference

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