Lighting Up the Andes

A Canadian couple is lighting up remote villages in Bolivia using white LEDs, solar panels, and a little help from their friends

14 min read
Photo: Hubert Stadler/Corbis
Photo: Hubert Stadler/Corbis

image The hillsides of the Bolivian Andes are home to many villages like Tahana, where power lines don’t go and families rely instead on sooty kerosene lamps that fill their homes with a thick, acrid smoke. Photo: Hubert Stadler/Corbis

I’m standing in the fading light of a Bolivian fall day, watching—along with much of the village of Tahana—as Anthony Harckham, with tools and wires in hand, heaves his 6-foot-plus Canadian frame onto the corrugated steel roof of a small, mud-walled home. With the glacial peaks of Mount Illampu, the northern bookend to Bolivia’s Cordillera Real, as a backdrop, Anthony improvises a way to tack up a 15-by-20-centimeter solar panel with wood screws, and then he feeds wires from the panel under the eaves and into the home. I squeeze into the home’s small living space to watch Anthony and his wife, Faith, connect the wires to a 12-volt lead-acid battery pack, which is wired through a switch box to a pair of lamps—transparent plastic boxes each jammed with a dozen white light-emitting diodes, or LEDs. One lamp hangs from a narrow ceiling beam, while a second is located in an adjoining lean-to that serves as a kitchen. The sun is all but gone when the Harckhams finally flip a toggle switch and the LEDs jump to life to cast a bluish beam of light, eliciting smiles from the homeowners and their excited, chattering neighbors.

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