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MBABANE – A kind gesture can reach a wound that only compassion can heal.

This adage serves true for Food Quest, an NGO which will be launching a programme that seeks to roll out solar backpacks to pupils across the country, targeting pupils who have challenges with electricity or cannot even afford to buy a candle for purposes of studying. Solar backpacks are kitted out with lightweight flexible solar panels that convert sunlight into solar energy stored in a battery pack. Local non-governmental organization (NGO), Food Quest Eswatini is on a drive to help the country achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) one and two, which speaks to ending poverty and hunger, achieving food security, and improving nutrition.

In an interview, its Founder Celani Matsenjwa, shared that as much as their main mission was on the reduction of food loss and waste and the delivery of food resources to the hungry, they saw a need to help children whose parents or guardians had limited resources to purchase electricity or sometimes candles. He shared that this was putting some of the scholars at a disadvantaged position, as they could not study due to lack of light, which compromised their studies.  “This is an initiative that seeks to bridge the gap between pupils who can; those who have; as well as those who have no access to adequate electricity or a simple candle to light for the purposes of studying,” he said.

When asked on whether the NGO was manufacturing the solar backpacks, Matsenjwa said they, together with other partners, were procuring them from South Africa and mainland China and were hopeful that more partners and companies would join the initiative, through their corporate social responsibility programmes, to help reach all the needy children through this project. Matsenjwa said the rollout had not began yet as they were looking at launching the initiative first, which is slated for next month. They said they already had approval from the Ministry of Education and Training to go ahead with the initiative. Matsenjwa shared that a 14-year-old girl from Macetjeni, in eastern Lubombo, wants to be a doctor when she grows up, to treat her sickly father. She also wants to be able to provide healthcare to her community. Born into a family of three children, her parents make a living from ploughing and weeding the local fields, but their combined wages aren’t enough to put food on the table, let alone buy electricity.


Matsenjwa shared that the girl was one of many emaSwati who could not study after dusk and were, therefore, less likely to graduate and get jobs that could help pull their families out of poverty. Studying for tests and doing assignments at home was not possible for the teenage girl and her siblings. “Sometimes I try to finish my homework at school, but it’s difficult because the schedule is full of lessons and there’s no free time. When I go home, I still have my chores to do, and by the time I finish, it’s dark, and we don’t have light. Waking up early doesn’t help either because there’s just not enough time when you’re trying to get ready for school,” she said. Temasiko Dlamini, who teaches Grade IV and V pupils at Siteki Nazarene Primary School, agreed that many of her pupils faced challenges in their academic journeys and that most came from disadvantaged backgrounds as related by Matsenjwa. “I have had many of my pupils fail to submit their homework on time and fail to perform to the best of their abilities in tests because they just don’t have the means to study ahead of any academic assessment. This, therefore, impacts their overall performance,” she said.


“The fact that these pupils come from homes with no lighting, which affects their academic progress, is a concern that needs to be properly looked into,” added Dlamini. Recognising the plight of schoolchildren in his community, Matsenjwa has rallied like-minded individuals to form Food Quest Eswatini. This local food bank does not only secure surplus and unsalable food and makes it available to those who need it but also provides solar backpacks to schoolchildren. “Seeing so many schoolchildren either carrying their books under their armpits or using plastic bags unsettled me. So, in the 2022 academic year, I started this project, which kills two birds with one stone,” Matsenjwa explained.Matsenjwa added that apart from the bag and food problems, some school children had no reliable source of light, since their homes had no access to the national grid, while others could not afford the high electricity costs. “Most of them have never owned a school bag nor have a reliable source of light back home to do their homework during the night,” he said.


According to Matsenjwa, the backpacks they provide solve this problem since they have a solar panel, an in-built battery, and a light. The solar panel recharges the battery during the day. “The total irradiation reaching the solar panel while the kids journey to school in the morning and back home is enough to recharge the inbuilt battery and can give ample light for up to five hours,” he explained. Matsenjwa said the organisation currently buys solar backpacks from China for E450 (US$25) each and he shared that scaling up would help bring down costs.
“We’ve donated these bags to schools including Mphundle Primary, Kumenini Primary, Sitsatsaweni Primary, and Ndlalane Primary,” he said. Food Quest partners with the corporate community to build on the initiative. “Companies buy these bags on behalf of the kids through their CSI programmes, and they get international recognition through Food Quest Eswatini,” he said.

Nosipho Dlamini, a Social Worker at Hosea’s Heart, which partners with Food Quest Eswatini, said the backpacks were making a difference. “Their lives will be improved as they will be able to focus on their dreams without making excuses for not finishing their work at home because now they will have lights and food supplied often,” she said. With small strides such as these, Food Quest remains resolute in its quest to help children study at home and develop their full potential to become the leaders of the future. Lack of electricity is a major hindrance for many in Africa and for schoolgoing children, it affects hours of study, completion of their homework, revision for exams and other curriculum activities which are to be done at home.

According to the International Energy Agency, 600 million people in Africa lack access to electricity, most of them in sub-Saharan Africa. In Botswana, with a population of 2.5 million, access to electricity stood at 72 per cent in 2020, according to the World Bank. Sustainable Energy for All points out that the country has reached 77 per cent electricity access for the urban population, while in rural areas is still limited to 37 per cent, although increasing. Dare to Dream, a Botswana-based social enterprise working towards the advancement of youth, women and girls in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM), is the latest entity to procure the product: Buying 33 bags for girls under the Jwaneng Mine Maranyane Bokamoso Programme (a STEM promotion project among girls aged 14-19 years).

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Should government pay E1 500 unemployment grant?