Italy tours

Introducing Rick

Rick explains one of his setups, a fluorescent bulb that has been altered so that it can run off of a 12V car battery.

Rick explains one of his setups, a fluorescent bulb that has been altered so that it can run off of a 12V car battery.

He was the fairy godmother that the powers that be bestowed upon us.

Rick Masumbuko showed up one day in the middle of the Banda market and introduced himself to a mzungu that was just walking by. Sophie showed up to Kigogo that day with an unfamiliar face in tow. “This is Rick!” she called out as she arrived, and I poked my head out from the kiosk to see a small man, a backpack slung over one of his shoulders, walking right beside her.

Max, Rick, and Sophie in matching DHE gear.

Max, Rick, and Sophie in matching DHE gear.

Earlier on in the trip, we had reached out to some of the DHE alumni regarding their work in Banda. One of them was Ben Koons, and ‘08 who was responsible for the genesis of DHE hydro. In one of his emails, he recommended a Congolese man whom he had worked with when DHE first established the Banda sites. The man had previously lived in Banda but now lived somewhere else, and Ben CC’ed him on the email.

Apparently, it was simple as that. Soon after, Rick happened to check his email at the house of a friend, a Peace Corps volunteer. Within two days, he had hopped on a bus and was headed to Banda. We had no idea that he was coming, but I guess that when you’re the only group of mzungus in a village, you’re not that hard to find. Rick, as we later learned, is also little short of a local celebrity. With all of his many informants, he had no trouble finding us. He has friends throughout the village because he once lived in Banda for eight years, and whenever we walked with him, we would quickly find ourselves the awkward third or even eleventh wheel to a happy reunion.

In the two weeks that I was able to spend with Rick, I’ve grown to truly believe that he’s one of the most exceptional people that I’ve ever met. Rick is fifty-eight. He dropped out of school after primary school when his father passed away. He learned French and English while working as a tour guide for Nyungwe Forest, and he did research on primates with Europeans that he met through his work.

And they would bring him textbooks. He pored over them, applied the theory using what hardware he could find and absorbed it. Never has he attended a class, done a problem set, or had a professor guide him through a difficult concept. He is a self-taught electrician and has an exceptional understanding of his craft.

Rick met Ben while working as the receptionist at a Nyungwe lodge. Ben was on an assessment trip to find potential hydropower sites, and when they met, Rick showed him what he calls his “12-volt DC light.”

Rick's 12V DC light. Many of the components were taken from broken radios.

Rick’s 12V DC light. Many of the components were taken from broken radios.

I was confused by the terminology at first because I imagined a simple set up, the likes of what all of us have seen in intro physics: a lightbulb and a battery. Of course, Rick’s system is much more. Power-saving fluorescent bulbs are especially valuable in developing nations because of the limited supply of electricity. However, the issue with these bulbs is that they are designed for 220V AC—for use in home electrical systems. Those that use our hydro sites in Banda get their electricity by charging their 12V DC car batteries at the site. To get 220V AC, they must hook up their battery to an expensive and often unaffordable alternator.

The purpose of Rick’s bulbs is to circumvent this issue. He removes the electrical components in the fluorescent bulbs so that only the fluorescent tube is left. He then assembles a collection of transistors, resistors, electrolytic and paper capacitors, and a transformer, scavenging many of the components from broken radios. His small hands wire up a set up that can convert 12V DC to an AC voltage high enough for the bulb to light up. The user can then hook up the bulb to their 12V battery, and voila. Fluorescent light.

Rick demonstrates his 12V DC light to us with our battery.

Rick demonstrates his 12V DC light to us with our battery.

I assume that Ben was just as astonished as I was. Rick told me that Ben then realized that he was perfect for the job. Because of his work as a tour guide, Rick knew every single river and waterfall in Nyungwe, and he was clearly technically qualified.

Rick still uses the multimeter that Ben gave him in 2008 and also has a well-loved copy of Practical Electronics for Inventors—it too is a gift from Ben. Both came in handy that day he showed up at Kigogo, I briefly talked through the system with him and then pored through the book. Meanwhile, he happily drew himself a schematic of our electrical system and checked voltages with his multimeter.

This summer, the team had struggled with the realization that no matter how well we designed the system, something would fail in our absence, just as it had done so many times before. In the past, a technician new to the system would be called in from the city, and he would make decisions without entirely understanding the system. An example of this was the dump loads that were removed from the system at Kigogo. Without them, the system voltage can get too high and even cause a battery explosion. The technician had realized correctly that because the dump loads were heating up, they were taking power away from the system. However, the outside technician incorrectly assumed that removing them would simply charge batteries more quickly.

Site operator and manager training would not be enough to mitigate this issue. At one point in training, we even learned that one of the operators had trouble reading a multimeter. Rick was our saving grace. By the time he arrived, he had already planned that he would move back to Banda and work at the sites as a full time job. Three days later, he had already rented a house and was spending his nights there. We later even learned that the house didn’t yet have a bed. He was so excited to be working with electronics again that he could not be fazed.

Rick helping the site operators, his new employees, review their contract.

Rick helping the site operators, his new employees, review their contract.

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