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December 13, 2019
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University of Cincinnati graduate Nathan Thomas wanted to make a difference in the world. In high school, he raised money and sent computers to a boarding school in Uganda.
If anything can improve a young person’s life, the would-be engineer thought, it’s a computer.
Then he learned how expensive and unreliable electricity is in that part of equatorial Africa. Most people in Uganda use wood or charcoal to cook and heat their homes. Others rely on generators to deal with unpredictable blackouts and brownouts. And outside the cities, as much as 80 percent of rural Uganda has limited access to electricity.
After his freshman year in UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science, Thomas visited Uganda’s capital to see the country firsthand. Dusk is fleeting on the equator. When the sun sets, it gets dark fast when the power is out, Thomas said.
“In Uganda it is overwhelming to be in the pitch black when the sun goes down. We realized the incredible need there,” Thomas said. “I realized the biggest impact I could have was to focus on basic necessities, not computers.”
Faced with an engineering problem, Thomas and his friends at UC looked for engineering solutions. Thomas, who grew up in Findlay, Ohio, founded the nonprofit group All We Are with the goal of installing solar power in Uganda schools.
He reached out to Rotary Clubs to raise money for the project. Today, with a $75,000 annual budget, his charity has installed robust solar systems in 18 schools with plans to complete 50 projects by 2025.
Deborah Schultz, director of Rotary Club of Cincinnati, recalls when Thomas approached her club for help. The Cincinnati Rotary had just re-established a new international committee so the timing was good, she said.
“We sent him a first check for $2,000. And in a very organized manner, he put solar inside and outside the school and in a women’s shelter in 10 days,” Schultz said. “We thought, ‘Wow, this guy is something.’”
Schultz said Rotary Clubs have been eager to work with Thomas and his charity. She now serves as an advisor to the charity and helps coordinate partnerships with Rotary.
“He was passionate about doing international development work,” Schultz said. “He’s incredibly bright and focused but also compassionate and whip-smart about moving ahead.”
Thomas’ co-op programs at UC took him to Indiana, Arizona and Germany. Now he is resident engineer for Leoni Wiring Systems in Raleigh, North Carolina. Since graduating, the 26-year-old has been back to Uganda three times.
“A lot of people consider giving back when they are ready to retire,” Thomas said. “But how do we make this an integral part of our life now? This network is about volunteering your time now.”
The charity’s motto is: young people, changing the world.
Thomas partnered with electrical installation experts in Uganda to buy materials and oversee projects. Future plans include a medical clinic and a solar-powered well.
“We buy local and hire local and build up local expertise,” Thomas said. “We’re constantly listening to the local communities to empower them to meet their own biggest needs.”
Today, the charity is a who’s who of UC graduates. Its finance manager, Scott Smith, and solar engineers David Glatt and Tinisi Cooper graduated from UC’s College of Engineering and Applied Science. UC College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning graduate Tommy Migaki creates branding for the charity’s fundraising. UC graduate Carris Lammers organizes the charity’s internships.
Electronic media graduate Clay Rasmussen from UC’s College Conservatory of Music took photos and high-definition videos of the projects to share with sponsors. He works as a commercial photographer in Los Angeles.
“What they’re doing is extremely important,” Rasmussen said. “To be able to contribute to spread their message and show what they’re doing is really rewarding.”
Rachel Goldberg, of Raleigh, North Carolina, serves as chief marketing officer to help reach the charity’s audience of supporters through digital media. She was a ballet major in UC’s College Conservatory of Music who danced professionally for several years. Now she works for the event promotion app UNATION.
Goldberg made two trips to Uganda, where she talked to teachers.
“Students were studying by kerosene lamp,” Goldberg said. “We heard from the headmasters that the schools became these beacons of light in these communities. They were very appreciative.”
Cameron Whiteman, 26, of San Jose, California, joined the charity in 2014, the year before graduating from UC in computer engineering. He visited Uganda in 2016 and traveled through the capital city into some of the rural towns.
“The thing I love about this organization is it’s a group of people united in one goal to make a difference,” Whiteman said. “It wasn’t until I went to Uganda that it became real for me and seeing firsthand the way it improved their lives.”
Having a renewable resource such as solar energy is a big plus, he said. Some schools have trouble paying for electricity even when it is available, Whiteman said.
“It’s a big prohibitive factor for these schools,” he said. “As an engineer, you look for problems to solve and leverage your expertise to find a solution.”
Thomas said Uganda is embracing solar power over a costly energy grid in much the same way the country bypassed landline telephones for cellular technology. While it’s still a novel idea in the United States, Ugandans have been paying their bills and daily store purchases with their cell phones for more than a decade.
“What if we skip traditional power generation and provide power by harnessing the sun’s energy?” he asked. “We’re looking at examples of what worked in our country.”
Before the Great Depression, only 10 percent of rural America had access to electricity. As part of the New Deal, the federal government offered loans to help electric companies build a grid that reached 90 percent of the country in just 10 years.
Today, renewable resources such as solar are the answer, Thomas said.
“If we provided energy to developing countries in the traditional way we did in America, we’d need the natural resources of five planet Earths,” he added. “So we need creative solutions.”
Top image: UC engineering graduate Tinisi Cooper, a volunteer with the charity All We Are, plays with children outside a school in Uganda. photo/Tommy Migaki