The Making of a BrightBox Solar-Powered Classroom: Updates From Uganda

Simbi Foundation
7 min readMay 5, 2022

Our Director of Global Operations, Ran Sommer, traveled to Uganda to oversee the installation of two new BrightBox solar-powered classrooms in our partnered communities and the impact that ensued. Let’s look back on the highlights of his trip and the making of the BrightBoxes.

The completed BrightBox classroom at Yoyo Central School in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.

Week 1: Impact Made Possible by Our Partners

Ran landed in Kampala, Uganda at the beginning of March 2022 after 36 hours of travel from Canada! He was met by our amazing Uganda team at the airport and together they spent the week preparing for a long drive north to work with our partner school communities in United Nations-operated Bidibidi Refugee Settlement and Palorinya Refugee Settlement.

Once there, the team would be overseeing the installation of two new BrightBox solar-powered classrooms at Yangani Primary School and Yoyo Central Primary School, as well as two BrightBox Micro portable education kits: one at Nipata Secondary School in Bidibidi, and the other at Palorinya Secondary School in Palorinya Refugee Settlement — marking Simbi Foundation’s first significant activities in this settlement. In addition to the BrightBoxes, we collaborated with a new logistical partner to install four Interlocking Stabilized Soil Block (ISSB) water catchment tanks at Twajiji Primary, Alaba Primary, Yangani Primary, and Yoyo Central Primary in Bidibidi settlement.

Ran arriving at the airport in Kampala, Uganda to be greeted by our Uganda Team.

The team hit the ground running, by sourcing supplies, testing technology, and finalizing preparations for teacher technology training which would begin with new partner schools in the coming days. The team also prioritized meeting with some of our key logistical partners, including the National Ugandan Curriculum Centre, the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and Finn Church Aid — the largest education organization working with refugees in Uganda. Our collaboration with Finn Church Aid focused on furthering our partnership to scale our collective impact. A meeting with the Office of the Prime Minister focused on finalizing the remaining details of the installations, while another meeting with our partners at the UNHCR aimed at scaling our projects and partnership.

The team also met with our major BrightBox contractors; Village Energy to finalize the BrightBox solar system installation and school administration training plan; Hydro Concepts to crystallize the construction of the four new environmentally-friendly ISSB water catchment tanks; and architects from Unknown Works to ensure BrightBox infrastructural stability, safety, and alignment with United Nations building code. They also paid many visits to the BrightBox outfitters at Fabrication Systems who slowly turned an ordinary shipping container into a classroom space. With the preparations and meetings of the first week complete, the team was gaining excitement for the impact to come.

Week 2: En Route to Bidibidi

With the final touches on two BrightBox shipping containers completed by Fabrication Systems, it was time for the containers to take the long 12-hour drive from Kampala up to Bidibidi. Upon arrival, the repurposed shipping containers were slowly lowered onto their foundation and Fabrication Systems began work to ensure the structural integrity of the classrooms. Once solidified, the repurposed shipping containers would soon don their signature slanted roofs, ready to be fitted with water catchment gutters and the solar panels that will provide electricity to the BrightBoxes themselves, and to surrounding classrooms.

The BrightBox repurposed shipping container en route to Bidibidi Refugee Settlement.

While the classrooms began their construction, the Simbi Foundation team completed their final preparations, including engraving each individual piece of BrightBox technology with a unique serial number, allowing schools to better keep track of technology, identify damaged devices and prevent theft. The team set off soon after, taking the same 12-hour journey to Bidibidi that the shipping containers had taken just a few days earlier.

Once they arrived in Bidibidi, the team was quick to get to work with our partnered school communities. Within days, our Technology Coordinators, Aaron and Paul began hosting the first of many teacher technology training sessions. In total, these sessions would provide training to 245 teachers at Twajiji Primary School, Alaba Primary School, Valley View Secondary School, Yoyo Central School, Yoyo Secondary School, and Nipata Secondary school. These sessions covered the fundamentals of the BrightBox technology and Simbi Learn Cloud, preparing teachers to integrate the new resources into the classroom.

Week 3: Establishing an Impact in Bidibidi

As the team moved into the third week, Paul and Aaron continued hosting training sessions at Yoyo Central School and Twajiji Primary School. Meanwhile, Ran and our Executive Assistant Flavia traveled two hours west to visit Palorinya refugee settlement to meet with our key implementing partners; the UNHCR, Office of Prime Minister, and Finn Church Aid at Palorinya Secondary School where the second BrightBox Micro will be installed in May 2022.

A teacher engaging with the BrightBox technology at a training session.

Our partners at Hydro Concepts began work on the first of the four ISSB water catchment and filtration systems at Twajiji Primary School, where our 2019-installed BrightBox is located. The bricks for the tanks were compressed and dried using local soil, acting as an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional fired bricks, or plastic tanks. These new catchment tanks would soon be implemented at Alaba Secondary School and in the BrightBox construction at Yoyo Central School and Yangani Primary School.

As the construction and the week progressed, Flavia and Ran met with the Director and Lead Carpenter at Yoyo Vocational School to discuss the construction of wooden desks and benches designed to fit seamlessly into the new BrightBox classrooms. The Lead Carpenter agreed to integrate the creation of these classroom necessities into a valuable carpentry lesson in which students at the vocational school could make an impact while further honing their woodworking craft.

Week 4 & 5: The Final Touches

Students at Yangani Progressive Primary School excited to see the BrightBox construction coming along.

As the BrightBoxes began to take their innovative shape and the teacher training sessions progressed, Ran participated and presented in an inspiring monthly Education Working Group meeting, an important meeting involving all of the education partners in Bidibidi Refugee Settlement. Until this point, the Simbi Foundation team had only been able to join virtually, due to the pandemic.

Representatives from the Ministry of Education also endured the 12-hour journey from Kampala to Bidibidi for an extra special visit to see the BrightBox classrooms and Simbi Foundation’s impact. They were impressed by their tour of the completed BrightBox and its digital contents at Twajiji Primary School, as well as the enhancements on the new BrightBox at Yoyo Central School.

The diligent contractors from Fabrication Systems finished installing the roofing and our partners at Village Energy officially put down the solar panels on both of the new BrightBoxes! The ISSB water catchment tanks were completed at Twajiji Primary School and Alaba Primary School and initial work on the water catchment systems for the new BrightBoxes at Yoyo and Yangani had begun! Meanwhile, students at Yoyo Vocational Training Centre were well on their way to completing the desks and benches designed for the new BrightBoxes!

Week 6: The Beginning of a Brighter Future

After 5 weeks of construction, teamwork, training and community engagement, the stage was finally set for the impact to happen. The solar panel system had been wired, the ISSB water catchment tanks had been finished, the new desks and benches had been delivered, and the new technology had been set up inside the classrooms.

The completed BrightBox at Yangani Progressive Primary School set up for classroom use.

The 245 teachers that began their technology training in the weeks prior attended every single session to follow. Their engagements and learnings were acknowledged with a certificate of completion and will be further rewarded as they begin implementing the BrightBox technology into the classroom.

All that was left to do was to officially hand over both BrightBox classrooms and a BrightBox Micro to our partner communities. A ceremony was held at each of the schools to celebrate this meaningful occasion. With students, teachers, school directors and our Uganda team present, inspiring words and messages of gratitude and hope were shared. Ran sincerely thanked our donors and the many teams and partnerships that contributed to making the BrightBoxes a reality.

The generosity and support from the Gupta Family Foundation, the Mohammed Bin Rashid Initiative for Global Prosperity, and Salesforce truly made these projects possible. The impact they have helped create will only grow exponentially as these classroom resources are put to use.

The BrightBox hand over ceremony at Yangani Progressive Primary School.

The solar power generated by the BrightBox will enable the use of laptops and projectors for learning, and will supply sustainable energy to surrounding classrooms. A 2.7km Wi-Fi range will allow an entire school community to access 1000s of books and digital learning materials on Simbi Learn Cloud. A solar charging room will provide a charging service to the wider community and help generate revenue for the school. A water catchment and filtration system will collect rainwater for classroom and community use.

Students settling into the new BrightBox at Yangani Progressive Primary School for the first time.

Let the learning begin!

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