Homeless UEL student Michelle starts Sunshine Academy to train Gambia villagers in solar energy

UEL student Michelle Gibb with her Gambia solar energy project

UEL student Michelle Gibb with her Gambia solar energy project - Credit: UEL

A pioneering social enterprise is about to spark off in a remote part of West Africa—thanks to an inspiring mature student at the University of East London who lost her job and was recently made homeless.

Mature student Michelle Gibb aims to start ‘Sunshine Academy’, a project to provide a village in Gambia with solar panels and training to build solar-powered mobile phone chargers and lamps.

“I want to give villagers the means to make their own solar-powered technology and be micro-entrepreneurs,” Michelle explained. “Several charities send useful solar-powered tech, but I want to put the knowledge and material into the hands of the people.”

Michelle’s achievement in setting up the project in a partnership deal with Off-Grid Europe renewable energy company is all the more remarkable, having been homeless and out of work.

“I found myself struggling to get a job,” she recalls. “So I decided to improve my skills and get a degree at UEL.

“Unfortunately, I went into mortgage arrears and ended up losing my house and facing homelessness.”

Michelle—without a roof over her head—had to defer her second year at UEL.

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She made her way to Mamuda, a village on the banks of the Gambia River, working on community development projects.

“I planned to get some land, build a home and start a new life,” she tells you.

“But I witnessed difficulties villagers faced with simple tasks such as charging their mobile phones. They would walk up to three miles to charge them, leaving them overnight, then walking back to collect the next day.”

Then a light flicked on in Michelle’s head and she hit on the idea for her Sunshine Academy to train the villagers in solar energy technology to run their own electricity project.

She returned to east London to finish her degree course, spurred on by her dream of giving the villagers a better life, and is currently in her third year studying Sociology—aiming to turn her Sunshine Academy into reality.

She has now secured the backing of Off-Grid Europe to provide solar panel off-cuts from their manufacturing process.

Off-Grid Europe consultant Mark Kragh said: “I know how exciting it can be starting a social enterprise and the challenges to overcome. But the satisfaction is great of changing lives for the better in a sustainable way.”

Michelle has also won the support of local Newham councillor Aleen Alarice in east London, who has agreed to be a Sunshine Academy patron.

She is now raising funds to put her plans into action and is on the look-out for companies and wellwishers for financial support.

The villagers in Mamuda, meanwhile, are so anxious at the prospect of making their own sun-powered energy that the head villager has put aside land to build the academy skills centre.