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Sally Bolton | March 05, 2014

Bringing Technology To Communities Off The Grid

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For Australians, Bali means sand, surf and sunburn. When I told my family and friends that I would be volunteering in Bali for 18 months, most thought I was going on an extended vacation. In reality, since moving to Bali in late 2012, I have never worked so hard in my life. And despite having little time for the beach, I have loved every second of it.

I am a volunteer with Yayasan Kopernik, an Ubud-based organization that connects simple technology with remote communities to reduce poverty.

Since 2010, Kopernik has reached more than 170,000 people in Indonesia with solar lights, water filters, fuel-efficient cooking stoves and other affordable innovations.

These products are life-changing in off-grid communities: saving people time and money, improving health and safety, easing pressure on the environment, and opening up new economic opportunities.

I am here through the Australian Volunteers for International Development (AVID) program, an initiative of the Australian government’s aid program.

AVID supports highly skilled Australians to volunteer overseas, working with local host organizations to advance shared development goals.

My assignment is to develop the communications capacity of Yayasan Kopernik and drawing on my background in journalism and international communications, I have approached this in two ways.

Firstly, by introducing new tools to improve how information is shared within the team. Kopernik is a young, fast-growing organization — doubling in size this year — and strong internal communication is crucial for team-building.

Secondly, by improving the quality of Kopernik’s external communications, including the website, blogs, newsletters, annual report, photos, videos, social media channels, events and more.

I am lucky to be volunteering alongside a very talented Indonesian team, who are full of ideas, energy and enthusiasm.

I work one-on-one with colleagues to help them develop new skills, lead communications workshops, and develop communications platforms, guidelines and templates.

The goal is that I will leave the team with tools and skills to continue communicating effectively about Kopernik.

As a non-profit organization striving to make a big impact with limited resources, Kopernik has been quick to draw on the professional skills that volunteers can offer.

This includes both long-term volunteers like myself, and short-term volunteers like my colleague Reisky Handika. Reisky joined the Kopernik team in mid-2013 as a research fellow, conducting an impact assessment on a solar light project in Kalimantan.

“If I had been asked to describe Kalimantan a few years ago, these words would have sprung to mind: forest, orangutans, vast rivers, floating markets, Dayak, and even more forests,” Reisky says.

“Up until six months ago, Kalimantan was just a two-dimensional concept in my head. I had never been to Kalimantan in my whole life. Then an opportunity to visit appeared.”

Reisky left Jakarta to spend three months in Galinggang in Central Kalimantan, an off-grid riverside village consisting of Dayak, Kahayan and Banjar people.

His main task as a fellow was to collect data about the benefits people gained from solar lanterns provided by Kopernik and the impact produced by this technology.

“I interviewed many people, which was both interesting and challenging because of the language barrier,” Reisky says. “It became easier as I got to know the community.”

Once a month, Riesky would travel five hours down the river to the closest town with Internet access, in order to send photos and stories to the Kopernik team in Bali, to publish on our website. His blogs about what solar lights have meant for mothers, families and students in Galinggang are some of the most moving stories we have published to date.

In addition to his research, he also volunteered as an English teacher in a local middle school. The previous English teacher left the school a few weeks before his arrival, and the students could not study English properly.

“By teaching these wonderful kids, I managed to create a certain closeness with the people in Galinggang,” Reisky says. “I was invited to several village events, and some villagers even asked me to come to their house for afternoon tea. The warmth and hospitality of the Galinggang people clearly won me over.”

After volunteering as a research fellow, Reisky joined the Kopernik team in Bali as a project officer and is now involved in projects from Papua to Aceh.

I am passionate about Kopernik’s mission, and I love being able to work alongside talented colleagues like Reisky to share stories about how the simple technologies introduced by Kopernik are improving people’s lives.

I may have given up an Australian salary to volunteer, but the experience of living in Bali and working with such talented Indonesian teammates has been priceless.

And whenever my Australian friends come to visit, I can show them that there’s a lot more to Bali than beaches and Bintangs.


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