During the day, the residents of La Palabre in Thíes, Senegal are safe from further unspeakable violence. The three-building shelter accommodates 60 of the city’s most vulnerable: women and girls fleeing domestic violence, forced marriage and female genital mutilation, as well as children rescued from perilous lives on the streets. But despite having a kitchen, laundry and space for teaching valuable life skills, the shelter’s ability to help survivors securely heal and transition back into society often stopped short because of frequent, citywide power blackouts. Night falls at about 6 p.m. and without electricity, neither lights nor computers worked.

Literally rescuing La Palabre’s residents from the fear-provoking darkness, six IEEE Benelux Section engineering Master’s and undergraduate students from Catholic University in Leuven, Belgium obtained a $5,000 EPICS in IEEE grant. They used the funds to provide a solar-powered electrical system at La Palabre for dependable and renewable energy, and also to install a solar pump so that water would continue to flow at the shelter’s water taps.

Over the 2011-2012 academic year, the Belgian students traveled to Thíes where they designed, built and installed photovoltaic panels, an energy storage and control system, and a small solar boiler. The water pump also supplies water to a portion of the neighborhood, delivering water for drinking and irrigation to about 200 residents. The IEEE Student Members collaborated with Humasol, an international technology charity, to obtain travel and living expenses and to build the six solar-panel array. In Thíes, Humasol also arranged for two engineering student interns from  Ecole Polytechnique to assist with installing the solar array and water pump. The pump transfers well water into a water tower to support adequate pressure for the water taps and irrigation.

While living in Thíes, the Belgian students lived with a 25-member family who were warm and welcoming hosts.

La Palabre’s residents, the year-long project also gave the IEEE Student Members a unique opportunity to apply their engineering education in a real-world environment. Among their tasks, the students had to research whether assembling the solar panels themselves or purchasing them already made was the most cost-effective solution, create or find an appropriate controller to deliver power to the batteries, and determine how to protect the system from the weather. The Ecole Polytechnique interns followed up on the project after completion, ensuring that La Palabre staff could maintain the system and pump.

As a result of their work in Thíes, the IEEE students fostered community partnerships, educated the next generation of engineers and technologists, and addressed critical human needs. One student wrote on the Humasol blog, “The moment the system is inserted on the inverter, batteries and the entire electrical system of the building, and then someone shouts, ‘It works!’ that really gives a great feeling and an adrenaline rush that knows no equal. It is the feeling that, with one year’s intensive work, we have been able to do something for others.”