Whether in a primary school in a rural village near Kampala, Uganda, where students used to study by candlelight, or a medical clinic that lacked refrigeration to store medicine and vaccines, there is nothing like the celebration that takes place when solar-powered electricity is turned on for the first time.
Nathan Thomas, who was president of the Rotary Club of Raleigh Midtown at age 23 and will be a district governor in 2022-23, has witnessed the joy firsthand. “It’s absolutely incredible,” he says. “It’s a huge celebration. These communities are going from kerosene lamps or candles directly to renewable energy.”
Thomas, now 27, founded the nonprofit All We Are, which oversees the Solarize Uganda Now (SUN) Project. In the past five years, SUN has completed 32 LED solar installations at 26 Ugandan schools, two medical clinics, and a women’s center, and has installed three solar-powered wells. The work was done in partnership with the Raleigh Midtown club; the Rotary Club of Cincinnati; the Rotary Club of Nateete-Kampala; Districts 7710, 9211, and 6670; and others.
Thomas got involved with Rotary in high school in Findlay, Ohio, where he had the idea to repair computers and ship them to schools in a country that needed them. To find a partner, he emailed about 100 organizations across Africa. He received a response from a Pittsburgh-based group working in Uganda. He also connected with the Rotary Club of Findlay, which provided him with $1,500 in funding and helped him learn about organizing an international project. “Growing up in Ohio, I didn’t have many avenues to work on an international level,” he says. “I wanted to go out and change the world, but there was no book that said, ‘Here’s how you do it.’ ”
His first project taught Thomas that shipping is expensive. He visited Uganda for the first time when he was 18 and discovered there were more immediate concerns than refurbished computers. “I saw firsthand the challenges to provide basic needs,” he says.
While attending the University of Cincinnati, Thomas visited the Rotary Club of Cincinnati and began meeting regularly with club member Deborah Schultz, who became his mentor. Working together, they received a $2,000 grant from the club’s world affairs committee to install LED lights at a school and at a shelter for disadvantaged young women in Uganda.
“These communities are going from candles directly to renewable energy.”
Thomas earned a degree in mechanical engineering in 2015, landed a job in the Raleigh-Durham area, and joined the Raleigh Midtown Rotary club. He credits Rotary with guiding his efforts to help others on an international level. “I learned the best practices of international development through Rotary: buying local, training a local workforce, putting money into the local economy, and asking communities how we might be helpful,” he says.
The solar projects always start with a community needs assessment and with a strong partnership with Rotarians in Uganda. “It’s extremely important to build local trust,” Thomas says. “They’re there to help us with the needs assessment and to be culturally sensitive in our project design and implementation.”
Each partner institution pays a 5 to 10 percent share of the total capital expenditure, to be used for repairs and future maintenance of the systems. The installations cost about $7,500 apiece. Thomas plans to secure funding for 18 more solar installations by the end of 2020.
He has earned the respect of Schultz, who has been involved with Rotary overseas projects for most of her 30 years in Rotary. “He has endless drive and energy, but never rushes others,” she says. “He’s a natural leader and motivator.”
Thomas was born in Canada, the son of immigrants from India. He believes his background influenced his global approach to helping others in need. “Like many of us who are passionate about international projects, I believe that global DNA was really intertwined in my upbringing,” he says.
— ANNEMARIE MANNION
• This story originally appeared in the July 2020 issue of The Rotarian magazine.