Transforming Lives for the Disabled with Solar – a case study of Allamano Special School, Nyeri, Kenya

© Solar Energy Foundation Kenya

What comes to mind when you think of visiting a school for kids with a wide range of mental disabilities such as autism, cerebral palsy, downs drome among other conditions? If you consider yourself to be “mentally normal” like myself, then you expect finding kids who are sad and gloomy, shy and timid, hopeless and desperate. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth!

Strange as this may sound, it seems to me the “less mentally able, the bigger the heart for loving, smiling and simply enjoying life.” I can’t explain the science. Yet, the evidence to support this strange hypothesis is self-evident at the Allamano Special School for the mentally disabled in Nyeri, 130 Kms north of Nairobi, Kenya.

Please allow me to take you on a mental tour to the Allamano School where the mentally disabled will teach us powerful lessons in: a) the power of a smile; b) team work; c) creativity for self-reliance; d) governance for sustainability; e) how solar can add value and make the difference.

1) Lesson 1: the Power of a Smile from David and Venesa 


Plate (a)                                                                                            Plate (b)

To the left, meet David Njogu. Looks much younger than his actual age of 18 years, perhaps due to his abundant joy for life with a big smile. For the past 14 years, David has known no other home but Allamano. Suffering from severe cerebral palsy, David has no speech and feeds with difficult. Thanks to his highly inspired and talented Teachers like Beatrice (see plate b), not only has David been trained about going to the toilet on his own, he can now count few numbers and also do some color painting. Despite his challenges, his infectious smile illuminates the school. “If you come to school in a bad mood, David’s smile will give you the spark you need to brighten your day,” remarks Teacher Beatrice offering a hearty smile.

Meet Venesa Aeno, my new love! Her hug was so tight. She couldn’t let me go. She looks barely 10, but she’s actually a young woman at 19.  Suffering from multiple disabilities including severe autism and downs syndrome, Venesa has been well catered for at Allamano for the past 15 years.

She has no speech ability and not likely to develop any, according to her teachers. Yet she has been trained on toilet hygiene. More important, she feeds herself very well using her fingers because her brain can’t coordinate the “complex” science of using a spoon!

“So for how much longer will Venesa be at Allamano?” I ask Teacher Beatrice. “For the rest of her life,” she reckons without hesitation.

Venesa represent a typical life-long burden at Allamano – many children are too mentally disabled to ever graduate from the school. In other words, they become permanent students and residents! This one of the reasons why the school requires more and continuous support to ensure vulnerable children like Venesa will always have a school to call home.



Plate (a)                                                                                Plate (b)

Whether welcoming a visitor (plate a) or enjoying a meal (plate b), life is one big cheerful family at Allamano


2) Lesson 2: Life skills for Self-reliance – the inspiring story of Elizabeth Muthoni


Plate (a)                                                                                   Plate (b)

“One of the major challenges we face at Allamano is equipping these children with life skills that can make them self-reliant once they graduate from the school,” Teacher Naomi (plate b) opens our discussion as she ushers me into her vocation classroom filled with work stations and lots of teaching aids. Seated next to her is Elizabeth Muthoni, a powerful testament to how Allamano is empowering the disabled! Aged 23 with stunned growth, Elizabeth came to Allamano in 2013 with low mental abilities due to her mild cerebral palsy condition.

Given her remarkable weaving skills, Elizabeth is a living testament to Allamano’s motto – disability is not inability.  In less than 2 months, she weaved the basket she’s carrying on her shoulder. She will sell the basket for Ksh1500 (Euro10). During the 2-month December school holidays, I learned she made an even bigger basket that sold for Ksh3,000 (Euro20). “Elizabeth, and how did you spend the money?,” I inquire curiously. “Oh I gave it to my mother to buy food,” she stammers back in Kikuyu language, her mother tongue. The take away lesson here is that, once well trained and mentored, even the disabled can make a contribution in feeding their families.

Elizabeth, along with her cohort of about 10 kids, are in the final class at Allamano, called the pre-vocation stage. It’s at this level where Teacher Naomi, a highly gifted teacher, patiently and slowly invests in the painstaking process of equipping the kids with life-skills such as weaving, knitting, among others.  “We have no doubt Elizabeth will have a fruitful and productive life once she graduates from Allamano,” proudly concludes Teacher Naomi, as the guests give Elizabeth a loud applause for her inspiring story.


3) Lesson 3: Teamwork – the impressive humanity at Allamano

Let’s start with a random question: “how much team work would you expect in a school for the

mentally disabled.” If you answered “not much” like myself, then you would be wrong.  As illustrated below, team work is one of the vital skills learned and practiced at Allamano – from boys fetching water to girls mopping the floor to kids volunteering to support another kid in a wheel chair.

But why is this a big deal? Because the typical stereotypes we, the “normal people,” have of the mentally disabled is that of a cold and lonely person at best, and even anti-social or mad at worst. The experience and lessons from Allamano seem to support a different and a more hopeful narrative – not only can the mentally disabled learn team work and be social, they can also be their brother’s and sister’s keeper! That lesson is powerful and sobering.



Plate a                                                               Plate b                                                          Plate c


4) Lesson 4 – Governance for Sustainability at Allamano

Situated in the rural areas of Kenya, the Allamano Special School is a public institution – by public here we mean it belongs to the government. Like is the case with most public schools in Kenya, particularly in rural areas, they face severe financial constraints. When it comes to funding, special Schools like Allamano are much worse because majority of the parents for the disabled children tend to be too poor to supplement the meagre resources provided by the government. Well-off parents prefer to take their disabled children to private institutions which are better funded.

Thanks to visionary leadership of the Board of Management (BOM), led by Mr. Maina, Allamano initiated sustainability projects to support the running of the institution.

One such project is aquaculture (fish farming). “This fish pond is approximately 50m3 and can hold over seven thousand kilos of cat fish stock,” explains Mr. Wanjohi, a leading expert in aquaculture and a member of the BOM.

“And what will you do with the cat fish,” I inquire excitedly since I have the least experience in fish farming. “Oh, the fish is great protein for our children at Allamano. And the surplus we shall sell to the local hotels. I am a fish farmer myself not far from this School. We can’t meet the local demand for fish,” explains Mr. Wanjohi with the admirable confidence of an expert.

From the well-maintained school compound, to the on-going infrastructure projects like fish farming and an up-coming physio-therapy room, it’s evident the BOM has put in place the right governance and leadership structure to ensure effective and accountable management of the school’s resources. The BOM leadership is complimented by sponsorship and oversight from by the local Catholic Church, represented by Sister Rachel, the current matron from the Sisters of Mary Immaculate.


Some members of the Board of Management, Teachers, and the Solar Team at Allamano School


5) Lesson 5: Solar Power as a Catalyst for Change

“The high electricity bills is one of our major challenges we face at the school,” Mr. Maina, the BOM Chairman explains as he takes us on a tour of Allamano. As shown in the table below, over the past three months, Allamano electricity bill ranged from Euro273 to Euro90, with a median value of roughly Euro200 per month.

The new installed solar system will have five different and independent system components: a) one system (5kW) serving the classrooms, office, and dinning hall; b) another separate system (2kW) serving convent or the sisters’ residences; c) a fridge-cum-freezer (108 liters); d) out-door security lights (3 pieces) and (d) portable solar lanterns (50 pieces). The different systems are designed and installed to operate independently to achieve system redundancy. In other words, when one system fails, the others can continue working

Assuming the solar system is able to reduce the electricity bill by say 60%, this will translate into a monthly saving of approximately Euro100/month, accumulating to over Euro1,000 per year. Thus, in say 5 years when the system will require the replacement of the battery bank, the School will have accumulated sufficient resources to finance such repairs and maintenance.

Like in any other rural area, electricity supply from the grid is highly unreliable. “It’s not uncommon to experience blackouts of upto 5 hours per day or at night, especially during the heavy rainy seasons,” remarks Mr. Maina, the BOM Chairman. Even with the brightest of lighting, managing and supporting over 100 children with varying degrees of mental disabilities is a herculean (difficult) task! “Given their multiple vulnerabilities, supporting them in total darkness when electricity goes off, is a total nightmare,” asserts Sister Rachel, the matron who spends every waking day and night with these children.

It’s evident that the Allamano Special School is special not just because of her disabled children. More important, Allamano is indeed special because of the innovative and powerful way the experience is challenging stereotypes associated with mental disabilities. From a policy perspective, Allamano represents commendable effort that deserves recognition and replication as a model for providing inclusive education for all.

Inconclusion, the proposed donation of a solar system will not only save money but also remove the challenges and risks associated with frequent electricity blackouts. Most important, the solar system will significantly improve safety for children, enhance the learning environment, motivate the dedicated teachers, and also contribute to transforming Allamano into a center of excellence for children with mental disabilities in Kenya.


The new solar system at Allamano school was a donation by the Mathilde-Eller-Schule in Munich (Germany). This school is a learning centre with a focus on intellectual development.

The project implementation and installation was managed by Solar Energy Foundation Kenya.