The International Development Studies Alumni Association of Utrecht University

Getting the hopes up in Cape Verde

It’s just another hot and dusty day in São Vicente. It is late in spring and like every year, the island has not seen much rain in months. Unlike you might think, the eroded landscape is beautiful in my eyes, giving character to the island. Halfway my journey I know that all islands have one; this distinct character. I believe to know it is because of that, the people who emigrated over the years are known for how they can sincerely miss their lands, almost like a person. Like a late grandmother who is always in your heart. Saudade.

I look down to my feet and smile because of two sticky seeds attached to my shoe. Seeds from São Vicente’s green brother São Antão, which I just visited. Could it be a metaphor of what I am doing here? I keep smiling. I’m sitting on a square in what is said to be the cultural capital of the islands, Mindelo. I am surrounded by leftovers of English colonial times, looking at a school next to me and to its opposite the University building. I’m here to interview Antúnio Barbosa, professor at the department of engineering. I want to talk to him about my research: the development of renewable energy in Cape Verde. Of course I am interested in the role the University plays.

A school bell rings and kids fill the square. As I seem to be quite an attraction, a few of them surround me and ask me everything they dare to ask. I make a few pictures with them and joke about teachers and girlfriends in my best Creole. Lost in thought, I’m asking myself if not the happiness of those kids would be the best indicator for development. I’m sure Antúnio would agree.

Kids fill the square next to the University, Mindelo

Antúnio gives me a warm welcome at the University. With a smile even bigger than mine and with a double handshake. I bet the welcome is warm for at least twenty five years now, which is exactly the time that Antúnio is working for the University. He told me that fifteen years ago, they started talking about renewable energy. Finally they implemented the subject in 2010. It troubled me. Do opportunities like renewable energy technology need that amount of time to find their way to the curriculum and to society? What is needed to make this process go any quicker? The answer of Antúnio is clear. “Vision”. Actually this is the factor I later found to be the single most important driver in the development of the renewable energy system1

I notice that the University was at least an important place of discourse. The professor agrees and explains to me proudly that now, they have moved forward. That the school is a place of experimentation and belief. I see the sparks in his eyes as he continues: “at least we have 20 to 50 students that have renewable energy in their mind”. He’s taking a pause, like this was a spell of some kind. Or maybe I just perceived it like that. The students wrote project proposals for different projects: to install a solar heater at hotel Praiamar, to power a hospital, to pump up water with wind energy in the inland, to power airports. They cannot wait to implement these projects now, to get results and show the community that it works. 

“We want to tell people it’s possible, by showing it. You have to go beyond the book. 

You have to see it. You háve to see it. Because if you not see it, 

nobody is going to believe you”.

Universidade de Cabo Verde, Mindelo

We move to a more difficult subject: spreading knowledge. A particular constraint we talk about is the need for real time decision making: “One second today, it was one year when my father was born. Now we can talk to each other on Skype, but forty years ago you had to send me a letter and it would arrive in forty five days.” Although it seems a practicality which could easily be solved, to me it is starting to feel typical in the region. Something to take into account. 

We talk on for hours about all kinds of technical stuff. Inevitable, soothing, something that you can control. We talk until the sun suddenly touches the side of the wall of the open window, shading the room. It is the sign to tell us that it is time to say goodbye. I’m sure I’ll see Antúnio again sometime. He is too. “Até amanhã!” See you tomorrow.   

[1] At the beginning of 2011, the government has in fact set ambitious targets for the implementation of renewable energy, especially for a developing country: 100% by 2020. This raising of expectations, together with applying renewable energy specific rules and regulations and building extensive coalitions has led to more and more actors entering the renewable energy field and a successful build-up of the innovation system of Cape Verde.