An Indian solar light project in Tonga had come under scrutiny before it was restructured and a new management team took over.
The project, an initiative of the Barefoot College in India, was designed to provide solar light power in non-electrified villages.
It was brought to Tonga in July 2012, and initially was established in the town of Kolomotu’a, under the care of a group called Mafi-mo-Katoa led by Sione Tupouniua.
Through the project, two Tongan grandmothers Siutiti Halatoa (51) and Siale Leohau (47) attended India's Barefoot College in 2011, to get training in how to install and repair the solar panels.
Tupouniua, however, appeared in the local newspapers recently, following an article published by a Tongan newspaper regarding how he managed the project, saying it defamed him.
The Kele’a Newspaper said Tupouniua mishandled the Indian Solar Light project by using it for his own personal benefit.
The newspaper continued and said, Siutiti Piutau revealed in one of their interviews that her signature on a letter they published on May 21, 2012 was not hers.
The letter in Tongan was titled as – “Siutiti Piutau strongly denied accusation of Tupouniua by Siale Leohau”.
“I did not sign a letter,” Piutau said, quoted by the newspaper in Tongan.
The newspaper would not say why they published the letter. But it is understood it’s stemmed from what developed as a dispute between Leohau and Tupouniua, over how Tupouniua handled the project.
It was suggested that Tupouniua gave the letter to the newspaper to publish.
Piutau was reported by the paper as saying Tupouniua approached her one evening and asked to appear on the paper, and deny Leohau’s accusation against him.
She said she agreed with Tupouniua, but she did not write or sign any letter. She was surprised when she heard about the letter published in the newspaper, and it then saying that it was from her.
In a separate development, Piutau told Kele’a Newspaper she was staggered when she was contacted from ‘Oholei, with them asking why didn’t she attend the launch of their new solar light as they knew she was one of the two engineers in the organisation.
She found out from the contact from ‘Oholei that $3000.00 was paid for the installation of the solar light.
Piutau also said she was contacted from the island of Niua, with a message from them wanting her to repair some broken solar light equipment, the paper reported.
That was the first time she knew that the solar light had been installed in Niua.
Kele’a Newspaper contacted Tupouniua, and asked for a comment regarding the information they were going to publish about him and the solar project. In his response, Tupouniua said, there was a strict directive by the Committee for all matters regarding the project before it is going to be released.
The paper went further, and asked Tupouniua who signed Piutau’s name on the letter, the one they published, but Tupouniua gave the same answer.
Tupouniua, however, came forward after the Kele’a Newspaper published his story and told the Tonga Weekly, a local newspaper owned by the Tongan government, that he and his family were caused stress and anxiety, defamed by the Kele’a’s article.
He was also disapponited with the Kele'a Newspaper for putting his story as front page.
He said he was planning to hire a lawyer from New Zealand to sue the newspaper. It is understood the Kele'a Newspaper stands by its article.
Tupouniua also told Tonga Weekly he spent alot of his own money in paying for the expenses for the project when it first brought to Tonga.
In an interview with the Barefoot College from India, Meagan Carnahan Fallone was cautious and would not want to respond directly to Kaniva’s questions regarding the Tonga project and how it was recently reported in the local newspapers.
She said Barefoot would not want to get involved in that politics surrounding the issue in Tonga.
Falone however told Kaniva News the project is now being handled by a group known as GERM – Grassroots Energy Road Map led by Sione Halauafu.
She said, “Halauafu’s team are currently taking steps to institutionalize the project within the Kolomotu'a community, and to create an operational committee that will oversee and guide this project, over the coming years.
Most of the equipment has already been installed throughout the Tongatapu island group. Some of the systems are in need of repairs, and all of the systems will need maintenance, she said.
Fallone added that the programme was not intended to make a profit out of the materials and equipment for the projects.
She said,“Each customer will need to sign an updated contract expressing their willingness to pay a truly manageable monthly fee (probably in the area of $8 to $10 USD, to be determined by the committee), in exchange for the solar energy.
“This monthly fee will be collected and deposited in a secure, communal bank account that was recently created by Sione Halauafu and the transition committee. These funds will pay a small salary for the people doing frequent maintenance of the panels, and will eventually help pay for the replacement battery. Without these monthly payments and the corresponding maintenance, the equipment will fail after just 5-6 years of use. With these payments and with community ownership, this project (and the equipment) can last for decades,” she said.