Solar lamps, stoves and mobile phone chargers changing villagers’ lives in East Africa

Tuesday January 16 2018

Children do homework under a new solar light in rural Kenya. Solar firms are helping have light up villages in East Africa. FILE PHOTO | NYT


For 70-year-old Regina Ocholla, a resident Nyakach in Kenya’s Kisumu County, a kerosene-fuelled tin lamp is a painful reminder of a dark past — literally.

Mrs Ocholla says she has used one since she was a child and for the bigger part of her adulthood. But this dark past is all behind her now, thanks to a clean energy project launched recently in her area.

Today, her family has a strip of solar panels installed last month by the solar company, SolarNow BV, and her house has seven solar lamps.

SolarNow runs renewable energy projects across East Africa, with about 50 branches in Uganda alone.

“I never thought that one day we would have light in this home,” Mrs Ocholla says. “But for the past one month, we have had power, day and night.”

The panels produce enough energy to charge the family’s mobile phones, and their neighbours’. Charging Ksh10 ($0.1) per phone, Mrs Ocholla says she makes some money with which she buys groceries.


More relief

The new power system has come with more relief to this family, which would spend at least Ksh800 ($8) monthly on kerosene, translating to Ksh10,000 ($100) a year.

The Ochollas are benefiting from SolarNow’s PayPlan model that sells and distributes modular solar home systems on credit. To acquire the new 150-watt system, she made a deposit of Ksh42,850 ($429) and will be paying Ksh8,100 ($81) every month for six months.

The company provides free transportation and installation of the system, a two-year warranty and five years of maintenance and service.

Now, Mrs Ocholla’s son, Alloys, is planning to buy a television set for the family.

“This will bring in more money if we screen football matches, as we will save the village’s young men a three-kilometre journey to watch the European Premier League matches,” says her 25-year-old daughter, Akoth.

SolarNow is complemented by Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF), a $304 million private-sector fund which supports innovative commercial businesses in the agribusiness, renewable energy and adaptation to climate change.

“We started in Uganda as a solar panels maker in 2006 and moved to Tanzania. Then we started a foundation through which we deliver solar services on credit. We target the bottom of the pyramid of consumers,” says Ronald Schuurhuizen, SolarNow’s business development director.

18,000 households

SolarNow BV has spent $2 million to reach more than 18,000 households and created about 500 full-time jobs in Uganda; installed about 750kW and reduced about 390 tonnes of carbon each year.

In 2017, SolarNow expanded its services to western Kenya, and in its strategic plan, by the end of 2018, it should have set up 25 branches in the country. Mr Schuurhuizen says the company is eyeing Turkana and Nakuru in its $1 million expansion plan.

SolarNow BV and Newlight Africa Ltd, a distributor of solar lamps are among the companies the AECF is partnering with.

Some of the beneficiaries of the technologies are women’s groups in Matungu, Kakamega County.

Business opportunity

Rukia Wakhu, leader of Vumilia Women’s Group, has seen the benefits of solar energy, courtesy of Newlight Africa, which trades as Heya.

She is the agent for the Omnivoltaic pilot x (ovPilot x) solar lighting and mobile phone charging unit. She started by buying one for her children to use to study after school, before branching out to sell to women in her group.

“In the past, my children could not study beyond 9pm. The kerosene lanterns would run dry, forcing them to go to bed in darkness,” says the mother of eight.

She says that the lamp takes up to five days to recharge and it can charge up to 10 mobile phones daily. “Women in the chamas (groups) I manage who have the system make more money, compared with incomes from their small businesses,” she says.

Since April 2017, Rukia has sold about 30 units of ovPilot x 1, 2 and 3. She makes Ksh6,000 ($60) from every sale.

How did she get into this business?

“I deposited Ksh2,200 ($22), being payment for one unit, then they gave me 10 that I pay for at Ksh300 ($3) per week for 10 weeks to cover the cost,” she says.

Ismail Makokha, Newlight Africa sales representative and trainer on the use and management of the solar units, remembers how he spotted a business opportunity in the area.

He says he realised that vigils and funerals were in need of lighting and started providing it free lighting using the ovPilot lamps.
“People liked them and that’s how I started selling them,” he says. He sold 60 pieces between April and June, 2017.

Newlight also sells an ethanol-powered stoves branded Safi.

Goodbye to firewood

Zainab Muranda, a resident of Matungu, says she has bid goodbye to firewood and charcoal.

“Since I started using Safi, even my health has improved: No dirt, no smoky smell in food, and it is friendly to operate,” she says.

To get one from Newlight, she deposited Ksh1,500 ($15) — Ksh1,000 ($10) for the stove and Ksh500 ($5) for the ethanol — then started paying Ksh300 ($3) per month to cover the total cost, Ksh5,700 ($57).

Victor Ndiege, portfolio manager for renewable energy and adaptation to climate technologies at AECF, says that annually, African households and small businesses spend at least $17 billion on lighting.

“Many households spend up to 30 per cent of their income on kerosene. But it is inefficient and expensive, provides limited and poor quality light, and exposes users to health and fire hazards,” he says.

Wood and charcoal make up about 90 per cent of the primary energy supply in sub-Saharan Africa, presenting environmental and livelihood challenges as nearly 4 million hectares of forest are lost each year, adding to the degradation of water catchments and soil erosion.

Indoor pollution

Data from the World Health Organisation shows that about 14,000 people in Kenya die annually from health conditions traced to indoor pollution, and kerosene is a major contributor.

“Through REACT funding, the AECF has shown that private sector innovation has the potential to reach people in ways that large-scale government investment in grid extension and climate adaptation infrastructure struggle to deliver,” he said.

He said in six years, the AECF has given $83 million to 68 companies implementing innovative business models that provide increased access to clean energy, financial services and climate smart solutions for the rural poor.

Mr Ndiege says that with the current power generation trends showing a clear failure to keep up with both rural and urban demands in Africa, it is evident that the population without electricity will increase steadily until at least 2025.

“To worsen the matter is the high cost of grid extension to the remote areas of the continent,” he says.

Since energy is a binding constraint on growth in many African countries, especially in rural areas Mr Ndiege said the AECF has just completed a $48 million five-year funding agreement with Swedish International Development Co-operation Agency (Sida), for REACT sub-Saharan Africa to support the renewable energy sector.

Clean energy solutions

The programme, which is currently at inception, will support private sector companies to accelerate access to clean energy solutions by rural communities in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The funding applications will begin in June 2018.

Pauline Mbayah, AECF’s director of strategy and partnerships, told The EastAfrican that they are designing a youth fund to attract young people to agribusiness.
“This way, the unemployment headache can be addressed,” she said.

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