Solar power lights up Africa

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Xavery Gombifenga is the most popular man in the Tanzanian village of Nyashimba, high in the north of the country in the region of Mwanza by Lake Victoria. On match days his backyard is packed out with neighbours eager to catch the game on his large screen TV over a cool beer or Coca-Cola, and on the afternoon of our visit a group of young men sit playing cards outside his red brick home.

About 20km away in Yichobela, Makungu Rayandema enjoys a similar popularity. As his family begins a lunch of ugali – the wheat-based staple of most East Africans’ diet - and chicken legs stewed in a red broth, they are entertained by the church organ player practising on Rayandema’s electric keyboard. The keyboard is powered by a new solar power system, as is the cluster of mobile phones charging at the organ player’s feet.

Both off-grid and out of the way, the villages of Nyashimba and Yichobela are all but cut off from the rest of the world because they don’t have access to electricity. Affordable solar power, an environmentally friendly alternative, is promising to light up the parts of Africa which power cables do not yet reach.

Gombifenga and Rayandema installed their solar electricity kits earlier this year. They are close to paying off the initial cost and even make an income from the equipment. Gombifenga charges his neighbours a small entry fee to his football screenings and sells them cold drinks from the huge fridge powered by his 280W solar kit, a very large set-up in comparison to most sold in the area. The Rayandema household, one of only two in Yichobela to enjoy electricity, manage on a much smaller system. This allows for a few electric lights and a radio, the keyboard and the phone charging, which brings in about 15 pence per phone. Before solar power came to Yichobela mobile users had to travel six kilometres and pay someone connected to the electricity grid to charge their phones.

“Even in the areas where there is electricity,” explains Gombifenga, “people still prefer solar systems, because after installation it is free of charge. The alternative is kerosene, which is very dangerous and very expensive”.

Developing solar power in Africa is being eagerly pursued by international organisations including the World Bank and the United Nations and a host of smaller NGOs such as the UK’s Ashden Awards, a sustainable energy initiative whose support was the catalyst for the spread of the technology through northern Tanzania. In 2007 Ashden awarded £30,000 to a local solar entrepreneur, Mohamedrafik Parpia, to expand his fledgling business and investigate ways of helping the very poorest Tanzanians access the systems. In just three years, Parpia’s business Zara Solar has fitted nearly 4,000 systems, providing electricity to a much greater number.

Click below to watch a video about Zara Solar

“Most people in this area are lighting their homes with kerosene lanterns or candles, which are expensive and produce nasty fumes and smoke, and poor lighting,” says Ben Dixon, programme manager for the Ashden Awards. “Even a small solar system can provide better light, and a radio or TV socket and a mobile phone charging point can connect people to news, education, family, and buyers for their farm produce. It can also have an impact on education, as school children have decent light for studying in the evenings”.

Parpia now enjoys a certain level of fame in the region and acclaim in his field. An appearance on the BBC World Service’s Swahili station brought clients to his store in the centre of Mwanza, Tanzania’s second city of 717,000 inhabitants, and he has won five awards, including a recent grant of $200,000 (£100,000) from the World Bank. He is one of sixteen winners in a pan-African competition run by Lighting Africa, which aims to provide 250 million people in sub-Saharan Africa with cheap and reliable non fossil-fuel based electricity by 2030. The other winners voted the solar project their favourite across the entire continent. The Tanzanian government, which presides over a country of some 38m people of whom just 10 per cent have access to electricity, are also championing alternative and sustainable energy sources, and recently abolished the hefty taxes and duty on imported solar panels.

In rural areas, the rate of electrification plummets to just two per cent. For those with cars and the money to run them, villages like Nyashimba and Yichobela are only a few hours drive from the growing city of Mwanza by Lake Victoria. But vehicles are a rare luxury. Fuel, incredibly, costs close to what it does in the UK. Of those who do have access to the electricity grid, there is a connection backlog. If your name reaches the top of the list, you will have to shell out over £200 to be plugged in, before the monthly bills start stacking up.

Lighting Africa is giving seed money to small enterprises like Parpia’s Zara Solar to work in such rural areas, though its intention is as much to create a new market for lighting companies as to support development. “This is a commercial prospect,” explains Russell Sturm, who was instrumental in setting up the programme. “1.6bn people on the planet lack access to modern energy and half a billion of those are in Africa. People are spending $38bn a year on off grid lighting, which means that 18 per cent of the global lighting market is going to oil companies like Exxonmobil”.

It is in the interests of the international community to promote non-polluting energy sources because of the hefty carbon emissions and finite supply of traditional fossil fuels. For the average Tanzanian on the ground, solar offers a route away from polluting kerosene lamps which cause headaches and nausea and frequent fatal house fires. By the time they reach 60, women who have spent their lives hunched over kerosene stoves and lamps often find the whites of their eyes have turned completely red and some are murdered on suspicion of being a witch. A UNDP survey has found that on average families use between 10 and 20 litres of kerosene per month, at between 60p and 95p per litre.

Despite the savings it offers, finding the money to have a even a £100 solar kit installed remains incredibly difficult. Credit and bank loans are a near impossibility for anyone without substantial upfront collateral, and local money lenders charge between three and six per cent interest per month on loans, a rate which often leads borrowers into terminal debt. The only alternative is a micro-financing organisation such as Savings and Credit Co-operative Societies, (SACCOs), grass roots savings and lending institutions formed by teachers, nurses and civil servants. Parpia, now the largest solar provider in northern Tanzania, is working to convince SACCOs operating across the Mwanza region and the other three lake zones of Mara, Shinyanga and Kagera to finance solar systems for their members.

Mwanza has been a pilot region for solar implementation since 2004 and it is hoped its success will be rolled out across all the northern lake zones. Zara Solar has also just received a grant to investigate a plan to sell cheap solar lanterns to fishermen, who use around seven litres of kerosene on a single night of fishing. But 9m people live in the area surrounding Lake Victoria, over 90 per cent of them without electricity. As a standalone operator Zara Solar will never build the capacity required to carpet this vast region in glinting silver solar panels.

When Thomas Edison invented the lightbulb, he promised that only the rich would continue to burn candles. “Today,” says Sturm, “there are more people reliant on kerosene and paraffin for lighting than were alive when the lightbulb was invented”. If demand can be facilitated via the savings and lendings clubs, supply will have to be bolstered considerably to give solar a real shot at lighting up Africa, and not just at joining the dots in the darkness.

Suggested Topics
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Danny Welbeck's Manchester United future is in doubt
footballGunners confirm signing from Manchester United
footballStriker has moved on loan for the remainder of the season
footballFeaturing Bart Simpson
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
New Articles
Olivia Colman topped the list of the 30 most influential females in broadcasting
Kelly Brook
peopleA spokesperson said the support group was 'extremely disappointed'
The five geckos were launched into space to find out about the effects of weightlessness on the creatures’ sex lives
Life and Style
techIf those brochure kitchens look a little too perfect to be true, well, that’s probably because they are
Andy Murray celebrates a shot while playing Jo-Wilfried Tsonga
TennisWin sets up blockbuster US Open quarter-final against Djokovic
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
booksRiddling trilogy could net you $3m
Arts and Entertainment
Alex Kapranos of Franz Ferdinand performs live
music Pro-independence show to take place four days before vote
news Video - hailed as 'most original' since Benedict Cumberbatch's
Life and Style
The longer David Sedaris had his Fitbit, the further afield his walks took him through the West Sussex countryside
lifeDavid Sedaris: What I learnt from my fitness tracker about the world
Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
booksUnlike 'talented mediocrity' George Orwell, you must approach this writer dictionary in hand
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SQL Implementation Consultant (VB,C#, SQL, Java, Eclipse, integ

£40000 - £50000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: SQL Impl...

SQL Technical Implementation Consultant (Java, BA, Oracle, VBA)

£45000 - £55000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: SQL Technical ...

Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, Fidessa, Equities)

£85000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Head of IT (Windows, Server, VMware, SAN, ...

Lead C# Developer (.Net, nHibernate, MVC, SQL) Surrey

£55000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Lead C# Develo...

Day In a Page

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering