Solar power lights up Africa

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The Independent Online

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.