Solar saviour – benefits of small-scale installations in rural Africa

18 January 2012 (Last Updated January 18th, 2012 18:30)

Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a powerful transformation as small-scale installations catch on. Portable solar power installations are enhancing the quality of life and creating business opportunities to help thousands of people in rural outposts escape poverty. Ozge Ibrahim investigates.

Solar saviour – benefits of small-scale installations in rural Africa

A solar light offers the 'lion of brightness' according to Mr Chisale, who lives on the remote Likoma Island, Malawi. He and other villagers who are normally plunged into darkness in the early evening when the sun goes down can now access clean and reliable lighting to take them through to the following the day.

According to figures from the International Energy Agency, at least 20% of the planet's inhabitants are still without the simple luxury of a light-switch.

However, off-grid lighting systems developed in the west and powered by the sun are offering the capacity to light not only a room but also entire homes, hospitals and schools.

Sustainable solar

"Solar enables people to move from a subsistence existence, to a fully connected environment."

The idea to expand the reach of solar technology to the developing world began with a vision by the World Bank, which aims to help people around the world harness the sun's energy.

This effort includes a push to develop commercial off-grid lighting markets in Sub-Saharan Africa. Aid organisation Lighting Africa is working to mobilize the private sector to help build sustainable markets to provide safe, affordable and modern off-grid lighting to 2.5 million people in Africa this year, 2012, and 250 million people by 2030.

SolarAid represents a large part of this push through its work as a major supplier of information, infrastructure and support to technology providers wishing to offer stand alone solar products to off-grid locations.

Head of marketing and fundraising at SolarAid, Richard Turner, said the key to success is that solar installations are sold and not given away, which is traditionally expected from charities.

"That might seem a bit harsh when you are dealing with communities who live in real abject poverty. But it means the power shifts back to them because they are a customer so they have rights, there's a warranty if you like."

Known as the 'microsolar' technique, the organisation says the best way to fight poverty is to create jobs and businesses for people to generate income, in other words creating a demand for solar. This work involves training local entrepreneurs in sales and marketing techniques to manage their own businesses and generate independent income by selling SolarAid's solar-powered products.

"Eight19 believes it has found a solution to the financial obstacles associated with selling equipment to poor households."

Such products start from small solar study lamps, which cost about $10, to lamps that can light whole rooms. "We now use the school as a channel which creates the orders and it goes from there. Recently in underdeveloped Mafia Island, Tanzania, we sold three thousand solar lights in two or three days. Up to then SolarAid had only sold eight or nine thousand lights since being founded in 2006," Turner explained.

The organisation also works in a 'macrosolar' capacity in rural areas across East and Southern Africa, installing solar in schools, community centres and clinics.

One recent success story in this space involves UK solar power developer Lightsource, which teamed up with SolarAid to provide power to communities in Malawi, a country where only 7% of people have access to electricity.

The company says the project will provide energy generation for 15 clinics, 15 schools and ten community centres and includes ten solar fridges.

"Providing a sustainable source of energy to people in remote districts of Malawi will be a real boost to children's education, help improve health standards by extending the capacity of community clinics and provide refrigerated cold storage for medicines, blood and other supplies", Lightsource Chief Executive, Nick Boyle said.

Pay-as-you go lighting

Another solar technology provider working hard to sell innovative products to the developing world is UK based Eight19, which started its life manufacturing photovoltaics.

"That was and is the core of our business and in the process we decided it wasn't sufficient to make solar cells. We put a large amount of thought into off-grid emerging markets and realised there were things we could do to make a great deal of difference in those markets.

"Solar technology seemed the simple answer to meeting the needs of villages living far from major towns and cities", Eight19 CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth said.

The case for using solar is compelling when considering that the main alternative, Kerosene, contributes heavily to indoor air pollution, a leading cause of two million deaths around the world each year, according to the World Health Organisation.

For example, the pollution from kerosene wick lamps can cause fatal respiratory problems over time and accidents involving oil lamps and children are common. Significantly, the fuel also contributes to global warming.

While solar installations might offer a safer and clean alternative, they are not necessarily always cheaper. However, Eight19 believes it has found a solution to the financial obstacles associated with selling equipment to poor households.

"What we've done is combine mobile phone technology with solar technology to create a pay-as-you-go solar. The solar unit needs to have a top up code put into it, which works using a scratch card with a code, topped up with a new card each time. If you look at the economics, especially in Kenya, people spend the equivalent of $7 to $10 on kerosene a month.

"Charging the mobile costs about 20 cents a go and means travelling into a town to charge it up. We provide a product that enables customers to have two solar lights and charge a mobile phone at home. We charge people a dollar a week for that," Bransfield-Garth explained.

"At least 20% of the planet's inhabitants are still without the simple luxury of a light-switch."

The company has so far deployed these products to two locations in Kenya, and is actively working in Zambia, Malawi and South Sudan.

While demand might be high for solar installations today, governments in developing countries are working hard to connect more communities to the grid, which could inevitably result in a fall in demand for solar installations. Bransfield-Garth believes however that global demand for electricity will outweigh supply.

"Although countries talk about providing more power, it is unlikely. There are about 1.6bn people today who lack electricity and there will still be 1.3bn in 2030. World population is growing so rapidly that electricity companies are struggling to keep up, and as countries develop, people already connected to the grid are increasing their demand for electricity, which provides financial challenges."

While he admits there is a long way to go before the company sells solar installations in the millions, he believes the technology offers limitless opportunities and can transform lives. "Solar enables people to move from a subsistence existence, to a fully connected environment."