Africa's quiet solar revolution

January 26th, 2015  |  Source: CS

The continent skipped land lines for mobile phones. Now a new generation of start-ups is trying to bring sun power to rural Africa – and leapfrog the fossil fuel era. 

By Tanzanian standards, Nosim Noah is not poor. A tall, handsome woman with the angular features of her fellow Masai tribe members, Ms. Noah makes a good living selling women’s and children’s clothes in the markets of this northern Tanzanian city. The four-bedroom brick house she shares with her parents and three children outside town has many modern comforts: mosquito screens on the windows and doors, a gas cookstove, and, most important, a faucet with running water in the back of the yard, next to a stall with a working toilet. 

But despite their relative prosperity, up until late 2013, the family had no electricity. 

“We waited 10 years for them to turn the power on – 10 years and nothing,” says Noah. 

Then, one afternoon, the Noahs had an unexpected knock on the door. An agent for a new electrical company called M-POWER said that, for a sign-up fee of only 10,000 shillings ($6), he could install a fully functioning solar home system in their house – enough to power several LED lights and a radio. The payoff was immediate. While Noah used to spend $18 a month on kerosene, she now pays a monthly average of $11 for her solar lighting, and she no longer has to go into town to charge her cellphone. The person most affected, though, may be her 2-year-old daughter, Emilia, who is afraid of the dark. 

“She would cry every night – every single night,” says Noah. “It was a struggle to put her to sleep.” Now, with a new light above her bed, “it makes a huge difference,” she says. 

The changes taking place under the Noahs’ roof are emblematic of a quiet revolution sweeping across much of rural Africa and the developing world.

Until recently, the lack of electricity in many poor areas was seen as something of an inevitable fact of life. Building power grids across long distances to reach remote communities is slow and costly, and when the people in those communities are subsistence farmers living on less than $2 a day, the returns often fail to justify the massive investment.

Now, however, a new solar energy movement is bringing kilowatts to previously unlit areas of Africa – and changing the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The idea behind the latest effort isn’t to tap the power of the sun to electrify every appliance in a household. Instead, it is to install a small solar panel not much bigger than an iPad to power a few lights, a cellphone charger, and other basic necessities that can still significantly alter people’s lives.

Going smaller better fits the budgets of the rural poor. People use the money they normally would spend on kerosene to finance their solar systems, allowing them to pay in small, affordable installments and not rely on government help. The concept is called pay-as-you-go solar. 

Many see it as helping to overcome the problems that have plagued previous solar “revolutions” in Africa. Richard Hosier, a senior analyst at the World Bank, likes to tell the story of his first encounter with solar panels in Africa. 

“It was in a village in Kenya, in 1981, during the Carter administration,” he recalls. “There were solar panels all right – cut into little bits to make necklaces for the women.” 

African villages, Mr. Hosier says, are littered with failed solar projects donated by well-meaning government agencies or nongovernmental organizations that installed the technology but couldn’t afford to follow up with maintenance or battery replacements.

While some remain skeptical of the new approach, many believe the scale of the current movement, coupled with the involvement of local entrepreneurs and the changing economics of solar power, will make it different this time around. Some observers are even asking, Will rural Africa leapfrog the carbon energy age altogether and go directly to a solar-powered future?

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