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How solar energy is powering off-grid areas in Kenya

Tuesday September 10 2019

solar lanterns

A solar lantern keeps business going at night in a neighbourhood in Nairobi. PHOTO | COURTSEY 

FAUSTINE NGILA
By FAUSTINE NGILA
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Jenifer Achieng steps on a stool to reach the exterior iron sheet roofing of her house where a solar panel rests every day.

She carefully holds it with one hand explaining how it has changed life in her home, located several kilometres from the national electricity grid, at Kabonyo village, Kisumu County.

“Initially I used to spend a lot of money buying kerosene for my lantern. Sometimes I did not have the money and was forced to use firewood for light during my night household chores,” says the 65-year-old granny of five.

Ms Achieng’s grandchildren, now, enjoy attending school, homework at night before retiring to bed, without the fear of lights going off.

 Initially she used to send one of her grandchildren to get her mobile phone charged in the nearby shopping centre, six kilometres from her home. And sometimes there would be power cuts that forced her to try again the next day.

Mercy Kalondu, a resident of Kasikeu, Makueni County narrates how a new television technology has impacted her home entertainment life.

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“Although I am connected to the grid, regular power cuts mean that I must endure the pain of missing news on TV, listening to radio and charging my smartphone. I bought a solar powered TV set that I can use at all conditions, at the same time lighting my five-roomed house,” says the mother of three.

As noted by energy analysts, inadequate infrastructure in Africa, of which power infrastructure performs a crucial role, greatly slows down economic activity.  In response to this, the Kenyan government has channelled resources towards rural electrification in its bid to attain that universal electricity connectivity by 2020.

But we are in 2019 and Kenya Power reported that as at 2018, household connections to the national grid stood at 73 percent of the national coverage, placing the power authority on track to achieve the targeted 95 percent connectivity by 2020.

In July 2017, the Ministry of Energy began its flagship Kenya Off-grid Solar Access Project with Sh1.5 billion in financing from the World Bank. The project targets 14 underserved counties with off-grid solar mini-grids and stand-alone solar systems, but many interior parts of the country remain uncovered.

And now, innovation for off-grid power access has come to the aid of Kenyans like Ms Achieng and Ms Kalondu, empowering women across Kenya through flexible payment plans for solar power accessibility.

“Since January, I pay Sh20 from Monday to Friday for my solar lantern after sending a down payment of Sh1,000 to Greenlight Planet. I am almost completing payment and will not need to pay for power tokens every month,” says Ms Achieng.

Ms Kalondu says although the idea of rural electrification is good, some remote areas are literally inaccessible by power grid lines and people living in those areas have to travel far to get their phones charged.

“Power cuts in rural areas are very annoying. Imagine watching a sensitive news item in your neighbourhood or your favourite TV show and then suddenly the lights go off. Or you wanted to make an emergent call then your phone goes off,” she remarks.

She bought her Sun King Home 400 TV set from Greenlight Planet five months ago. The set comprises a solar panel, a 19, 24 or 32 inch television with a built in decoder, a radio, a motion sensor light for night security and five lanterns to illuminate five rooms.

 “After listening to our customer needs, we decided to offer them long lasting solution for home energy. Our lamps can serve for up to five years without any issues,” says Greenlight Planet’s business development director for Africa Mr Patrick Muriuki.

 He adds that the innovation helps customers enjoy convenient payment plans that involve a down payment of a fraction of the total value and choose to pay the remaining amount in instalments, for in months.

 “This payment can be done daily, weekly or monthly depending on the value of the product. Prices range from Sh400 upfront cost for lamps up to an initial deposit of Sh1500 for a 32-inch solar powered TV set,” he says, adding that the company has 74 stores across Kenya.

 In its pursuit for women empowerment, the firm’s 5800 sales agents comprise of nearly 2,000 sales women who due to their commitment and hard work, as he puts it, grow to the higher echelons of the company’s managerial level.

 “Women are the cornerstones of any family, even for those with a responsible father figure. When you empower a woman, she impacts the lives of family members directly,” notes Mr Muriuki, adding that they have been quick to adopt their off-grid power solutions.

As gender mainstreaming campaigns dominate global gender debate, the organization, he says, has employed 50 percent women staff in Kenya. But challenges have always been experienced.

“People living in rural Africa still struggle to access electricity. It has not been easy creating awareness on the benefits of solar powered homes with which children can study. We are still working hard to unchain the world’s 1.2 billion global off-grid villagers from the shackles of dim, dangerous kerosene lamps and unreliable electricity.”

Research reports show that women in kerosene lantern households are nine times more likely to contract tuberculosis than homes nearby that use solar lighting.

Kerosene lanterns routinely tip over, causing catastrophic nighttime house fires, most of which have been experienced in Kenya’s urban shanties. One in twenty off-grid communities have experienced devastating kerosene fires, studies show.

Often there aren’t enough daylight hours to allow children the study time necessary to succeed. School dropout statistics suggest this issue disproportionately affects girls, who often carry significantly higher household obligations.

“We have increased daily study time by 75 per cent, as Sun King lights give back 3 hours of productive time each night – a room for children to study, play and grow healthy.”

This has seen 9.7 million off-grid houses reached globally, positively changing the lives of 48.9 million users with 11.9 million metric tonnes of Carbon (IV) Oxide being offset, making users report 84 percent of better air quality, according to the firm.