DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania – Issa Abdul’s desperate urge for solar power began when he realised a smoke-spewing generator at his barber shop was costing him too much.
“Solar power is very cheap. I regret spending my money on this fuel-guzzling machine,” he told Health Policy Watch.
The 32-year-old barber in Tanzania’s port city spent roughly Tanzanian shillings 150,000 ($65) to purchase a small solar system and this now powers his hair cutting business.
“I am very happy to have my own solar system. It is very useful,” he said.
On a humid Sunday morning, Abdul adeptly digs a buzzing clipper through the hair of the client sitting on a leather chair before him.
“I was spending a lot of money every month buying fuel, that is history now,” he said.
Perched on a rusty roof, Abdul’s lone solar panel produces enough electricity to run two clippers, three bright lights and a cell phone charger.
“There’s plenty of sunshine, I don’t disappoint my customers,” he said.
Drought cripples hydropower facilities
However, like other east African countries such as Kenya and Uganda, solar power still remains a small part of the country’s energy mix.
While Tanzania’s electric grid has been primarily powered by hydroelectric power, another renewable source, for some time, hydro’s dominance is slipping now.
Climate-related spells of drought have crippled the country’s hydropower facilities and the ageing distribution infrastructure, and the country is experiencing an electricity crisis affecting various sectors of the economy.
Hydropower, which can potentially generate 4.7 GW of electricity according to government estimates, is only producing 12% of its power potential, and is prone to weather variability.
Natural gas, oil and coal will almost certainly remain dominant in the country’s energy mix in the near future, according to experts.
Addressing climate change impact with fossil fuels
Tanzania’s experience is just one example of an emerging paradox of addressing climate change impacts with more climate-changing fossil fuel.
Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda have been dependent on hydropower, but as all three countries grapple with climate-related drought, they may also find it easier to tap their fossil fuel reserves with the help of multinational investors standing by than develop greener alternatives. This is even as technologies exist for large-scale grid-quality solar power that is ultimately cheaper, industry observers say.
While nations worldwide are shifting to renewable energy to reduce the global carbon footprint and ease the toll that fossil fuels take on people’s health, economy and climate, the majority of Tanzanians, like those in large parts of Africa, still use dirty energy sources that pollute the air, causing some 1.1 million deaths annually on the continent, according to a recent study.
Air pollution is the second risk factor for death in Africa after malnutrition, concluded the study by the Boston-based Health Effects Institute.
Tanzania’s electricity generation comes mostly from natural gas (48%), followed by hydropower (31%), petrol/diesel (18%), solar (1%), and biofuels (1%).
As demand for energy continues to grow, it is unclear how to ensure that renewables become more attractive than fossil fuel. Investments in fossil fuels far outweigh that of renewables in most parts of Africa, and oil and gas exploration and exploitation continues apace in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.
At Kariakoo, a business hub in Dar es Salaam dotted with shopping centres, a toxic haze of diesel hangs in the air as generators roar so loudly that they drown out people’s conversations.
Like the lone solar panel precariously hanging on Abdul’s salon, smoke-spewing generators are widely used when grid electricity goes off. They power everything from ceiling fans to television sets, air conditioners and freezers – the latter two items pulling too much power to make a rooftop solar system reliable.
Among the available choices, portable diesel generators are among the dirtiest, spewing particulate-laden emissions into the air directly into spaces where people live and work. But they remain the go-to solution in much of Tanzania and Africa more broadly.
“To me, a diesel generator provides the necessary power,” said Aloycia Mosha who runs a cold fish store.
Soaked with sweat, Mosha repeatedly pulls a string to rev the engine of her generator.
“If I don’t switch it on now, all my fish stock will get spoilt,” said Mosha.
The 45-year-old entrepreneur has often found a trail of blood oozing on her shop’s tiled floor, a clear sign that the fish defrosted overnight.
Power cuts are part of daily life
Power cuts are part of daily life in Dar es Salaam, a busy city that is home to 5.8 million people, and accounts for 40% of the country’s GDP.
While a few city dwellers have installed solar power on their roof tops to save spiralling energy costs, analysts say the lack of clear financing mechanism to cover initial installation costs, coupled with an unreliable distribution network, have made solar systems a distant luxury to many families.
Asteria Mchomvu, a resident of Upanga, a middle-class neighborhood in Dar es Salaam, began to dream of installing solar panels on her roof a decade ago.
At first, Mchomvu, who works as a teacher, was excited to learn that solar technology could help her save money and protect the environment. But a home solar system was too expensive for her t the time.
A modest 8-kilowat system would roughly cost Tanzanian shillings 10, million ($4347) in 2012, according to Tanzania’s Rural Energy Agency.
Prices for solar systems in Tanzania have since fallen by more than 60% and companies are aggressively jostling to pitch their sales.
Yet still, the numbers didn’t work for Mchomvu, who teaches geography and science
Then early in November, at the Dar es Salaam International Trade Fair, Mchomvu caught up with Richard Tairo, a salesman from Arti energy, a solar company focusing on mid and low -income customers.
Tairo understood Mchomvu’s passion for solar and her financial dilemma and he introduced her to Mali Kauli, a program that finances residential solar systems and offers borrowers, below-market rates.
Mchomvu accepted the offer after the company assured her that the system could lower her energy bills and spare her the agony of power cuts.
“I wanted to be 100% sure it is worth investing,” she told the Health Policy Watch.
Skewed regulatory framework disadvantages solar
Despite the growing public awareness, renewable energy penetration in Tanzania is still facing major hurdles due to a skewed regulatory framework and limited market.
Samuel Wangwe, a research associate with Research on Poverty Alleviation (REPOA) said solar power market has seen sluggish growth due to fragmented financing plans, uneven service after equipment sale and technical weaknesses in batteries and solar lamps, which are often cheap items imported from China with warranties that cannot be honoured.
“The most obvious barrier to renewable energy, notably solar is cost. The upfront expenses that people pay to get solar panels installed at their homes are still too high,” Wangwe said.
Many investors are discouraged to take on renewable energy projects because of high capital costs and a long net payback period, he added.
Wangwe says that the industry is also dogged by a lack of training institutes, which has prevented renewable energy technologies from scaling up.
“We must encourage our children to take renewable energy courses and hone their technical skills,” he said.
Bigger subsidies for fossil fuels
Although some subsidies are offered for rooftop solar, the subsidies the government provides to fossil fuel sources are much higher, Wangwe said.
In fact, in July, the Tanzanian government introduced a new fuel subsidy of a whopping Tanzanian shillings 100 billion ($43 million) monthly to stabilise the domestic price of fuel, Wangwe said.
While solar panel and wind turbines are exempt from VAT and are not charged import duties, accessories including the batteries essential to operating a household solar package are charged up to 35% import duty, said Wangwe.
“This is the reason why solar technology is not scaling up as fast as possible” he said.
Coal, oil and gas are by far the largest contributors to climate change, experts say. In addition, some 65% of deaths from air pollution are generated by fossil fuel combustion, including the noisy and smokey generators that are omnipresent in households and big African cities like Dar es Salaam.
While global leaders have endorsed the scientific consensus to limit global warming to 1.5°C above pre-industrial level, as spelled out in the Paris Agreement, there is a growing rush for oil and gas exploration in the global south.
This is what COP27 civil society participants called the “dash for gas” reminiscent of the colonial scramble for Africa.
More fossil fuel exploration
Tanzania has enough gas reserves to put the country on a path of economic prosperity, and may unlock as much as $30 billion in liquified natural gas (LNG) investments.
At the same time, if the historic pattern long followed in east and west Africa remains the same, many of the new LNG is likely to be sold to Europe and other countries to generate foreign currency, rather than used at home.
“Our political leaders are caught up in a dilemma. Such investments are worthwhile economically but bad for the environment,” said Wangwe.
While many have argued that off-grid solar solutions hold the key to Tanzania’s urban and rural electrification, fossil fuels subsidies have reduced its competitiveness.
Yusto Mugisha, professor of renewable energy at the school of engineering and technology a Sokoine University of Agriculture, said in order to build a sustainable future, Tanzania needs to invest in clean, accessible and affordable energy sources.
“Renewable energy sources are available and their potential is not fully harnessed,” said Mugisha.
Although upfront costs for renewable projects can be daunting, Mugisha said efficient and more reliable renewable technologies can create a system that is less prone to market shocks and improve energy security.
Unlike fossil fuels, which need to be extracted and transported to large power plants and require a grid network extending to remote areas, renewable sources like solar and wind can be developed in various flexible arrays.
They can be just a few panels on a household installation, part of a community mini-grid, or as a solar power plant feeding into the large grid.
That, according to the International Energy Agency and countless other assessments means that solar could leap-frog over grid-dependent fossil fuel technologies much like portable phones leap-frogged over fixed phone lines in Africa, providing better service much faster.
But renewable energy versus fossil fuels has seemingly placed Tanzania politicians in the moral dilemma. While fossil fuel provides badly needed energy, it leaves behind a carbon footprint that’s proving catastrophic to humans and the planet.
Yet, in the short term, policymakers strongly support fuel subsidies to stabilise the prices of other commodities. Meanwhile, renewable energy subsidies, notably on solar, are indirectly offered mostly through the Rural Energy Agency, and are clustered depending on the scale of the project.
Despite its small market share local experts say renewable energy has the potential to respond to present and future challenges by enhancing energy security, generating income, and providing employment.
Rural dependence on kerosene
In the dusty western town of Tabora, 12-year-old William Kahise and his sister Juliana routinely huddled around the faint glow of kerosene lamp when the darkness sets in, struggling to get their homework done before their mother blows off the lamp to save the fuel cost.
“I must finish my work, otherwise my teacher will be very angry,” Kahise told Health Policy Watch.
The paraffin lamp, made from a discarded cooking oil tin, emitted choking smoke and casts scary shadows on the walls. Kerosene is one of the household fuels that WHO has recommended not be used at all, because of its health harmful effects, including impaired lung function, asthma and cancer.
The Itetemia primary school pupil may not know about the WHO recommendation, but he knew the smoke made him cough and convinced his mother to ditch the kerosene lantern, for a cheap solar version.
Kerosene is used by millions of rural households i to meet basic lighting needs and subsidies have long been used to make the fuel more affordable.
Kerosene subsidies have been at the centre of energy policy debate, with renewable energy activists arguing that, for health, safety and environmental reasons, a switch to solar power is better.
“The subsidized kerosene is extremely costly and wasteful, the government is spending a lot of money every month to keep the price low,” said Mugisha.
But for Abdul, who enjoys solar power, the challenge arises when his Chinese-made panel starts to age and needs to be replaced as Africa produces virtually no panels of its own.
–First of two parts on the barriers to clean, renewable energy in Africa.
-Research and reporting for this story was supported by the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation.
Image Credits: Peter Mgongo.