Africa was dubbed the ‘dark continent’ due to the little knowledge that Europeans held about its populations and history. However, the phrase could be taking on a new meaning due to the fact that more than three quarters of the continent’s population live in rural areas and aren’t connected to the electrical grid.
According to World Bank fact sheet on Energy in Africa, some 25 countries in sub-Saharan Africa are facing a crisis evidenced by rolling blackouts. Although the African continent is well endowed both with fossil fuels and renewable resources, these are not evenly distributed, creating windfall profits for some countries and exacerbating the crisis in others.
The same report says 24 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa has access to electricity versus 40 percent in other low income countries. Even with these facts, solar energy is taking center stage in solving this need for energy, solving problems from reducing human-wildlife conflict to functional healthcare systems with the overall result being improved livelihoods.
Solar for health
Langata-Githurai hospital is a level three hospital situated in Githurai – Nairobi. For years it was literally deserted. It had many problems, one of them being inadequate support from the government to pay operational costs such as electricity. Client confidence plummeted, and so did their numbers.
With the new government that was voted in two years ago, healthcare became a function of the devolved government, and the Kiambu County government decided to try a public-private-partnership in order to and salvage the hospital. The partnership was with Philips, which installed solar panels and upgraded the hospitals equipment in use.
The solar panels produce up to five KVa of power, but the hospital only uses three kilovolts. Everything in the hospital is now powered by solar power including the sterilizing machine which is the biggest consumer of energy.
When the Africa Times correspondent visited the hospital, the solar system was being connected to a mobile application, enabling remote monitoring. The perimeter wall fence has LED lights which go on and off at a set time, and one of the clinical officers who only wanted to be identified by first name said that for the seven months the solar system has been working, there has been increased activity from the residents of Githurai, both in regards to the pursuit of healthcare as well as growing businesses around the area.
“On a slow day, we handle up to 150 patients per clinical officer. We are two. And because of the security lights, we have seen residential and commercial buildings coming up, new businesses operating until late. It’s like a new township mushrooming,” said Steve.
This is not the only example of how solar energy is transforming lives in Kenya. In 2013, a Maasai boy – Richard Turere discovered what was later dubbed ‘Lion Lights.’ From the age of nine, he was charged with the responsibility of herding and caring for his family’s large herd of cattle. His family lived within the Nairobi National Park’s proximity, in Kitengela, and that meant that they were among the families at a loss on how to protect their cattle from the constant raids by lions.
One night, as he was patrolling round the cattle boma (Swahili for enclosure) with a flashlight, he noticed that the lions kept at a distance. It then occurred to him that the lions may be afraid of flashing light, and got the idea to install lights that light alternately around the cattle enclosure.
He erected poles to form a sort of perimeter wall, connecting the wiring to an old car battery that’s solar powered, all of his own accord. At the time he was only 13, had no training nor a background knowledge in electronics or engineering.
In rural areas, many people use wood fuel as well as kerosene to light up their homes. Kerosene is not clean energy, and the World Bank estimates that at least 4000 people die yearly as a result of using it.
Salim Visram knew this only too well, having grown up in Kikambala – Mombasa County before heading to Canada to study a Bachelor of Arts from the University of McGill. After witnessing for years, children walking long distances to school and living off the grid that she came up with the idea to design what has come to be known as the ‘Solar Backpack’.
Salim designed this bag so that children living in rural areas can take advantage of the travel time to and from school to charge the solar panel attached to their bag, allowing them to use this energy to study at night.
The backpack has a solar panel storage battery connected to an LED lamp, which charges for four hours and provides light for up to eight hours. So far, she has distributed 500 backpacks in Kikambala Primary school, with the hopes of crowd-sourcing for funds to distribute thousands more.
Not only are rural communities embracing the use of solar power, but mega construction companies in Nairobi are now designing their plans around the generation and use of solar energy.
Garden City and Two Rivers, which are 32 and 102 acres of construction respectively, have designed their car ports such that the roofs are solar paneled, producing 1256 megawatt hour and two megawatt hours respectively.
Garden City, which is the first destination mall in Kenya, was opened on the 15th of September 2015 and the 3,300 solar panels are expected to produce approximately 1,246,000 kWh per year. It is predicted that this will reduce carbon emissions by an estimated 492 tonnes per year.
According to Anthony Ochieng, the Managing Director of Two Rivers Development, they are aware of their huge energy needs for this massive construction, “that is why the car port will be installed with solar panels, the output of which will be used to light common areas and also to power some of the escalators.”
Lydia Limbe is a freelance features writer who is based in Nairobi Kenya.