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Two local projects demonstrate potential – and challenges – for Africa going solar

Courtesy of Safiatou Nana

In northwest Cameroon, saplings sprout on bare red Earth that was once home to dense forests and rich biodiversity, such as chimpanzees, baboons and birds. What’s driving this nascent landscape restoration? Solar energy – and not only for photosynthesis.

In sun-rich Africa, two grassroots projects led by locals have tapped into the sun to help restore degraded areas, reflecting the bright prospects for solar power in Africa, as well as the challenges in implementation.

Aiming to plant 10,000 seedlings this year, Support Humanity Cameroon (SUHUCAM) has developed a tree nursery with solar-powered irrigation with support from the Yaoundé Chapter of GLFx, a global network of community members taking action to make their local landscapes more sustainable.

“So far, it’s very effective, and our seedling growth is very effective as well,” says Sunday Geofrey, founder of SUHUCAM. “It saves time that could have been used in watering the seedlings [by hand] and is environmentally friendly.”

Sunday Geofrey holds a sapling in the solar-powered tree nursery. Courtesy of Sunday GeofreySunday Geofrey holds a sapling in the solar-powered tree nursery. Courtesy of Sunday Geofrey

 

Located in the Bamankumbit region, the nursery channels the energy to pumps transporting water from the Mbingmboh River to sprinklers in the nursery. Those sprinklers then water medicinal plants such as moringa, fruit-bearing trees such as oranges and avocados, and trees used for other economic purposes, such as growing kola nuts to sell. These trees are then replanted to replace the forests that have been lost over time, chopped down for fuelwood or agriculture, or falling victim to the pressures of conflicts between farmers and grazers.

“We plant trees so we can have water like before,” says SUHUCAM volunteer and local cattle farmer Ibrahim Kelah about the project’s ecosystem benefits. “We used to have water, but the trees were cut down, and the catchment areas, they dried up.”

Increased access to solar energy would not only help farmers like Kelah but could also help bring power to the roughly 600 million Africans who lack access to electricity. With the population in Africa expected to double by 2050, greater investment in solar projects and other renewables would lessen the continent’s reliance on fossil fuels and hydropower while also creating millions of jobs and benefits for national economies. According to the UN, Africa has the world’s greatest potential for solar energy but has only received 2 percent of the USD 2.8 trillion invested in renewables worldwide in the last 20 years.

Sunday Geofrey with SUHUCAM volunteers. Courtesy of Sunday GeofreySunday Geofrey with SUHUCAM volunteers. Courtesy of Sunday Geofrey

Solar Energy Challenges in Africa 

SUHUCAM is an organization whose efforts are wide-ranging. In addition to the tree-planting effort and nursery, it sponsors an initiative to make villages more sustainable, a project to boost access to clean water, and trainings for local and Indigenous communities.

However, Geofrey says that civil conflict and lack of infrastructure in rural areas in Cameroon have made it difficult to carry out these activities, including expanding the tree planting initiative. One key issue, he says, has been poorly maintained roads, which shake and destroy seedlings transported on motorbikes..

The tree nursery is also a case-in-point of the financial challenges that keep the continent from making the energetic leap to solar. “This innovation is a demonstration of our commitment to take a lead on climate action and promote landscape restoration in grassroots communities in Cameroon,” says Geofrey. “But as a young organization, we are struggling with finances and resources. At the moment, we don’t have nursery nets and other basic nursery equipment.”

Further to the west in the Sahel, Burkina Faso is experiencing similar challenges. Increasingly unpredictable rainfall as well as the expansion of the Sahara Desert and ongoing conflict have combined to make the economy, which is primarily rooted in agriculture, difficult to uphold.

Burkinabe engineer and entrepreneur Safiatou Nana views renewable, off-grid energy as a way forward for the country’s rural communities. Selected by the ONE campaign as one of its 5 African innovators to watch in 2019, Nana founded the start-up SolarKoodo as a way to provide locally-made, cheap solar irrigation pumps to farmers who typically lose much of their agricultural yield to inadequate water supplies and lack of affordable year-round irrigation. Manual irrigation can take 10 hour per day, she says, adding that Burkina Faso has one of West Africa’s lowest rates of connectivity to electricity — especially in rural areas where only some 3 percent of the population has access to electric power.

Safiatou Nana, who designed a portable solar powering device to allow farmers to pump water and irrigate their crops. James Oatway, Royal Academy of EngineeringSafiatou Nana, who designed a portable solar powering device to allow farmers to pump water and irrigate their crops. James Oatway, Royal Academy of Engineering

 

SolarKoodoo, inspired in part by the word for harvest (koodoo) in the local Mooré language, aimed to provide a solution by mounting solar panels on platforms. The platform would be pulled by donkeys or other animals, making it an eco-friendly, fossil fuel-free form of transportation. This would have provided sustainable power for irrigation systems.

However, funding challenges also put the start-up on hold.

“We developed the business proposal, conducted market research and made a prototype, but sadly we couldn’t continue to implement the business plan due to lack of funding,” says Nana. “We realized that the proposed system would take a lot of time and investment in research and development to come up with a commercial product that would beat current imported solar pumps.”

Perhaps, one day, her vision will still come to life. Burkina Faso has taken steps in the solar direction, constructing one of Africa’s largest solar farms in 2017 and aiming to have half of its energy come from renewables by 2030, with 30 percent of that being solar.

“I would say this goal is very ambitious, but it would be great if we meet it,” says Nana. “There is a big need to create an enabling environment for investment in new solar plants, energy efficiency and regional market cooperation.”

A farmer in Safiatou's community struggles to power her irrigation system. Courtesy of Safiatou NanaA farmer in Safiatou’s community struggles to power her irrigation system. Courtesy of Safiatou Nana

 

She adds that energy infrastructure in remote areas is vulnerable to terrorist attacks, which in turn is creating a humanitarian crisis. It’s critical, she says, to improve energy efficiency in core sectors such as agriculture, transport, small industries and rural development. “If [these measures] were effective some years ago, we could have prevented or reduced by far the risks of the current security and humanitarian crisis.”

In Cameroon, Geofrey is staying focused on the benefits to the community and the landscape that even a single sustainable nursery can bring.

“This nursery enables us to successfully establish a large-scale nursery that will facilitate the restoration of degraded catchment, agro-pastoral and habitat areas within this community,” he says. “We must take proactive action now before it’s too late.”

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