NAIVASHA, Kenya (AlertNet) - Africa may be a continent blessed with large amounts of sunshine, but for most of its rural inhabitants, once the day ends, so does the light. Families spend their evenings in the dark or turn to polluting oil lamps, simply because they have no access to electricity.
In Naivasha, a town 100 km (60 miles) northwest of the Kenyan capital Nairobi, Haijo Kuper is trying to change that.
Netherlands-born Kuper is managing director of Ubbink East Africa, the first solar-panel manufacturing plant in East Africa. The firm, which recently began operating in Naivasha, is a joint venture between Dutch company Ubbink, which works on energy efficiency and solar power, and Kenya’s Chloride Exide, which produces solar and power back-up equipment and batteries.
As with many African countries, Kenya’s progress in expanding its national power grid has been slow, in part because of the expense.
Solar power has long been viewed as part of the solution – but, here too, cost has been an obstacle. The equipment that converts the sun’s free energy into electric power requires an investment that is still out of reach for the more than one-third of Africans who live on less than two dollars a day.
The Kenyan government - concerned about power shortages and the effects of climate change - has moved to spur growth in the renewable energy sector with a feed-in tariff that pays producers a set rate for electricity they want to sell. It has also mandated the use of solar power in new-build homes, as well as cutting taxes on imports of solar-power materials and equipment.
FALLING PRICES, SPREADING USE
The East African nation has one of the highest rates of solar panel systems installed per capita in the world, and uptake of solar panels is outpacing connections to the traditional electrical grid.
The price of solar energy systems has dropped 75 percent in the past decade, while demand has gone up 15 percent a year over the same period. Experts expect this trend of lower costs and spreading use to continue.
It is certainly proving beneficial for small farmers and rural residents, many of whom are beyond the reach of the national grid.
A growing number of rural farmhouses across Kenya now have a small solar panel on their thatched or corrugated iron roofs. Even the smallest panel can charge a mobile phone and power two light bulbs simultaneously, helping families save on the expense of buying kerosene for lamps. What’s more, the light from a solar-powered bulb is about 15 times brighter.
Farmer Frederick Kaveta, 34, has a solar panel on the corrugated roof of his home in Ukumbani, southwest of Nairobi. For him, it brings both economic and health benefits.
“We used oil lamps in the past at night for the children to do their homework. (But) the price of the oil has gone up, and the lamps smoke badly and make us cough,” he explains. “The solar light is healthier and I save some 500 shillings ($5) a month because I don’t need to buy oil. With 500 shillings, I can buy two or three meals for my family of four.”
The increased availability of solar energy has implications beyond the convenience of night-time lighting. As it becomes more affordable, rural entrepreneurs are starting businesses that take advantage of the new power source and provide much-needed services.
For example, renewable-energy backers say solar-powered grain mills could replace ones that run on pricey, polluting diesel fuel. And farmers and cattle herders who use mobile phones to keep up with produce and livestock prices can save time if a solar charging point is installed in their villages, cutting the need to walk long distances to town to charge their phones.
Solar-powered rural internet cafes could also mean that school children need not be disadvantaged compared with their peers in urban areas connected to the electricity grid.
Kuper’s solar-equipment manufacturing company keeps its costs low by importing broken solar cells from a firm in the Netherlands, which are reworked into smaller units. Ubbink’s staff of 35 Kenyan workers - most of them young, and trained both in the Netherlands and Kenya - assemble the solar panels locally.
“We cut them here into the right size to fit in our panels,” says Kuper on a tour of the small and tidy plant. The cutting is done by laser and by hand, while machines frame and cover the panels.
AMBITIOUS SALES GOALS
The retail price of a panel that can power several light bulbs and charge a mobile phone is 3,000 Kenyan shillings ($30). Ubbink East Africa, which targets mainly rural households, has sold 10,000 panels in the past year, and aims to triple this number in 2012.
“Chloride Exide - known for its batteries - already has a wide distribution network which will help us to reach customers in all corners of Kenya and beyond,” Kuper says.
He hopes the firm will be able to expand its sales to neighbouring Uganda and Tanzania, and eventually throughout East Africa.
The 37-year-old sees solar panels as a key technology for putting East Africa on a more sustainable and lower-carbon development path.
“The Western world made big environmental mistakes and now has to clean up its act. I believe Africa should avoid making the same mistake and invest in clean and durable energy,” he says.
Eyeing the factory’s roof, he adds that he plans to make sure change starts at home.
“We will soon give the right example. I want to put the whole roof under our own solar panels,” he says. “A lot of our energy needs can be covered by it - just one or two high-tech machines will stay on the grid.”
Ilona Eveleens is a freelance writer based in Nairobi. This story is part of a series supported by the Climate and Development Knowledge Network.