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Bringing Solar Power to Africa's Poor

September 23, 2009, 8:23 am

The Solar Energy Foundation, a Swedish nonprofit, is one of several organizations endeavoring to bring solar power to poor communities in Africa.

Politicians from 11 southern African countries gathered in Maputo, Mozambique, over the weekend to examine how to address climate change issues without reducing access to energy.

Off-grid solar is seen as one of the continent’s strongest options, capitalizing on Africa’s abundant sunlight without the need to invest in expensive grid networks.

Lawmakers and renewable energy experts were shown practical examples of how sensitive green energy developments have the potential to satisfy both requirements.

According to the World Bank’s 2010 development report, 1.6 billion people in developing countries still have no access to electricity.

“Decentralized solar systems have a huge potential,” said Jasper Groening of e-Parliament, an international network linking global citizens to their legislators and one of the organizers of the event.

In Djabula – 50 miles south of Maputo – Mozambique’s National Electricity Fund established a photovoltaic standalone station providing electricity for 45 residencies, a primary school and a heath outpost. Legislators and politicians visited the project to see how projects like this could provide answers to many of the energy and climate change problems facing communities across Africa.

“Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive,” Mr. Groening said, “and politicians are working on integrating schemes like this into their own national energy plans.”

Small-scale projects like this are becoming more common in Africa.

“The demand for our solar kits is huge,” said Katie Bliss of Solar Aid, a British organization that aims to bring clean, renewable power to the poorest people in the world.

“In Tanzania the price of kerosene, the main energy alternative, is rapidly increasing,” added Ms. Bliss, whose organization also has projects in the works in Zambia, Kenya and Malawi. “Our studies found that 20 percent of household income was being spent on fuel.”

As with other solar products targeting poor communities, SolarAid does not give away its micro-solar kits. “It’s not a handout,” Ms. Bliss said. “We want to encourage a viable trade. Solar has a huge future here, and anyone we have trained with solar skills has a good chance of finding employment. We also encourage distributors to take solar products to rural villages.”

Groups like Solar Aid provide solar power kits — which typically consist of locally sourced parts and simple construction — starting at about $20.

But when scaled up, some community projects can challenge grid power. In an award-winning project in Remu, Ethiopia, the Swedish Solar Energy foundation supplied electricity to 10,000 people with an off-grid solar photovoltaic system charging less than $2 per person.