Off-grid solar systems save lives


In isolated, off-grid communities, SOLAR-POWERED innovations
are improving livelihoods, boosting economic opportunities
and even saving lives.


IN MANY health facilities in rural Sub-Saharan Africa, doctors conduct emergency surgeries with lights from their mobile phones, women give birth in the dark without necessary medical equipment and babies are at risk of dying because there’s no reliable power to supply oxygen concentrators. In the hospital, you often didn’t have access to oxygen cylinders. So the power goes out and you’re out of luck. We had children that died in front of our eyes, said Canadian paediatrician Michael Hawkes in an interview with Science Daily.

Experience working in a Ugandan hospital motivated Dr Hawkes and his colleagues to develop a solar-powered oxygen concentrator that provides a constant source of oxygen. Solar panels on the hospital’s roof supply the oxygen concentrator with power during the day, which pulls oxygen from the air. Then, after the sun goes down, batteries charged by the solar panels keep the concentrator running through the night. The system was piloted in Jinja and the more remote town of Kambuga in Uganda, and saved 22 of 28 children in the test phase. The researchers are now working to expand the system to 80 hospitals across Uganda. If we could expand it, could you imagine how many children would have access to lifesaving oxygen therapy? added Dr Hawkes.

According to research from the World Health Organization (WHO), around 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa still live without access to electricity, and about one in four health facilities have no access to electricity, while most others have an unreliable supply.

However, this situation is starting to change thanks to a growing number of innovative solar solutions. In Zimbabwe, for example, solar electricity now provides uninterrupted power to over 400 healthcare facilities, meaning that lifesaving medical devices, medicines, vaccines and medical files, among other essentials, are always available. The solar electricity systems were installed through the Solar for Health initiative, a partnership between the United Nations Development Programme and African governments. The initiative has been expanded to Sudan, Zambia, South Sudan, Namibia and Angola where solar systems have already been installed in over 100 clinics. It’s proving to be a cost-effective, sustainable approach to ensure health security for millions of people in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Solar power is also helping to modernise the agricultural sector in the region, where only six percent of the cultivated land is currently irrigated, even though irrigation has the potential to boost agricultural productivities by at least 50 percent. Kenyan farmer Mary Mugwathe, for example, makes use of a solar pump to irrigate her garlic, onion and tomato plants. I wasn’t happy with the petrol pump that I used before as it frequently broke down, which affected productivity. It was also too heavy to manoeuvre and the fuel cost me over US$25 a week, she says. With solar energy, I’m able to farm through- out the year without any hassles. The pump is portable, so I can easily take it to the piece of plot I intend to irrigate, and run- ning the pump doesn’t cost me anything as the sun powers it.

The farmer purchased the solar pump for US$400 from international social enterprise KickStart that allowed her to pay in small instalments over a period of one year. Solar energy has become cheaper per watt and is, therefore, starting to compete with petrol and manual labour, says John Kihia, Director, Field Innovations at KickStart Kenya. Kihia believes that solar has the potential to transform farmers lives. Most farmers only harvest once or twice a year, but thanks to these solar pumps, they will be able to grow crops throughout the year, which will enable them to get their crop to market when the prices are high. This will greatly improve their income.

Professor Bancy Mati a Kenyan land and water management expert advocates for the use of solar-powered irrigation to achieve sustainable irrigation and increase food security. Petrol and diesel pumps pollute the environment, and projects often fail as communities cannot maintain the complicated generators; nor can they afford the fuel, said Mati during a workshop about smart water solutions last year at Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology. However, solar technology is an inexhaustible source of clean energy found virtually everywhere.

As solar panels have become more affordable, solar pumps are increasingly used for the drinking water supply in rural areas. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), for example, now uses solar-powered water systems in 21 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa; mostly in remote areas. This solar water system has eased the stress, particularly on women who used to spend most of their time in search of water, which is now available to all, said Haaxi Abdi Omar, a female community leader, in an interview with UNICEF Somalia.

The spread of solar power is not only supporting farmers, it’s also helping people to feel more connected, informed and engaged. Until recently, nobody in the rolling savannah of Kenya’s Kajiado County had electricity. Duncan Manga, who lives in a small house with a corrugated roof, now has his own flatscreen TV. The Maasai man purchased a so-called solar home system through M-KOPA Solar, the worldwide market leader of pay-as-you-go solar energy for off-grid customers. Having a TV for the first time in his life means a lot to Manga. I love to watch the news and I can teach my children about the rest of the world, he says. According to research by M-KOPA, a lot people who aquire TVs for the first time in off-grid homes report an improved lifestyle because they feel more informed.

According to M-KOPA sales agent Victor Risa, solar power also boosts economic activity. One of his customers founded a video hall where visitors pay a US$0.20 entrance fee to watch movies or football matches on a solar-powered TV. It’s a lucrative business as 100 people visit the place per night on a regular basis, says Risa.

While solar home systems can supply power for lights, TVs and fridges, they can’t produce enough current for energy- sapping appliances such as a grain mill or heat lamps. For this reason, solar companies such as Powerhive and Black Star Energy have taken a different approach by building solar micro- grids that not only provide enough power for a grain mill or cold-storage facility, they can also electrify a whole village.
Entrepreneur Dismas Mosongo doubled his income thanks to extra economic activities that were made possible by access to the solar electricity. Thanks to this electricity, I’ve been able to start several small businesses, including a barber shop, and a small kiosk where I sell items for the home and offer phone charging to customers.

We believe that economic development depends on access to enough electricity to power productive activities, not merely lights and mobile-phone chargers, says Rik Wuts, cofounder of Powerhive, which now operates 16 micro-grids in Kenya, serving around 15,000 people. Wuts also claims that the micro-grids are completely future proof. Whenever the national grid will arrive, we can just interconnect and work in conjunction with the grid.

On-site solutions
A growing number of companies in Sub-Saharan Africa are investing in on-site solar farms to bridge outages, reduce reliance on diesel generators, save energy costs and reduce their carbon footprint. Multinational Unilever, for example, launched its first on-site solar installation in Sub-Saharan Africa (through a pay-to-own loan from CrossBoundary Energy) at its tea factory in Kericho, Kenya, earlier this year. And, international food conglomerate Cargill inaugurated a solar-power facility at its site in Tema, Ghana, two years ago.

Due to high investment costs, other firms lease on- site solar farms. In Ghana, for example, a soft-drink factory leases one from solar firm Redavia. The solar farms are factory-assembled, shipped to the remote location and assembled on-site.

This article has been published in the 2019 October issue of Msafiri Magazine of Kenya Airways.


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