Advertisement
VICE News

Africa Could Become the Next Bright Spot for Solar Power Production

Many African households rely on dirty, expensive, and sometimes deadly kerosene lamps for light, but solar power generation has begun to provide a cheap — and safe — alternative source of energy.

by Rebecca Cooke
Jan 29 2015, 4:15pm

Imagen vía Rebecca Cooke

After studying by lamplight, the pupils at Idodi Secondary School in Tanzania took to their dormitories for the night. By morning, twelve schoolgirls were dead. The fire that engulfed the school was started when a kerosene lamp was knocked over during the night, the deadly flames moving through the building as the girls slept.

Hundreds of mourners gathered at the funeral to see the girls laid to rest in a small cemetery in the school's playground. Their bodies were unidentifiable, burnt beyond recognition, and were buried in a mass grave. A few feet from the dusty cemetery, under a willow tree, a single wooden post displays the twelve girls' names.

Idodi is a small village, 200 miles from Dodoma the country's capital. It has only one secondary school and in the weeks following the fire, the pupils were sent home, waiting for a new dormitory to be built.

The playground cemetery in Idodi where the victims of the kerosene fire are buried. 

Across Tanzania 86 percent of households do not have access to electricity. In the place of light switches and bulbs are costly, polluting, and dangerous kerosene lamps. Not only are accidents like the 2009 Idodi school blaze shockingly common, but the lamps kick out a massive amount of polluting gases, which cause respiratory problems and contribute to global warming — one of the biggest threats facing Africa today.

But the continent's most abundant resource, long overlooked by governments and the market place, is increasingly seen as the best — and most environmentally sound — way to provide light.

For the first time, Africa has tangible hopes of a safe, clean, and stable electricity supply in the form of solar power. The first generation of Africans is starting to benefit from access to electricity — something their parents could have only dreamt of.

From space, the continent is pitch black during nighttime, save for a few clusters of light for large cities in richer countries, such as South Africa's Cape Town and Nairobi, Kenya. For the millions living in fuel poverty — an average of 30 percent of a family's income goes to covering kerosene costs — the darkness debilitates all study, business, and recreational activity.

But solar power now provides many schools with a safe source of light, meaning a greater number of hours to study and learn. Idodi Secondary School, plagued with the ghosts of victims of the kerosene lamp fire, is now fitted with solar-powered lighting throughout its classrooms and dormitories.

"The solar power conserves our environment," says 17-year-old Lucas, a student who plans to be an engineer when he finishes school.

Since the installation of the solar lights, the school has reported a rise in test results because students can now spend a greater amount of time studying in the evening.

"The increase in student performance throughout the school will promote the development of our nation because children will grow up to have more professional jobs," Lucas told VICE News.

Pupils in Idodi inspect portable solar lamps.

Africa is increasingly seen as a bright spot internationally for investment in solar power. The continent's largest solar array, located near Kimberly in South Africa, came on-line last year, generating clean electricity for over 80,000 homes. And, despite its ample history of conflicts stemming from resource extraction and widespread commodity-fueled corruption, Africa is fast becoming a leader in clean energy.

The opportunity for growth in Africa's solar market is tremendous — not only for large-scale developers buying up land to fortify huge solar farms composed of thousands of photovoltaic panels, but for home use and local businesses.

One company helping to spur Africa's energy transformation is Solar Aid, an international charity with one goal: to eradicate hazardous kerosene lamps from the continent by 2020. It aims to replace them with portable solar lamps, which provide between four to eight hours of light on a single battery charge.

The solar lamps have taken off in the domestic market, with small business owners, schools, and families all reporting the health and economic benefits.

Gilbert Mwalwanda lives in Karonga, Malawi. He runs a small shop from his home where his wife and five children live.

"Business is booming because funds that were spent on buying kerosene are now used to buy computer accessories and I charge my phone using solar to communicate with customers," Gilbert told VICE News. "I use the solar light for charging my phone, lighting the house, reading and writing."

His children also do two extra hours of schoolwork each day, due to the benefits of the solar lamp. He said: "The solar lights are bright and do not affect their eyes when reading. The solar light doesn't smell like the kerosene that made it difficult to read longer."

Portable solar power is flourishing in homes and schools across Africa, like this one in Kenya. 

Across Africa, over 1.5 million of the portable solar lights have now been sold.

For a continent that almost completely leapfrogged over landline telephones and embraced mobile devises, the jump from sparse electricity access to widespread solar power would be apt. The ability to skip entire generations of environmentally harmful technologies, like coal-fired power plants, is a development that will play to Africa's economic strengths in the global economy, as it strives towards a low-carbon future. It also provides a lesson for countries like China, India, and Brazil, which are also grappling with the challenge of connecting their populations to electricity grids.

Now, over 28.5 million Africans have solar-generated electricity in their homes or businesses. By December 2015, Blue Energy will complete a 155-megawatt solar farm in Ghana, providing the country with its first clean electricity network. It will be the largest solar power plant in Africa and the fourth largest in the world.In the last five years alone, sub-Saharan Africa has seen a four percent increase in solar power.

Large-scale solar power plants like Nzema provide a blueprint for how African governments can unlock the huge potential for solar power generation. But it is still seen as a new and burgeoning technology. Although tumbling manufacturing and installation costs are causing solar power to reach new heights in many developed nations, like the United States and Germany, a huge influx of capital is needed to help the technology take off in poorer ones in Africa.

Chris Dean, CEO of Blue Energy believes the continent might be on the precipice of great solar energy breakthrough.

"Ghana's forward-thinking strategy puts it in a strong position to lead the renewable energy revolution in sub-Saharan Africa," he said. "There's huge potential to develop renewable power in the region. We believe Nzema will show other African countries what can be achieved and spur them to action."

Photos by Rebecca Cooke

Follow Rebecca Cooke on Twitter: @RebeccaCooke1