December 26, 2010
African huts far from the grid glow with renewable power
By Elisabeth Rosenthal
KIPTUSURI, Kenya (The New York Times) ï¿½ For Sara Ruto, the desperate
yearning for electricity began last year with the purchase of her first
cellphone, a lifeline for receiving small money transfers, contacting
relatives in the city or checking chicken prices at the nearest market.
Charging the phone was no simple matter in this farming village far from
Kenyaï¿½s electric grid.
Every week, Ms. Ruto walked two miles to hire a motorcycle taxi for the
three-hour ride to Mogotio, the nearest town with electricity. There, she
dropped off her cellphone at a store that recharges phones for 30 cents.
Yet the service was in such demand that she had to leave it behind for
three full days before returning.
That wearying routine ended in February when the family sold some animals
to buy a small Chinese-made solar power system for about $80. Now balanced
precariously atop their tin roof, a lone solar panel provides enough
electricity to charge the phone and run four bright overhead lights with
ï¿½My main motivation was the phone, but this has changed so many other
things,ï¿½ Ms. Ruto said on a recent evening as she relaxed on a bench in
the mud-walled shack she shares with her husband and six children.
As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more
efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who
live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in
developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy
projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in
greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic,
Since Ms. Ruto hooked up the system, her teenagersï¿½ grades have improved
because they have light for studying. The toddlers no longer risk burns
from the smoky kerosene lamp. And each month, she saves $15 in kerosene
and battery costs ï¿½ and the $20 she used to spend on travel.
In fact, neighbors now pay her 20 cents to charge their phones, although
that business may soon evaporate: 63 families in Kiptusuri have recently
installed their own solar power systems.
ï¿½You leapfrog over the need for fixed lines,ï¿½ said Adam Kendall, head of
the sub-Saharan Africa power practice for McKinsey & Company, the global
consulting firm. ï¿½Renewable energy becomes more and more important in less
and less developed markets.ï¿½
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe
still live without electricity, including 85 percent of Kenyans, and that
three billion still cook and heat with primitive fuels like wood or
There is no reliable data on the spread of off-grid renewable energy on a
small scale, in part because the projects are often installed by
individuals or tiny nongovernmental organizations.
But Dana Younger, senior renewable energy adviser at the International
Finance Corporation, the World Bank Groupï¿½s private lending arm, said
there was no question that the trend was accelerating. ï¿½Itï¿½s a phenomenon
thatï¿½s sweeping the world; a huge number of these systems are being
installed,ï¿½ Mr. Younger said.
With the advent of cheap solar panels and high-efficiency LED lights,
which can light a room with just 4 watts of power instead of 60, these
small solar systems now deliver useful electricity at a price that even
the poor can afford, he noted. ï¿½Youï¿½re seeing herders in Inner Mongolia
with solar cells on top of their yurts,ï¿½ Mr. Younger said.
In Africa, nascent markets for the systems have sprung up in Ethiopia,
Uganda, Malawi and Ghana as well as in Kenya, said Francis Hillman, an
energy entrepreneur who recently shifted his Eritrea-based business,
Phaesun Asmara, from large solar projects financed by nongovernmental
organizations to a greater emphasis on tiny rooftop systems.
In addition to these small solar projects, renewable energy technologies
designed for the poor include simple subterranean biogas chambers that
make fuel and electricity from the manure of a few cows, and ï¿½miniï¿½
hydroelectric dams that can harness the power of a local river for an
Yet while these off-grid systems have proved their worth, the lack of an
effective distribution network or a reliable way of financing the start-up
costs has prevented them from becoming more widespread.
ï¿½The big problem for us now is there is no business model yet,ï¿½ said John
Maina, executive coordinator of Sustainable Community Development
Services, or Scode, a nongovernmental organization based in Nakuru, Kenya,
that is devoted to bringing power to rural areas.
Just a few years ago, Mr. Maina said, ï¿½solar lightsï¿½ were merely basic
lanterns, dim and unreliable.
ï¿½Finally, these products exist, people are asking for them and are willing
to pay,ï¿½ he said. ï¿½But we canï¿½t get supply.ï¿½ He said small African
organizations like his do not have the purchasing power or connections to
place bulk orders themselves from distant manufacturers, forcing them to
scramble for items each time a shipment happens to come into the country.
Part of the problem is that the new systems buck the traditional mold, in
which power is generated by a very small number of huge government-owned
companies that gradually extend the grid into rural areas. Investors are
reluctant to pour money into products that serve a dispersed market of
poor rural consumers because they see the risk as too high.
ï¿½There are many small islands of success, but they need to go to scale,ï¿½
said Minoru Takada, chief of the United Nations Development Programï¿½s
sustainable energy program. ï¿½Off-grid is the answer for the poor. But
people who control funding need to see this as a viable option.ï¿½
Even United Nations programs and United States government funds that
promote climate-friendly energy in developing countries hew to large
projects like giant wind farms or industrial-scale solar plants that feed
into the grid. A $300 million solar project is much easier to finance and
monitor than 10 million home-scale solar systems in mud huts spread across
As a result, money does not flow to the poorest areas. Of the $162 billion
invested in renewable energy last year, according to the United Nations,
experts estimate that $44 billion was spent in China, India and Brazil
collectively, and $7.5 billion in the many poorer countries.
Only 6 to 7 percent of solar panels are manufactured to produce
electricity that does not feed into the grid; that includes systems like
Ms. Rutoï¿½s and solar panels that light American parking lots and football
Still, some new models are emerging. Husk Power Systems, a young company
supported by a mix of private investment and nonprofit funds, has built 60
village power plants in rural India that make electricity from rice husks
for 250 hamlets since 2007.
In Nepal and Indonesia, the United Nations Development Program has helped
finance the construction of very small hydroelectric plants that have
brought electricity to remote mountain communities. Morocco provides
subsidized solar home systems at a cost of $100 each to remote rural areas
where expanding the national grid is not cost-effective.
What has most surprised some experts in the field is the recent emergence
of a true market in Africa for home-scale renewable energy and for
appliances that consume less energy. As the cost of reliable equipment
decreases, families have proved ever more willing to buy it by selling a
goat or borrowing money from a relative overseas, for example.
The explosion of cellphone use in rural Africa has been an enormous
motivating factor. Because rural regions of many African countries lack
banks, the cellphone has been embraced as a tool for commercial
transactions as well as personal communications, adding an incentive to
electrify for the sake of recharging.
M-Pesa, Kenyaï¿½s largest mobile phone money transfer service, handles an
annual cash flow equivalent to more than 10 percent of the countryï¿½s gross
domestic product, most in tiny transactions that rarely exceed $20.
The cheap renewable energy systems also allow the rural poor to save money
on candles, charcoal, batteries, wood and kerosene. ï¿½So there is an
ability to pay and a willingness to pay,ï¿½ said Mr. Younger of the
International Finance Corporation.
In another Kenyan village, Lochorai, Alice Wangui, 45, and Agnes Mwaforo,
35, formerly subsistence farmers, now operate a booming business selling
and installing energy-efficient wood-burning cooking stoves made of clay
and metal for a cost of $5. Wearing matching bright orange tops and
skirts, they walk down rutted dirt paths with cellphones ever at their
ears, edging past goats and dogs to visit customers and to calm those on
the waiting list.
Hunched over her new stove as she stirred a stew of potatoes and beans,
Naomi Muriuki, 58, volunteered that the appliance had more than halved her
use of firewood. Wood has become harder to find and expensive to buy as
the government tries to limit deforestation, she added.
In Tumsifu, a slightly more prosperous village of dairy farmers, Virginia
Wairimu, 35, is benefiting from an underground tank in which the manure
from her three cows is converted to biogas, which is then pumped through a
rubber tube to a gas burner.
ï¿½I can just get up and make breakfast,"" Ms. Wairimu said. The system was
financed with a $400 loan from a demonstration project that has since
In Kiptusuri, the Firefly LED system purchased by Ms. Ruto is this yearï¿½s
must-have item. The smallest one, which costs $12, consists of a solar
panel that can be placed in a window or on a roof and is connected to a
desk lamp and a phone charger. Slightly larger units can run radios and
black-and-white television sets.
Of course, such systems cannot compare with a grid connection in the
industrialized world. A week of rain can mean no lights. And items like
refrigerators need more, and more consistent, power than a panel provides.
Still, in Kenya, even grid-based electricity is intermittent and
expensive: families must pay more than $350 just to have their homes
ï¿½With this system, you get a real light for what you spend on kerosene in
a few months,ï¿½ said Mr. Maina, of Sustainable Community Development
Services. ï¿½When you can light your home and charge your phone, that is
Photo: Thanks to this solar panel, Sara Ruto no longer takes a three-hour
taxi ride to a town with electricity to recharge her cellphone. (Ed Ou/The
New York Times)
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