While 600 million people - nearly two-thirds of Africa’s total population - still has no access to electricity, this finally starts to change. Thanks to plunging prices of solar panels and led-lights, dozens of startups begin offering so-called solar home systems and solar mini grids, electrifying people in remote areas that never have been reached by the national grid.
“Earlier we used a kerosene lamp but the smoke made us cough.”, Hariet tells while showing her home made from iron sheets in one of the Maasai villages in Kajiado county, Southern Kenya. Until a few weeks ago, the family of four had no electricity because the village is too far from the national grid. But that’s changed. Hariet proudly shows me her brand new ‘solar home system’ from M-Kopa solar, consisting of a tiny solar panel on the roof that charges a lithium battery and powers three led ceiling-lights, a rechargeable torch and a small rechargeable radio. Upgraded systems from M-Kopa can even power a small, power-efficient flat screen TV set.
“This electricity has really changed our life”, says Hariet. “Before, when I used the lamp during cooking, my husband and children were sitting in the dark. But since we now have light in every room, my children can easily do their home work at night.” Hariet pays M-Kopa 50 Kenyan shillings – around 40 eurocents – per day. After one year, she will have paid the 180 euro total costs for the solar home system off and owns it.
Paying in small increments
“M-Kopa’s system works because we allow people to buy a solar system in small increments and pay through mobile money system M-Pesa”, M-Kopa co-founder and managing director Jesse Moore tells in his Nairobi-office. “And we make sure that people pay their debt as we can remotely shut off the solar systems that are not being paid for and turn them back on again the minute they pay us through M-Pesa,.”
However, for some people the capacity of solar home systems is too limited. The 20-Watt panel can do little more than power a few lamps, a simple TV and charge a torch or mobile phone. It does no provide enough energy to run bigger machines. That’s why some solar companies in Africa are now building so called ‘solar mini grids’.
Grain mills on solar energy
“With our solar mini grids we can power grain mills, power welders and cold storage facilities”, Rik Wuts, co-founder of solar company Powerhive tells in his Nairobi-office. “And we are completely future proof so whenever the national grid should arrive, we can just interconnect and work in conjunction with the grid.”
Thanks to the solar mini grid, Francis Nyaboga started to breed chicks. “They grow more quickly under the special heat lamps powered by the solar energy”, the farmer tells in his village in Kisii, Western Kenya where 200 households are connected to this mini grid. Fellow-villager Dismas Mosongo started a little kiosk and a tiny barbershop where he now shaves his male villagers, making use of solar electricity. He was able to double his income thanks to all his little businesses. “Thanks to this power, we have really seen our lives changing”, the entrepreneur tells.
DC power more environmental friendly
Despite the fact that direct current power (DC), the type of electricity from solar home systems, cannot power certain pieces of equipment, like a posho mill, M-Kopa boss Moore is a very big fan of DC power solutions. “They are more environmental friendly and require less power to get the same output”, the co-founder tells. “And more and more machines become DC proof. I’ve already seen some DC sewing machines for example.”
Building a solar mini grid also takes more time and planning than installing a simple home system. Powerhive so far has only built some 20 mini grids in the past five years, providing electricity to 4000 homes. At the same time, more than half a million households in East-Africa already bought one of M-Kopa’s solar home systems.
Electrifying the entire continent
Moore: “As we start to see more off-grid power solutions as part of the African energy mix, I see no reason why in thirty years the entire continent isn’t electrified.”