Off-Grid Solar In Kenya

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CleanTechnica has had numerous articles on companies and organizations that are supplying off-grid electricity to consumers in Africa. Since I live in western Kenya where many people I know have these systems, this article is to report on these developments from the Kenyan consumer’s point of view.

Here is a picture of the kerosene lantern that is commonly used in Africa. I have had to use one of these. Pathetic. They give off so little light that I would need to put the book right next to it in order to read and then the light was not sufficient for a long read. In those days it was “early to bed and early to rise.” It costs about 50 cents per day for the pint of kerosene used in a night. But if a person used this every night for a year, the pints add up to almost one barrel of oil.

The move to more adequate solar systems is due to a completely different innovation. Safaricom is the largest, most profitable corporation in East Africa. In 2007, it introduced M-Pesa, which means “mobile money.” Anyone with even the simplest $20 cell phone could enroll in the program to send and receive money from anyone at a very reasonable cost — I just send someone $100 for a charge of 87 cents. One can also buy merchandise and pay bills. It quickly became so popular that other companies developed their own mobile money systems. Amazingly, in 2018, 44% of the total GNP of Kenya went through these mobile money systems.

In 2011, the people who developed the original M-Pesa system decided what to do next. They started a system based on mobile money called M-Kopa, meaning “mobile borrow.” In particular, they developed the first solar home system. The trick was to charge people only 50 cents per day; in other words, the amount that they would normally pay for kerosene.

Their current system consists of an 8-watt solar panel — 4 lights, radio, flashlight, cell phone charger, and battery. The cost is $29.99 down and payments of 50 cents per day for 420 days. This is automatically deducted from the owner’s M-Pesa account. This totals $240. If a person wishes to buy the system outright, it cost $190, so the carrying charges are $50. After the end of the payments, the total system belongs to the owner. If the person fails to have 50 cents in his/her M-Pesa account, there is a chip in the system where the lights are turned off until the missing payments are received. Compliance is in the high ninety percentile.

The advantages of the system are more than just ending the pollution and dim light of the kerosene lamp. The radio and flashlight end the need for batteries. Batteries in Kenya are made by Eveready, cheap but of low quality. My late father-in-law, Okemba, used to constantly listen to the radio, but its four batteries would die in a few weeks. Then what could he do with the dead batteries but toss them into the latrine, hardly a proper disposal. The ability to charge one’s cell phone is also a great advantage because it keeps the owner from finding an electric source to charge the phone and then after a few hours returning to get the charged phone for the cost of 10 cents.

In addition to Kenya, M-Kopa has expanded to Uganda and Tanzania. As of last month, they have sold 700,000 systems.

M-Kopa then expanded to a system that included a 24 inch or 32 inch TV for $60 down and $1.00 per day or $70 down and $1.35 per day, respectively, for 420 days. They have 30-watt and 60-watt solar panels. The total costs are then $650 or $867. I do not yet know anyone who has purchased a solar powered TV.

Today, there are many systems like M-Kopa available. This system by d.light can be purchased in a shop in my town. Without the TV, it is 35 cents per day, and with the TV, it is 90 cents per day, cheaper than M-Kopa. The payment period, though, is longer at a year and a half.

M-Kopa has advertised that they will also be providing a small solar refrigerator, but this is not yet on their product page. Although not needed in our mild climate at 6000 feet above sea level, solar-powered fans are also available.

The Kenyan government claims that 70% of Kenyans have access to the grid and there are plans so that by 2022 all Kenyans will have access. Note the word “access.” This does not mean that Kenyans are connected to the grid, but they could be if they wanted to. The government has cut the connection fee from the $500 we paid in 2007 to $150 if the connection needs only one extra pole.

There are essentially three problems with the supply of electricity by Kenya Power. The first is blackouts, the second is disconnections, and the third is it costs.

Blackouts: I do live in the countryside and our grid electricity goes out numerous times per week, sometimes for a short while, but often for a longer time. Last week, the electricity was off for over a day. This picture is of my 150-watt solar panel, which I bought in 2007 for $1000 when we moved to Kenya. Now I can buy a 195-watt solar panel for $150. I am a firm believer in the declining costs of solar. This is connected to two 12 volt batteries. This system can only support our lights, cell phone charging, my laptop, and a printer. It is too small to support the fridge, TV, and microwave. After we paid the $500 connection fee, it took Kenya Power 9 months to connect our house to the grid.

Power outages are a problem for other people. One of the main shops in town is called Elgon View Lumakanda Shop. As you can see from the picture, the electricity was on when I took the picture, but the orange light is his solar backup light. He has four lights which cost him $400, but he has an automatic switch so that when the electricity goes off, the solar lights automatically come on. This system improves his business in the evenings when the power goes out, as he no longer has to light the inadequate kerosene lamps which were his former backup.

Disconnections: Every few months, Kenya Power comes through the town and cuts off the electricity of those who are behind in their payments. Each time they do this, many people are disconnected. Since some of these might be months behind in their payments, they remain in the dark for a while until they can clear their arrears. They then have to pay a reconnection fee. There are many people who are connected to the grid but remain without power.

Costs: The $150 or more needed to connect to the grid is a considerable expense. In addition, the customer would need to wire the house and buy the various lights, switches, wire, and fixtures. So it becomes a much greater expense than the $240 paid at 50 cents per day for the M-Kopa system. This last month of March, our family used 150 kWh of electricity and paid $35, or 23 cents per kWh. Grid electricity is not cheap.

Ebby, a friend of my wife, lives down the road from us. She has a grid post across the street in front of her house. In other words, there would be no problem for her to be connected. As she told me, “It is too expensive.” Instead of being connected to the grid, she has purchased an off-grid system. I know many people who could connect to the grid but have bought the M-Kopa or other systems. It may be that this is the future: rather than thinking of disconnecting from the grid, people may find it much more advantageous never to connect in the first place. There are already solar-powered lights, radio, TV, flashlight, cell phone chargers, and fans with the possibility soon of a refrigerator and perhaps other appliances.

Yet there are even simpler systems. There is an organization called One Acre Fund that supports small-scale farmers in countries without agricultural extension services. One of their programs is to sell solar lamps to their 600,000 participants in East and Central Africa.

Lucy lives down the road from us and was a member of the One Acre Fund. Through the fund, she bought one solar lamp with a 4.5-watt solar panel. The picture is of her grand-daughter, Angel, holding the lamp she bought. Notice the solar panel is on the roof of the house. The light has three settings — low, medium, and bright. The bright light lasts for six hours. It is more than bright enough to easily read with it. She bought the lamp four years ago for $35 although she says the price is now $40. Before she purchased the light she was using kerosene. If she used 50 cents per day on kerosene, in the four years she has had the lamp, she would have saved $730 from not purchasing kerosene.

Florence, one of my sisters-in-law, is an enthusiastic member of the One Acre Fund. She has bought three lamps with the 4.5-watt panel. The first light is the one Lucy has. The second light is similar but has a flashlight with it. The third light has a radio and a cell phone charger with it. So she has become fully equipped at a cost of about $100.

For people who have lived their whole life in the semi-darkness of kerosene lamps, these systems are a major improvement in their lifestyle. Moreover, people with little income are able to participate with low daily payments. Most people I know who do not have grid electricity have purchased an off-grid system. I am certain that my area of Kenya is in the African vanguard for these systems, as M-Kopa and the One Acre Fund began in Kenya before expanding to neighboring countries. According to press reports, off-grid solar systems are expanding rapidly throughout sub-Saharan Africa.

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