Portable Solar Power Finds a Niche in Rural Africa

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Written by D.A. Barber

Pay-as-you-go solar power and solar-powered computers for students are a few of the off-grid power systems taking off in parts of Africa where resident have no access to electricity.

In many developing areas, relatively inexpensive, decentralized off-grid power systems are often the most appropriate for rural electrification.

The choice of power solution depends on population density, income levels, and other factors, said Wanda Halbert, marketing manager for solar firm Azuri.

“The grid is expanding, but in many countries grid electricity is struggling to keep up with the increasing demands of the electrified population, most of whom live in cities, leaving little progress on the huge task of electrifying more sparsely populated rural communities,” Azuri said in an AFKInsider interview.

Even very small, portable solar systems are considered a sensible alternative to the current dependence on kerosene lamps to light African homes. Kerosene is unhealthy and expensive in the long run. It can be bought in small amounts to fit a family’s cash flow. By contrast, roof-mounted solar array cost much less in the long run, but normally require a large up-front investment.

New innovative programs

Lighting Africa is a joint renewable-energy off-grid solar power project of International Finance Corporation and World Bank that works towards improving lighting in areas not yet connected to the electric grid. The Lighting Africa program uses off-grid lighting products that are portable, stand-alone, rechargeable, and can be installed without a technician. These products are relatively affordable, with some retailing for $10 or less. Some have batteries and solar panels built into the lamp; others have separate components that can be easily connected to each other and to mobile phone charging kits.

To date, Lighting Africa has helped more than 7.7 million people in Africa access lighting.

Pay-As-You-Go Solar Power

Because a larger share of Africa’s population has mobile phones than electricity, this has created a unique opportunity to bring power to rural areas with no grid access. Pay-as-you-go plans for off-grid solar power combining solar and mobile phone technology.

Spun off from solar manufacturer Eight19, Azuri Technologies first introduced its pioneering Indigo pay-as-you-go solar technology in Nimule, South Sudan in 2012.

“The customer buys a scratch card from a network of agents and sends the scratch card number by SMS to a local number,” Azuri’s Halbert told AFKInsider.

According to Azuri, the system responds within seconds with an SMS containing a one-time pass code, which, when entered into the unit, provides access to solar energy for a week. Each week, the customer buys another scratch card to top-up their unit. Azuri’s customers are charged a one-time installation fee of $10 for a solar panel that attaches to a roof and powers two LED lights. The kit also includes a mobile phone charging device. Users pay about $1.50 a week, less than half of what kerosene would cost, according to Halbert.

After 18 months, the customer can opt to buy out and own the home system outright. Customers can expand their Indigo system over time beyond lighting to other devices including radio, DVD players, TV and Internet tablets.

The Cambridge-based company first deployed its pay-as-you-go Indigo systems in September 2011 and says it now has the largest geographical reach in sub-Saharan Africa.

There are more than 25,000 Indigo systems in East, Southern and West Africa including Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Ghana, South Africa and Togo, Halbert said.

In July 2013, Azuri Technologies partnered with the non-profit Global Village Energy Partnership and received a $1-million award from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Development Innovation Ventures to establish pay-as-you-go solar power in Rwanda. Over the next 18 months, the grant will fund a distribution channel and the supply 10,000 Indigo pay-as-you-go solar systems in Rwanda, where 83 percent of the population is off grid. But it will also act as a model for pay-as-you-go solar lighting systems in other countries, building the case for private financing of larger-scale rollouts.

“The challenge with all pay-as-you-go systems is not creating a technical solution but getting it to scale economically,” Halbert said. “A number of players have solutions with different deployment and payment mechanisms.”

The long term goal of the project is to sell a million Indigo units over five years, benefiting five million people in Rwanda and elsewhere.

In December, MTN Uganda — the leading communications operator — and Fenix International launched a pay-as-you-go solar power program.

Their  ReadyPay Power System uses MTN Mobile Money and enables users to make affordable and flexible payments according to their budgets. ReadyPay kits start at $16 including seven days of power. The customer makes payments starting at $0.40 per day until the kit is paid off. After that, owners get power for free.

Like other programs, this solar system is easy to setup and multifunctional, including a solar panel, battery pack, two USB ports, and two car lighter adapter ports, plus a range of lights and phone-charging accessories. The larger kits include radios or TVs with additional accessories sold separately.

Persistent Energy Ghana’s pay-as-you go solar systems also give off-grid customers access to lighting, mobile phone charging, and appliances such as TVs and radios.Its Solar Associate program also creates jobs in target communities.

The company was formed in 2013 when Impact Energies was absorbed into Persistent Energy Partners, a New York City-based company that specializes in selling and leasing renewable energy systems to low-income markets in Africa. Impact Energies had been a leader in selling and leasing solar home systems through microfinancing banks in West Africa since 2011. It served 30,000 poor customers in two years in Ghana communities where the average earnings are $1-to-$6 a day, the company said.

The Persistent Energy Ghana team is now using its experience in Ghana to roll out village solar micro grids and pay-as-you-go solar home systems in the Eastern and greater Accra regions of Ghana. According to the company, Persistent Energy’s challenge is “to take this proven technology and rapidly build an organization in a different market.” Persistent Energy Ghana said will begin scaling up in June with plans to reach 5,000 households by 2015 and more than 25,000 households by 2016.

Solar Powered Computers

Sustainable Computers — a business  based at the University of Nottingham Innovation Park — and U.K.-based Solar Ready Ltd. have taken a different approach, developing distributed solar power for computer systems being used by students in Africa in self-contained classrooms.

“Our Solar Ready solutions are emerging technologies,” said Tony Winfield, managing director of Sustainable Computers Ltd. in an AFKInsider interview. We are currently engaging with clients from The Gambia down to South Africa.”

Working with Solar Ready Ltd., Winfield combined his background in education with their technology that operates completely off grid using direct and stored power from roof-mounted solar panels.

The modular desk houses the main technology units including the battery banks and air conditioning, Winfield told AFKInsider. “This configuration not only makes the technology secure and safe, but the cooling also helps to prolong the life of the IT equipment.”

Winfield said the system provides sustainable local storage solutions while reducing energy use.

“This is a totally new approach to the energy challenges faced by Africa and elsewhere. The interest in our solutions has come from all over Africa,” Winfield said.

Sustainable Computers is collaborating with nine countries participating in the IOP for Africa project developed with the University of Nottingham and the Institute of Physics.

The IOP teacher-training project in Ethiopia has been running for six years. In partnership with the Ethiopian Ministry of Education, it has been introducing practical physics to the syllabus through training sessions with teachers in Addis Ababa. Teachers travel in from all over Ethiopia and then return to their regions to share what they learned with colleagues for use in the classroom. Where possible, they are provided with physics equipment to use with their students.

The Distributed Power Trend

Distributed solar power in rural African communities is rapidly replacing the need for conventional wired grids. And just as mobile phones removed the need for landlines, off-grid power is arguably better than waiting for the grid to reach rural villages and communities.

“The self-contained Solar Classroom illustrates that the technology is on a manageable scale and precludes the need for external grids,” Winfield said.

Azuri’s Halbert said, “With the reduction in cost of solar power, for most rural households distributed power is the most cost-effective way of delivering entry-level power that enables households to eliminate kerosene and adopt media and information devices such as radios and TVs.”