In East Africa, the number of people who have access to electricity is still very low. In most of the region’s countries, less than 30% of the population is connected to the national grid. Furthermore, those East Africans who are connected to the grid have to deal with frequent power cuts and relatively high electricity costs.
Therefore for most East Africans, tin-can kerosene lamps are the sole sources of light at night. Smoky firewood provides the energy needed to prepare food. Smoke harms respiratory health, and obtaining wood for cooking causes deforestation. These energy sources also easily cause fire, frequently razing down valuable property and taking lives.
This state of affairs needs to be changed urgently. But to do this, it is imperative to employ new thinking. The traditional approach of simply expanding national grids to connect the last mile is too expensive and will take too much time. It is unrealistic to the needs of most East Africans.
An encouraging trend is the emergence of solar energy as a viable option to provide electricity to even the most far-flung areas. This approach comes in two aspects. The first is the installation of independent rooftop solar panels in homes and small business premises; the second is integrated mini-grids with backup generators for when the sun is not there.
Luckily though, the sun rarely fails in East Africa. Most of the region sits on the so-called “solar belt.” This is a band covering 35 degrees over and below the Equator. It receives more than enough solar energy to provide lighting for several families using a 1m2 solar panel daily. Hence, this technology is probably the most effective way to light up most East African homes.
Several factors are aiding its adoption. The first is the falling prices of solar panels due to economies of scale due to increased production of PV modules. The second factor is the assortment of incentives across East Africa; most governments have struck down import tariffs and VAT on solar panels and other components of solar energy systems. Others even require the installation of solar technology in construction projects.
However, a number of challenges threaten to impede the continued adoption of the technology. According to a widely quoted study, the first challenge is that, although solar energy is getting cheaper, the costs of sourcing such systems into the region are still exorbitant. This is due to high interest rates on loans and the unwillingness of investors to risk money in these markets.
Another challenge is that although governments are making it easier to import components of solar energy systems, many of them still do not envision solar energy being a major contributor to the energy mix in their countries. They instead tend to fall back on traditional generation options, like fossil fuels and coal based power plants.
Further challenges can be attributed to the fact that potential users of the technology are unaware of its benefits and the harms of the traditional alternatives they currently use. Hence they are reluctant to spend their hard-earned resources in the technology. This is because there has been poor or non-existent marketing to them. Some of them have also had negative experiences with the technology through quality issues with substandard components.
Finally, and perhaps most crucially, there is a radical shortage of well trained and licensed technicians to properly design, install and maintain solar PV systems at global quality levels. Therefore, the quality, reliability and efficiency of solar energy systems installed in the region tend to be wanting.
All of these challenges can, and are being, addressed through various initiatives. These include improvements in government policy, initiatives to train more technicians, and better, timely education in solar technologies, for example by including the technology in elementary education syllabuses.
If these initiatives are encouraged, continued and improved, East Africa may end up being one of the first countries in the planet electrified more by solar panels sitting on people’s roofs and mini-grids than by long and costly transmission lines traversing the countryside.