Renewing Africa with Community Energy

Terri Hathaway
Monday, March 8, 2010

African countries are making some important strides toward a green energy sector. According to the Global Renewables Status 2009, Northern Africa boasts more than 500 MW of installed wind power, while Ethiopia, Kenya, and Tanzania are all planning their first wind farms. Mauritius, Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa have all enacted feed-in tariffs (pricing policies that encourage renewable electricity's access to the grid). Renewable energy targets have been set by Rwanda, Tunisia, Kenya, and Madagascar. But the energy divide between urban and rural areas remains a major challenge, with too few resources being put toward the problem. Here we highlight just a few communities who have taken matters into their own hands.

Africa’s most famous wind turbine was built out of bicycle parts, scrap wood and assorted junk by William Kamkwamba, at his family's homestead in rural Malawi. His story got international attention, and resulted in a book.
Africa’s most famous wind turbine was built out of bicycle parts, scrap wood and assorted junk by William Kamkwamba, at his family's homestead in rural Malawi. His story got international attention, and resulted in a book.
Small Wind in The Gambia

When the villagers of Batokunku set up a 41-meter-high wind turbine, they broke more ground than than they knew. Led by Peter Weissferdt, whose German NGO works to bring renewable energy to The Gamibia, the community began building its own electricity system in 1999 by laying a ground cable network, installing light sockets in homes, and laying a water-pipe system. "The basic idea was to produce green electricity with the wind turbine, supply its energy more or less free of charge to the people of the village, and sell the surplus energy to the national utility's consumers in surrounding villages," Weissferdt recalls. In 2007, the Gambia Public Utilities Regulatory Authority (PURA) received Batokunku's application for a license to distribute electricity, prompting a field visit by PURA authorities to evaluate the situation.

After years of laying the groundwork, the village's power supply "went pro" in 2008. In May of that year, a power purchase agreement (PPA) was signed between the community of Batokunku and the national utility. In August, PURA approved the distribution license - a final and key milestone in the project's inclusion in the national grid. Since August 2008 more than half the village has had continuous power around the clock. In December, work began to erect the refurbished wind turbine, which had arrived in pieces in 2006.

The village's wind project is managed by an elected committee, which is technically and commercially responsible for the village-owned electricity system. Batokunku Wind now serves 1,000 consumers.

Microhydro policy in Kenya

Africa's untapped small hydro potential is estimated to be over 60,000 MW, but only a few hundred megawatts of capacity has been installed. The main problems are low tariffs and the monopoly position of national power utilities.

Two community hydropower schemes in remote areas of Mount Kenya are helping to change that situation, paving the way for more community-driven electricity projects. Power from the two schemes serves over 200 households in Kathama and Thima, saving an estimated 18 tons of kerosene each year.

The biggest barrier to scaling up microhydro (and other renewables) in Kenya was governmental policy that prohibited independent power producers, even off-grid ones. This government monopoly on power supply meant that the Kathama and Thima microhydro projects required special permission from the government. By directly involving the Kenyan Ministry of Energy from the start, the project was able to influence national policy, and the new national energy policy will not require special permission from microhydro projects in fuure.

The East Africa branch of the UK-based group Practical Action, which specializes in decentralized technologies to reduce poverty, partnered with the communities to bring the project to fruition. The communities provided building materials, land for the turbine house, labor and financing. After two years of construction, the community power grid was up and running. A power committee elected by the community oversees each system. Consumers now pay less than they did for kerosene, and get better quality lighting, as well as radio and telecom for households. The project has been financially self-sustaining for the past three years.

This project led to other changes critical to expanding microhydro in Kenya. First, it helped build capacity to manufacture system components locally. Second, it has initiated a process to establish standards for component manufacture and installation.

Barefoot and Solar

African grandmothers are the target of a unique approach to rural electrification. Since 2004, the Barefoot College in India has trained 110 rural African women, mostly grandmothers, as solar engineers. To date, these women have solar electrified 5,500 remote rural houses in 15 African countries, saving 30,000 litres of kerosene per month. Families paying into one of the graduates' village solar systems receive up to four hours of light every night.

Fatu Kuruma from Sierra Leone learns to assemble a solar lamp at Barefoot Collegein India.
Fatu Kuruma from Sierra Leone learns to assemble a solar lamp at Barefoot Collegein India.
Barefoot College
Barefoot College invites new trainees, most of them mothers and grandmothers, to come to India for a 6-month training. No written materials are used and trainees generally speak different languages. "The College often relies on sign language and gestures," explains founder Bunker Roy. The hands-on training is conducted by Indian women who have completed the same training. "With each passing day their level of hesitancy decreases and confidence and ‘technical dexterity' increases," Roy says. After returning to their villages, the women are able to fabricate, install, maintain and repair residential solar lighting systems.

Barefoot College started training rural women in India to be solar engineers in the 1990s. The trainees came from all over India. Because of language barriers, the women learned by following mimed instructions, and executing technical tasks by example. The college works on the premise that the very poor have the right to have own and have access to the most sophisticated technologies to improve their own lives. "Just because they cannot read and write does not stop them from becoming solar engineers." The Barefoot College trains only illiterate and semi-literate middle-aged mothers and grandmothers from villages all over the world. "Illiterate grandmothers are humble and easy to teach. Grandmothers have a vested interest in the village and have no desire to leave. Give a youth a piece of paper and he is off to the city to find a better job," Roy notes.

Before a village is solar-electrified, a Village Energy and Environment Committee (VEEC) is formed. The VEEC is responsible for determining how much each family is prepared to pay for a solar unit or solar lantern per month, and for selecting a woman from the village to be trained as a Barefoot Solar Engineer. Once the village is electrified, the VEEC continues to monitor funds and the performance of the barefoot solar engineer.

It is estimated that a rural family in Africa burns around 60 liters of kerosene a year to light their home, causing health problems, fires, and polluting the air. Barefoot Solar Engineers are transforming lives and bringing light, one lantern at a time.