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Photo courtesy of World Bank, IFC and Lighting Africa

Kenya Steps Ahead Into Solar Future

For Africa’s poorest families, lighting is often the most expensive item in their budget, typically accounting for 10–15 percent of total household income. The energy poor in Africa spend about US$17 billion a year on fuel-based lighting sources.  To put the full energy sector in perspective, independent estimates place worldwide spending on fuel-based lighting in developing countries at $38 billion.

Beyond household use, commercial use of fuel-based lighting can have even more acute economic impacts. Fishermen on Lake Victoria in Kenya, for example, often spend half their income for the kerosene they use to fish at night. Yet, while consuming a large share of scarce income, fuel-based lighting provides little in return. Fuel-based lamps, such as kerosene lamps, are costly, inefficient, and provide poor lighting. The smoke they emit causes respiratory and eye problems, while the flames from kerosene lamps are responsible for thousands of severe burns among children every year, along with untold numbers of devastating house fires.

But many African countries are making strides to put fuel-based power behind them. Kenya, for example, as I discuss in an article this week posted on InterPVNet, has one of the largest and most dynamic per capita solar PV markets among developing countries, with over 300,000 households having installed solar PV systems since the mid-1980s. Since 2000, annual sales for these systems have regularly topped 15 percent, and they account for roughly 75 percent of all solar equipment sales in the country.  In addition, exciting and rapid developments in off-grid lighting with highly efficient long-lasting light emitting diodes (LED) lamps are also changing the set of options in formerly neglected markets.

The rapid spread of this off-grid green energy solution in a low-income country is all the more remarkable as it is propelled by unsubsidized market demand. With Kenya’s electricity grid largely dependent on expensive hydropower, only 5.2 percent of rural households use electricity, and most of these are relatively well-to-do.

Solar is a comparatively low-cost alternative, especially for families whose poverty puts grid-based electricity out of reach. Manufacturers and importers have noted the business opportunity and are coming up with products that they say will fill the gap. They are focusing on affordability, the green agenda, and renewability of power sources.

With Kenya’s government having set 2017 as a deadline for the country to make significant advances in green in power generation, the stage is set for the solar PV sector to deliver household systems to a national market that is intended to be able to absorb a million of them a year, according to the International Finance Corporation. An education campaign has also been launched to encourage people living in rural Kenya to adopt solar lighting.

Dubbed “Zonga Mble na Solar” (Stay ahead with solar), the campaign targets 13.5 million people, both households and small businesses, in rural Kenya. It shows how by switching from fuel- based lighting to modern, solar lighting rural people can improve their health, increase their savings—households typically spend about 10% of their income on kerosene— and benefit from better lighting and more productive time in their homes, schools and businesses.

“The main argument for people to switch from kerosene lamps to solar light is an improvement in their children’s health and education: the solar portable lights emit no fumes, and provide better illumination for studying. Longer producing hours for businesses is another winning argument,” says Nana Asamoah Manu, Country Officer for Lighting Africa, which is supporting the campaign.

The campaign, which runs to end of 2011, is staging road shows in market towns, to generate consumers’ interests in the solar portable lights that passed Lighting Africa quality tests. The road shows are attracting crowds of 300-500 people every evening, and are packed with product demonstrations, fun quiz, dance shows and a chance to try the solar lights. “People are enthusiastic,” says Nana, “but the major obstacle is the relatively high upfront cost of solar lights. Many families can afford to spend 20 to 50 shillings a day on kerosene, but are struggling to find 2000 shillings for a solar lamp.”

Lighting Africa, a joint IFC and World Bank program, is working with microfinance institutions to secure loans for rural households and businesses willing to buy solar lamps. The program is also exploring light rental schemes as another option. The program is implemented in partnership with the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), among others.

Daniel Kammen’s posts appear here and on the Development in a Changing Climate blog at the World Bank, where he is chief technical specialist for renewable energy and energy efficiency. He is an adviser to National Geographic’s Great Energy Challenge initiative.