Nigeria’s Solar Projects Yield Both Failure and Success

Solar power offers hope to villages that lack electricity, but Nigeria’s experience shows that it won’t work without adequate investment and care.

In the shadow of Nigeria's business capital, Lagos, where some of the richest Nigerians live, lay the Onisowo lands.  On an island in Lagos Lagoon, (map) Onisowo is 15 minutes west by water from the prestigious Ikoyi Boat Club, where the wealthy dock their yachts, and 10 minutes east of the private beaches Ibeshe and Ilashe, where they weekend.

Despite its prime location, the island is far removed from robust development elsewhere in the country.

Five years ago, the Lagos state government launched a solar electrification project at the Onisowo village of Bishop Kodji-the first of its kind in the state. The project was built to power water pumps, fish driers, and street lamps, giving the tiny fishing and boat-carving community's 5,000 residents easier access to drinking water, securing their sandy streets, and strengthening the oceanic island's fishing economy.

Things didn't go as planned.

"We don't know what's going on," said Azime Anthony, a traditional leader in Bishop Kodji. "It only worked for about three months, then it stopped. All the places where we are supposed to have light are dark and they never came back to try to fix any of it."

(Related: "Can Solar Save Us?")

The solar system breakdown in Bishop Kodji is just one example of the failures that have typified energy delivery in Nigeria. Nearly 70 percent of people in the West African country do not have access to the national power grid, and the 30 percent who do have access cannot rely on steady power. While the federal government develops and extends the national grid, state governments have increasingly sought alternative energy sources-such as the Bishop Kodji solar project-to meet the shortfall.

But the results are mixed, and other projects sponsored by Lagos state have also been problematic. However, juxtaposed against these failures are notable successes-such as a solar project in northern Nigeria. The system there proved transformational for rural villagers, providing not only water but also a microenterprise center, powering health care and educational services and providing new economic opportunity.

Nigeria's divergent experiences with local solar energy reveal an underlying truth that will prove key if alternative energy is to fulfill its potential to bring light and power to the 1.5 billion people around the world living without electricity. It's not enough to install equipment; power systems-as well as the communities in which they are built-need to be planned carefully, funded adequately, and sustained for the long-term.

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Poverty Amid Energy Wealth

Bishop Kodji and the neighboring villages of the Onisowo lands are not so different from the many rural villages across Nigeria-indeed across the continent-that are cut off from national power grids, except for one irony: their proximity to affluence, including energy wealth.

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Less than one mile from the coast of the island is Tin Can Island Port, where the federal government earns tens of millions of dollars daily from its leading export, petroleum. Residents of Bishop Kodji watch cargo ships packed with goods enter and exit the port. They believe the rest of the country is leaving them behind.

"The Nigerians out there are enjoying (life)," said Innocent P. Dansu, a Bishop Kodji resident. "We are so close and nobody even cares about what is happening to us."

On paper, Nigeria-Africa's leading oil producer-is developing rapidly. Willem Buiter, Citigroup's chief economist, projected that its economy would be the fastest growing in the world over the next 40 years, with an average 6.9 percent growth rate through 2050 that would eventually surpass pacesetters China and India.

But that progress is not felt in Bishop Kodji and the other rural parts of the country that remain off the grid..

Lack of electricity extends the cycle of poverty. "Nigeria's aspiration for industrialization cannot be achieved or poverty reduced significantly without a reliable source of cheap energy," said Patrick M. Kormawa, Nigeria regional director for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO). Speaking at a meeting in June, he said, "Countries without reliable power supply per capita happen to be the poorest countries in the world. Clearly, there is a correlation between poverty and energy access."

(Related: "Fighting Poverty Can Save Energy, Nicaragua Project Shows")

Some 100 million of Nigeria's estimated 154 million people do not have access to nationally provided electricity, according to a 2005 report by the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP), a global technical assistance partnership administered by the World Bank. The federal government privatized electricity in 2005, and though the newly reorganized Power Holding Company of Nigeria (PHCN) slowly increases capacity each year, economically depressed areas like Bishop Kodji don't have enough residents who can afford to pay for service.

"Rural areas which are remote from the grid and/or have low consumption or low power purchase potential will not be attractive to private power investors," said Abubakar S. Sambo, director general of the Energy Commission of Nigeria. "Such areas may remain unserved for the distant future."

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In an effort to remedy the situation at Bishop Kodji, in 2006 the Lagos state government stepped in and installed 300-watt photovoltaic (PV) panels at two sites.  The idea was that the system would power the community building, the primary school, a church, a mosque, and a water pump that was installed at the village well to push water into an overhead tank, according to a report on the project by Adenike Boyo, director of science and technology at the Directorate of Policy, Programmes and Promotion for the state of Lagos. The panels each generate roughly the same wattage as three laptop chargers.

The project was lauded at its inception as a cost-effective triumph.

"These people are living off grid," said Tunji Olagunju, the engineer in charge of the Bishop Kodji project. "There was no possibility of getting PHCN there even in the next 50, 60 years, but they too must benefit from government; and that is why Lagos state decided that they had to give them alternative energy which, in this case, is solar."

Considering its relatively tiny budget, the project appeared to be the perfect solution to the state's rural electrification issues.

''It costs about 150 million naira (about $1.2 million) to connect each village to the national grid, while the solar energy project costs only about 10 million naira (about $83,000) per village," Kadri Hamzat, state commissioner of science and technology, said in an interview with journalists at the project's launch.

(Related: "Shining a Light on the Cost of Solar")

After initial success at Bishop Kodji, Lagos state officials introduced similar projects in nine other communities.

But problems soon emerged, the first resulting from local jealousies. Residents say that once news of their solar installation spread, people from neighboring communities came and sabotaged the solar units.

State workers replaced cut wires, only to be called out again when the panels failed a second time due to an undetermined mechanical failure. Residents say state workers have not returned for routine servicing since then.

"It wasn't something that we could predict," Olagunju said. "We have gone out several times to fix the issues that we find. But most of the problems come from poor maintenance by the residents," he said.

Residents, some of whom were trained to maintain the equipment, say state officials are to blame.

"We went to Alausa (the government center)," Dansu said. "We wrote letters that they needed to come. This thing is not working, because when it was working we were all enjoying it and we were happy. We wrote and kept persisting; they didn't answer us. We called over the phone and we even went there in person; they never answered us."

Now, five years later, the panels still do not work.

And other, less ambitious, state-run projects have also failed. Solar streetlights in Lagos and Abuja have broken down. The experience of Lagos is echoed in more than a dozen Nigerian states, including Sokoto, Borno, Nasarawa, Bayelsa, and Delta. The failure in Sokoto prompted the state government to abandon its other solar projects-along with the accompanying federal funding-and instead endeavor to connect the state to the national grid. But that is a  $22 million project that will take decades to complete, according to Alhaji Garba Umar Kyadawa, special adviser to the Sokoto state governor on rural electrification.

These experiences would appear to dash all hope for Nigeria to extend electricity access through renewable energy, were it not for the significant successes seen elsewhere in the nation, including in a community about 700 miles (1,160 kilometers) from Bishop Kodji, in Jigawa, a state on the northern border of Nigeria.

A Bright Spot in Jigawa

In 2001, Ibrahim Turaki, who was then governor of Jigawa state, obtained funding assistance from the Japanese government to launch a full-scale rural electrification project, with additional funding assistance from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and the United States Department of Energy.  The sponsors invested $450,000, more than five times the amount spent at Bishop Kodji. The Jigawa project was implemented and maintained by the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a nongovernmental organization based in Washington, D.C., that has been spearheading solar projects in the developing world for 21 years

(Related: "Solar Energy Brings Light to Quake-Darkened Haiti")

The SELF-directed scheme launched with bigger goals and more risks than Bishop Kodji, and has yielded greater results.

"We wanted to create a comprehensive project that would touch every aspect of their lives," said Robert Freling, executive director of SELF. "We provided power for a water-pumping system that pushed clean water into the village. Women can turn on a tap and have fresh water in the town center without walking miles to fetch it. There's a microenterprise center, street lighting, lights for 20 homes, a portable pump that they can take from field to field and water their crops. It's really remarkable."

The system in Jigawa powers vaccine refrigerators, and lights health centers, schools, and religious centers. At night, because of the electricity, villagers can receive emergency care in the health center, primary schools double as adult education centers, and villagers gather in the cool evenings under solar-powered streetlights.

The SELF website says that as a result of the steady access to power in Jigawa, residents were able to open a computer technology trade school and became the first state in northern Nigeria to create a satellite-based broadband Internet and communications system to link all local government districts.

"(After Jigawa), we got requests from pretty much every state in Nigeria looking to implement something similar," Freling said.

Freling believes the difference between what happened at Bishop Kodji and what happened in Jigawa is in both the planning and the maintenance.

"Sustainability is our primary concern," Freling said. "If you have a project that's well thought out, funded, and executed, you have a project that should last not months but years. There should always be a sustainability plan in mind from the beginning."

Most likely, the Bishop Kodji project was financed through a Rural Electrification Fund that was established out of $272 million that came to Nigeria from the World Bank in 2005 to support the nation's move to electricity privatization. But Nigeria's opaque bureaucracy, and the fact that no outside institutions or governments were involved, makes obtaining and verifying specific information on financing difficult.

The solar power failure on the island in the shadow of Nigeria's busiest port is a significant one for Nigeria's energy future.

Under a "business-as-usual" scenario, ESMAP predicts that the number of Nigerians without access to electricity will increase over time.  ESMAP says local photovoltaic systems have potential to fill in the energy shortfall while the federal government shores up national energy production and policy. But it says the role of solar energy in meeting Africa's energy needs has been undermined by misinformation, lack of technology, bad experiences, and the negative perceptions that have arisen in situations such as the Bishop Kodji project.

"If the government has a bad experience or hears about a failure, it has to affect the attitude of officials," Freling said. "It's easy for projects to be poorly executed or poorly maintained and that taints their perception."

The residents of Bishop Kodji don't have much hope that the solar installations that promised to change their lives will ever work again, but they do ask to be remembered.

"We are fishermen," Anthony said. "We catch fish, we treat them, then we sell them to our own people. We see that the government is trying to do something for us. But we need them to do more. We need a hospital. We need a better school. And we need light."

(Related: "After Katrina, A Solar Restart")

(Related Map: "Four Ways To Look at Global Carbon Footprints")

The reporting of this story was funded by the Ford Foundation through the International Center for Journalists' International Reporting Fellowship Program.

This story is part of a special series that explores energy issues. For more, visit The Great Energy Challenge.

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