For 25 year old Jacinta Akoth Ocholla from a village in Nyakach sub-county, Kisumu County of South Western Kenya, the small kerosene tin lamp before her, is just, but a painful reminder of a dark past. What she wants to forget is the poor lighting she grew up in; cost and pollution. She used this lamp for her studies, and just last month, SolarNowBV, a clean energy company, installed a strip of solar panels and 7 lamps on the roof of their village house. And now the painful story of kerosene is almost a forgotten one. Solar Now operates renewable energy projects across East Africa with about 50 branch distribution networks in Uganda alone.
And when she was asked to display kerosene tin lantern recently - for visitors who wanted to compare its light and that of the solar lamps in their house, - Akoth quickly lost the warm spark on her face. It was visible. This, equally affected her 70-year old mother, Regina Ocholla who was more than ready to demonstrate the good things about the one month they had used solar. She enjoyed a momentary happiness reading a verse from her old bible for the visitors. Both, mother and daughter, felt kerosene tin lantern was a reminder of a dark past.
“For the time I have lived I didn't know that one day we will have light at night in this home. Today, for the last one month we have light in this house, day and night,” she said.
Even though some of the homesteads in the area including the Ochollas, are connected to government Kenya Power and Lighting Company (KPLC) programme, this system has been seen as unreliable.
“The new solar system, besides delivering clean lighting, is reliable and sufficient than the government line, which, out of the seven days of the week, lasts only three days forcing us to switch to the kerosene option,” Akoth added.
Both of them however, shared positive messages about the solar system. About five people in that family charge their mobile telephones using the system. Now, it is even an income earner for the family. “We charge other peoples' phones here too but at Ksh10 per person. The money we get is used to buy some of the basic items like sugar,” she added.
Mrs. Ocholla said, the solar lighting is a blessing to the family. Besides being in the process of addressing the health issues associated with the small kerosene tin lamp, the family has been able to avoid the paraffin costs.
“We used roughly Ksh 800 or even up to Ksh 1,000 every month for paraffin alone, but that's now history,” said Mrs. Ocholla. The family used to buy kerosene worthy Ksh 20 every day to service four kerosene lamps, locally known as nyangile.
Compared to the cost of paraffin for a year that goes to around Ksh 12,000 a year and the cost of indoor pollution that comes with the toxic spewing lamp, with an initial deposit of Ksh 42,850 and monthly instalments of Ksh 8,100, Akoth and her family could be able to acquire a 150 watts solar system to light their 7 lamps. This, according to Victor Ndiege saves the family the lifetime cost of paraffin and health hazards that accompany the use of the toxic fuel.
Ndiege is the Portfolio Manager for Renewable Energy and Adaptation to Climate Technologies (REACT) at the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund (AECF) .
Annually, he said, African households and small businesses spend upwards of US $17 billion (Ksh 170 billion) on lighting, mainly kerosene. “Many households spend up to 30 percent of their disposable income purchasing fuel. The technology is inefficient and expensive, provides limited and poor quality light, and exposes users to health and fire hazards,” he added. Wood and charcoal make up about 90 percent of the primary energy supply in sub Saharan Africa (SSA), presenting environmental and livelihood challenges as nearly 4 million hectares of forest are lost each year, adding to the degradation of water catchments and soil erosion.
The AECF, a US$304 million (Ksh30.4 billion) private sector challenge fund provides catalytic funding to enterprises in 24 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. The fund supports innovative commercial businesses in the agribusiness, renewable energy and adaptation to climate change technology sectors with the aim of reducing rural poverty, promoting resilient rural communities and creating jobs through private sector development.
“We invest in businesses that are seen as high risky and therefore struggle to meet traditional risk-return standards set by commercial lenders. We invest in business that offer significant impact on poverty alleviation by creating jobs and sustainable incomes for rural people,” Ndiege adds.
Therefore after seeing the benefits of the solar system, though just in one month of installation, Mrs. Ocholla confided to The East African that her son, Alloys Ocholla is planning to buy a television set for the family.
“I know this is going to bring in more money if we also install some football screening channels so that we can show English Premier League matches here. We will cut the distance young men use to go to the shopping centre to watch these games- which is 3 kilometres away,” the daughter, Akoth quickly adds. She is a victim of poverty that she was not even able to complete her secondary education. “I dropped from studies at Form 2,” she said. This could also be linked partly to lack of sufficient light, besides other challenges.
The paraffin smoking lamp is mostly the only affordable, but equally costly lighting and cooking fuel option for millions of rural Kenyans. Statistics with the United Nation's World Health Organisation (WHO) show that an estimated 14,000 people in Kenya die annually from health conditions which can be traced back to indoor pollution. Kerosene is one of the major contributors. These fuels such as charcoal, wood and lighting sources release pollutants such as carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons and particulate matter in different sizes.
The Ochollas are benefitting from SolarNow's “PayPlan” model that sells and distributes high-quality modular solar PV home systems (SHS) with an end-user credit facility. Through its “PayPlan” model Alloys Ocholla - who is paying for the installation has six months to complete its purchase starting mid-January 2018. “After paying the full amount, I would have totally buried the problems light poverty in our homestead,” Alloys said.
The company provides free transportation and installation of the system; a two-year warranty and five years of maintenance and service to the installation. SolarNow, the Kampala based enterprise through a network of trained and authorized solar dealers and entrepreneurs in rural Uganda and Kenya - who distribute its products - has evolved as an asset finance company providing end user finance to facilitate access to its expanded product range for households, small businesses, retail services for rural industries as well as farming activities. Its operations are complimented by AECF's funding facility and are seen to change the lives of individuals in rural east Africa areas.
“We started in Uganda as a simple solar panels maker in 2006 and moved to Tanzania. Almost immediately we also started a Foundation through which we deliver solar services on credit. Our customer base is growing gradually targeting the bottom of the pyramid consumers of our services. AECF was the initial financier,” Ronald Schuurhuizen, SolarNow Business Development Director said. SolarNow BV has established over 50 branch distribution networks complete with a logistics infrastructure to ensure an efficient distribution network. The arrangement costing the company up to US$ 2 million (Ksh200 million) of investment according to Schuurhuizen has enabled the company to reach over 18,000 households (90, 000 people) and create about 500 full time jobs in Uganda; installed about 750 kWp of power leading to a reduction of about 390 tonnes of CO2 equivalent annually.
In 2017, SolarNow BV expanded its services to Western Kenya, and in its strategic plan, by the end of 2018, it should have set up about 25 branches. Schuurhuizen said the company is eyeing Lodwar, North of Nairobi and Nakuru in its expansion plan. “We are putting up to US$1 million (Ksh100 million) in this plan,” he added.
He said 60 branches are sufficient to deliver solar energy lights and water pumps for irrigation.
In Matungu, Kakamega, Rukia Wakhu cannot afford but smile. A leader of Vumilia Women Group, one of the several self-help rural women entities who have christened themselves Smart Thinkers, Rukia is making money besides experiencing the benefits of solar energy light. Thanks to NewLight Africa Limited which trades as Heya. At home in Mayoni, she demonstrated how the Omnivoltaic pilot x (ovPilot x) produces bright light even during the day. Her seven children out of eight can now do their after-school studies up to 11 pm, and still wake up at 4 am for morning studies before going back to school.
“In the past my children could not study beyond 9pm. Most of the times, the kerosene lanterns could go dry forcing them to go to bed in darkness. Besides seeing the reduction in pollution from the kerosene lamps, we have also witnessed improved school marks,” she said.
She said it takes up to 5 days of using after charging it fully. It can still be used to charge up to 10 mobile phones every day. “Women in the chamas I manage, bring home more money compared to the past from their small businesses,” Rukia said.
She just needed one-day training to become an agent of this company. Since April 2017 she has sold about 30 boxes of Omnivoltaic pilot x (ovPilot x) 1, 2 and 3 solar lamps. For a woman who only depended on a one acre to feed, clothe and educate her 8 children, making Kshs6, 000 from every box is not a mean feat.
“I deposited an initial Ksh2, 200 being payment for one lamp but they gave me 10 that I pay Sh300 per week installments for 10 weeks to cover the required cost for pieces at point of delivery,” she added.
Ismail Makokha, Newlight Africa Limited Field Sales Representative and trainer on the use and management of the solar lamp gadgets smiles broadly when asked how he managed to bring together 94 agents in Matungu sub-county alone. This is where Facebook tycoon Mark Zuckerberg's "Move fast and break things" business remark mattered.
Since the lamp was small and difficult to sell he had to invent a way. This is besides the training programmes.
“I realised that necessity is the mother of invention. With the number of funeral meetings in this area growing by the day, and vigil going deep into the night, I had to frequent a number of homesteads where I provided free light from the ovPilot solar lamps. I hanged one in every such home, and the light it could supply was amazing. People liked it and that's how it started to sell,” he said.
He sold 60 pieces in 6 packs each within two months between April and June, 2017. That gave him a head start. His returns demonstrates the rising number of sales agents, and eventually it created employment for many.
Zainab Muranda has even forgotten how her small kitchen outside the main looks. Several months ago she spent hours every day in this structure - powering firewood with a steel pipe amid violent coughs - in order to be able to cook for a family of eight. “However, since I was introduced to the Safi Gas Cooker, an Ethanol powered cookstove even my health has improved. I have also seen reduction of firewood fuel smoke in the compound. No dirt like that of charcoal, no smell on food and it is friendly to operate,” she said.
She deposited Ksh 1,500 with NewLight Africa Limited, that is Ksh 1,000 for the stove and Ksh 500 for the Ethanol. Under a payment plan Ksh 300 per month, she was able to cover the Ksh5, 700 asking price for the energy efficient environmental friendly cookstove.
Head of Sales Global at NewLight Africa Limited, Jakob Werner said the company is focused on covering base of pyramid last mile customers, mainly those not covered by on-grid power. “We are giving them access to these clean energy products so that as we grow we are also able to alleviate power poverty and other affiliated problems such as unemployment,” he added.
Pauline Mbayah, AECF Director of Strategy & Partnerships told The East African that the organization's key focus is to address market failures by plugging in the gaps where the government cannot reach, in the case of electricity. However, the AECF, she said puts money in the private sector where partnering companies prove they can leverage what is invested.
“We invest subject to research. We put money where no one has bothered to invest. As AECF, we identify companies that do environmental friendly products that are quality and capable of addressing Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). These companies must also demonstrate that they can leverage with the same amount of money we provide on interest-free grants,” she said.
The conversation on how people are going to access quality reliable energy products both off-grid power connections, agribusiness and cooking in Nyanza and Western Kenya regions, she said was growing and needed attention. She said the AECF is currently designing a youth fund to address the gap left by aging farmers so that young people can be attracted into agribusiness. “This way the ever unending unemployment headache can be addressed,” she added.
Some of these challenges according to Ndiege are being addressed within the REACT funding window which is demonstrating how renewable energy technologies and businesses have the potential to reach Africa’s rural communities. “Through REACT funding, the AECF has shown that private sector innovation has the potential to reach people in ways that large-scale government investment in grid extension and climate adaptation infrastructure struggle to deliver,” he underscored with a specific reference to Climate change which has the potential of reducing agricultural yields, increase water scarcity and the frequency of extreme weather in developing countries.
He said - in six years – the AECF's REACT funding window has committed over US$83 million (Ksh 8.3 billion) to 68 companies implementing innovative business models that provide increased access to clean energy, financial services and climate smart solutions for the rural poor. SolarNow BV and NewLight Africa Limited are part of the companies the AECF is partnering with. “Our main focus areas are; increased access to low cost, clean energy for rural businesses and households,” he said.
Some of them include cost effective renewable power, commercially viable renewable fuels and other clean energy alternatives; products and services that help rural people and smallholder farmers adapt to climate change; financial services that increase access to finance for low cost, clean energy and climate resilient technologies that are used to catalyse financial solutions. “For instance, with the current power generation trends showing a clear failure to keep pace with both rural and urban demands in Africa, it is evident that the population without electricity will increase steadily until at least 2025. To worsen the scenario is the high cost of grid extension to the remote areas of the continent,” he said attributing this scenario as encouraging funding in these areas.
Since energy is a binding constraint on growth in many African countries, especially in rural areas Ndiege said the AECF has just completed a five-year funding agreement with Sweden International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), for REACT Sub-Saharan Africa valued at US $48 million (Ksh4.8 billion) to support Africa’s renewable energy sector. This programme which is currently at its inception phase, will support private sector companies to accelerate access to clean energy solutions by rural communities in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The funding competition will commence in June 2018.
The story was first published on PAMACC News Agency