Energy Efficiency

Solar: Three answers to off-grid power in Kenya

As industries grow, the demand for energy is stretching African supply further and further, leading to ever more interruptions in the power supply.

Kenya Power, the country’s leading power supplier, has aggressively tried to get most people onto the grid but the cost and the slow pace means the majority are still out of reach. The Rural Electrification Authority aims to have 70% of Kenya connected to the grid by 2017. Currently that number stands at just 23%. This dream might not be realised.

While according to a research study by Irena titled, Africa 2030: Roadmap for a Renewable Energy Future [PDF], the continent’s need for power is growing quickly.

“Economic growth, changing lifestyles and the need for reliable modern energy access is expected to require energy supply to be at least doubled by 2030. For electricity it might even have to triple,” it stated.

Irena also reports that the transformation will require around US$70 billion investment from 2015 to 2030 with US$32 billion for renewable options including solar power.

Now solar power has become an acceptable product in off-grid environments due to the favourable weather in the region. In recent years, many companies that have emerged to bridge this gap. Here are three which sit at the forefront of the movement in Kenya.


M-Kopa: Swapping kerosene for solar

M-Kopa is probably the most successful company in Kenya that aims to provide power to the rural areas, in partnership with Safaricom, Kenya’s leading Telecommunication Company.

The company says that it now connects nearly 300,000 homes in East Africa and aims to push clean solar energy to one million homes by the end of this year.

M-Kopa gives solar units to users after they put down an initial deposit and pay a daily fee which is affordable for low income homes. After a year or two, depending on the daily fee, users will be able to fully own their solar units.

The basic units include solar panels, two low energy consumption bulbs, a mobile charging unit and enough wiring to span an average rural house.

According to Jesse Moore, the CEO and co-founder of M-Kopa, the users are substituting the money they use to buy paraffin, to now pay for the service.

“Energy starts with lighting and its key initial benefit is to consumers who are spending way too much money on kerosene,” Moore said during a recent launch event to introduce a solar powered TV for their consumers.

On average, families use around Kshs100 ($1) everyday to buy kerosene for lighting purposes. This is high as many rural families live on less than $2 dollars a day. While use of kerosene also has many health concerns such smoke inhalation and burns. For M-Kopa, users can pay as little as Kshs 50 ($0.5) for the solar units and get clean durable lighting in their homes.

The technology behind the services helps the company to manage users remotely. If a user fails to pay up the daily fees, the solar unit is disabled and can be enabled once they make payment through mobile money.

The company has also now introduced other gadgets that can be bought under the same plan. Users can now purchase solar powered televisions, mobile phones and radios.


Strauss Energy: Solar powered roofing tiles

Strauss Energy is the one of the latest entrants into the renewable energy space with a twist. Most home owners put up their house then install solar panels on their roof. What Strauss Energy brings is the option of putting up roofing tiles fitted with small solar panels.

In the end the home owner saves about 30% in costs for a combined roofing and solar panel unit.

In a television interview, Charity Wanjiku head of operations at the company, said that it is starting to resonate well with many home owners in the country. Their solution fits directly with many middle class Kenyans who are putting up their own residential units.

Ken Miheso, market researcher at the company, says that they have built the tiles to be more durable than the normal roofing tiles in the market.

“In terms of durability the material used to set up this tile can withstand a lifetime. The normal roofing tile lasts 10 to 20 years; this one takes beyond 30 years,” he said.

Behind the solar roofing tiles lies a technology that enables the company to monitor each solar unit. This helps them to monitor if the solar panels are performing at their optimum.

The company is still in its early stages but claims to have seen interest from all over the country.


Powerhive: A solar smart grid

American company, Powerhive, also introduced its innovative system to East Africa early last year and is already making strides in the sector.

Its systems connect to a smart grid that enables all connected customers to pay for electricity through mobile money. The smart grid also gives energy operators analytics on how every consumer is using their energy and their units can cover several houses at a time.

The company received a US$20 million investment in January this year, from Caterpillar Ventures, Total Energy Ventures, Tao Capital Partners with Prelude ventures leading the round.

“We're getting ready to begin construction on our first major project, which should serve approximately 20,000 homes in western Kenya,” Daniel Boucher the business development at Powerhive tells IDG Connect.

Its pilot program in the last year has already yielded positive results for the end consumers. Boucher said that it enabled new businesses to flourish.

“Last year we piloted a business incubation program for hair salons, posho mills, a carpenter, restaurants, and a chicken hatchery,” Boucher said. “These new business activities were enabled by access to electricity. By combining electricity access with business incubation, we were able to support increased incomes among our customers.”


Solar for all?

Not everyone is suited for solar solution. But it offers many rural homes the benefit of electricity without having to wait for a long time or needing to pay a lot of money to get connected.

“Africa is richly endowed with renewable energy sources, and the time is right for sound planning to ensure the right energy mix. Decisions made today will shape the continent’s energy use of decades to come,” the Irena report said.

“Modern renewables can eliminate power shortages, bring electricity and development opportunities to rural villages, spur industrial growth, create entrepreneurs, and support the ongoing lifestyle changes across the continent.”

However, affordability will be the key to success. For MKopa and Powerhive, the aim is to replace the income that rural folk spend on kerosene with solar energy.

As Boucher of Powerhive concludes: “First, it is important that our customers have access to some amount of credit in order to buy productive electric equipment for their businesses, or to buy household devices, such as a television or refrigerator.

“Second, we're focused on meeting the energy needs of our customers at the lowest possible cost, while supporting them to grow their consumption over time.”



Further reading:

Solar Power: Energy Source of the Future?

Modern Africa: Midwife Lights Delivery Room with Nokia Handset Due to no Electricity


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Vincent Matinde

Vincent Matinde is an international IT Journalist highlighting African innovations in the technology scene.

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