Earth Island Reports
Sowing Seeds of Solar
There is talk of a “solar revolution” in Africa, spurred by a major reduction in the cost of solar technology and the enormous solar potential of the sun-drenched continent. The revolution is poised to have a big impact, as an estimated two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa currently lacks reliable access to electricity. Sustainable energy access is essential to economic development, and where access to solar energy has been improved, it has already contributed to increased opportunities for local entrepreneurship.
To encourage growth of the solar sector, some African countries are lowering import duties on solar equipment, and businesses selling solar panels are popping up throughout major cities and rural towns. At the same time, many challenges and concerns threaten to undermine solar energy progress. One of the biggest is the lack of quality control measures: In countries such as Burkina Faso, which has one of the highest solar potentials in West Africa and one of the lowest rates of electrification, the government has limited regulation on solar imports.
As a result, the government does not have a mechanism to ensure that quality panels enter the Burkinabé market. There is no accurate count of solar products entering the country, or an account of who is selling products, where they are selling them, or how reliable their panels are.
Burkina Faso is not the only country struggling with these issues, but the full scope of the problem remains a mystery – little research has been done about the quality or effectiveness of solar panels on the market in sub-Saharan Africa.
Drive through any city or any town in Burkina Faso and one will discover scores of businesses selling solar panels. But are these panels durable? Will they work effectively? Or will they fail before their promised life span? Customers, lured by the promise of solar as a cheaper and healthier alternative to the common use of kerosene, often face uncertainty when investing in panels, and may unwittingly purchase faulty devices. This is particularly problematic in a country where the gdp per capita is $650, and a single 80-watt solar panel may cost $250. Investment of hard-earned money in defective products undermines efforts to expand access to this renewable energy source. This is all the more true given the lack of workforce training in solar maintenance, which makes it more challenging to get broken products repaired.
The current solar equipment import model also fails to address critical problems of overreliance on imports. Most African economies are essentially dependent on export of raw materials that leave them vulnerable to commodity price fluctuations. What some scholars call “chronic dependency” is attributed to a colonial-based economic model in which African citizens have little-to-no control of means of production. Solar equipment imports create some additional jobs, particularly through access to energy, but do not provide the full range of opportunities offered by a local manufacturing.
At ÉnergieRich, a project of Earth Island Institute, we believe that the current solar climate presents a critical opportunity to re-think energy infrastructure and energy delivery in West Africa, and to ensure that Indigenous thought drives the creation of a new sustainable model that avoids the risks of unregulated solar distribution. To that end, we are developing new energy interventions that can significantly increase productivity for economic activities that drive the local and national economies, while also integrating young leaders and innovators ready to transform their societies with innovations rooted in traditional knowledge.
ÉnergieRich is building upon the successful work of our local partner organizations, Burkina Energy and Appropriate Technology (BETA) and Center for Improved Techniques in Aviculture (CFPA). CFPA was the first organization in Burkina Faso to introduce solar power to rural areas, and has spread access to solar energy in nearly every part of Burkina Faso as well as in neighboring countries. CFPA has become a leader in training Burkinabé poultry farmers in modern farming techniques.
ÉnergieRich is developing a line of renewable energy products – including solar panels, solar-powered poultry egg incubators, and portable solar lamps – to be locally assembled in Burkina Faso.
After years of research and planning, in July we launched a seed program in Koupéla, Burkina Faso to develop a line of products that will be locally assembled to maximize economic impact in the region. Our three initial products are locally assembled solar panels, solar-powered poultry egg incubators, and portable solar lamps. The locally produced solar panels will ensure quality control and local access to repair, and provide an opportunity to tailor solar panels for individual and household needs. Imported panels are often more powerful than necessary to fulfill local needs – for example, lighting a two-lightbulb household. Locally manufactured panels can offer efficient and cost effective alternatives.
The ÉnergieRich solar-powered egg incubator prototype was created in partnership with a team of Stanford University mechanical engineering students. Why a poultry egg incubator? Because 80 percent of households in rural Burkina Faso raise chickens. Most producers practice traditional farming techniques, which are largely inefficient. Incubators are used to modernize farming practices and increase productivity. But incubators require reliable energy access. In Burkina Faso, frequent electricity disruptions and a dearth of energy access means that farmers using incubators are forced to rely on generators to sustain the current. The use of generators increases the cost of producing poultry, which is a staple in the Burkina diet and holds cultural value. With a solar incubator, farmers will be able to increase their productivity while reducing the cost of production. The incubator is designed to be easily replicated for local sale.
We are also exploring opportunities to design portable solar lamps for local production. BETA currently sells an average of 300 portable solar lamps per month. Considering the popularity of these lamps we believe that a locally assembled version will rapidly gain traction in the market.
ÉnergieRich envisions rural communities throughout Burkina Faso and the rest of West Africa integrating our model of local production of clean energy products. Adoption of this model will allow rural communities to develop and sell value-added products, which will create employment opportunities and facilitate knowledge transfers. Additionally, ÉnergieRich intentionally seeks out students and professionals of color in an effort to harness the resources of Africa and the African diaspora. This work provides a unique bridge between engineering and social justice – by working with ÉnergieRich, engineering students have an opportunity to give back to their communities and provide inspiration for youth interested in pursuing studies in STEM fields.
Our recent solar panel launch – which included local production training and prototype testing – was well received, and was praised by local leaders, including the mayor of Koupéla, the chief of Koupéla, and farmers in several cities across the country. It also caught the attention of the US ambassador to Burkina Faso and US embassy staff. Participants in our solar manufacturing training were thrilled by the opportunity to begin designing solar panel prototypes. Customers who saw the panel construction process asked to sign up for future solar construction trainings. Now our seeds of local production and innovation have been planted. ÉnergieRich has begun to transform the means of local production, spawn local innovation, and ensure increased access to sustainable solar.
Learn more about this Earth Island Institute project at: www.energierich.org