Half of Africans lack access to electricity. Solar energy is finally starting to help.

A man uses a solar energy panel to charge electronic devices on Oct. 7, 2016, in Diebly, a village without electricity at the base of Mont Peko.
Image: SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

The NASA satellite map of the world at night shows blazing networks of light across North America and Europe. But Africa remains the dark continent. Despite the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goal of universal access to electricity by 2030, half of Africans are without power, most living in remote villages that are unlikely to be connected to the grid in the foreseeable future.

But now, thanks to falling prices for solar panels and increasing efficiency of LED lights and small appliances, rural Africans are obtaining electricity off the grid.

Off-grid electricity typically means a stand-alone solar home system or a microgrid (generally up to 100 kilowatts) built in the center of a community with distribution lines radiating out to houses, hospitals and stores. Microgrids are usually solar-powered, but are sometimes also fueled with diesel, micro-hydropower, wind or biomass. They often store electricity in batteries for later use.

“A real revolution is happening.”

“A real revolution is happening,” said Michael Franz, manager of the Africa-EU Renewable Energy Cooperation Programme in Brussels.

Africa, whose 54 countries encompass an area more than three times that of the United States, is beginning to embrace a hybrid future, “promoting and utilizing both on-grid and off-grid solutions to address the electricity challenges on the continent,” said Elham Ibrahim, the African Unions commissioner for infrastructure and energy.

Developed countries such as the United States are seeing the benefits of this approach, too, as hospitals, universities and private homeowners opt for minigrids (up to 100,000 kilowatts) or solar-battery home systems to lower their electricity costs and keep the lights on during extreme storms and other natural disasters.

Electricity’s dividends

Access to clean electricity improves people’s health and reduces greenhouse gas emissions. That’s because people without electricity, including the 600 million in Africa, typically use kerosene lanterns and open fires fueled with wood, animal dung or crop waste to light their homes and cook their food. These fuels contribute to asthma, allergies, cataracts, burns and poisonings, killing an estimated 4 million people per year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Globally, fuel-based lighting produces the equivalent of 240 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually.

Katrina Pielli has seen the difference electricity can bring to people’s lives. Based in Johannesburg, she is the senior energy adviser for Beyond the Grid, part of the U.S.-led program Power Africa that is working to double access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa by attracting private investment.

In rural Kenya’s Masai Mara territory, Pielli met Teresa Mpetti, a single mother of five. Mpetti, who sells drinks from a kiosk, improved her quality of life when PowerGen Renewable Energy built a microgrid in her village. Previously, she had to close her kiosk at dark for safety. Now, thanks to the microgrid, she can light her operation and stay open later. She recently bought an off-grid refrigerator, allowing her to sell cold drinks. With the increased profits, she started a second business a beauty salon.

“It’s this great story of the link between power and economic empowerment and quality of life,” Pielli said.

Children watch, on a solar powered television, the opening match in neighboring Johannesburg, South Africa, between South Africa and Mexico in their home in Harare, Zimbabwe on Friday, June 11, 2010.

Image: Shepherd Tozvireva/Associated Press

Power Africa, founded by the Obama administration in 2013, has a dozen development partners and more than 120 private sector partners, a reflection of the wide range of international governments, development banks, non-governmental organizations and, increasingly, private companies seizing the challenge and opportunity of electrifying Africa.

“Before, these projects were charity, driven by NGOs. Now there’s a clear business case.”

“Before, these projects were charity, driven by NGOs,” said Aaron Leopold, global energy representative for Practical Action, a United Kingdombased charity that works to provide sustainable energy to people. “Now there’s a clear business case. You’re seeing startups growing at 400 percent a year.

Thats good news, because development aid isn’t going to cut it, said Pielli. Some countries in sub-Saharan Africa receive only about one-tenth the funding they need to achieve universal access to electricity, according to a 2015 World Bank report.

“The numbers are just staggering,” she said.

Eastern Africa is the epicenter of the off-grid solar movement, led by companies such as M-Kopa, Off-Grid Electric and Mobisol. In Kenya, more than 30 percent of people living off the grid have a solar product at home, according to a Bloomberg report that also estimates off-grid households worldwide will reach that benchmark by 2020.

The power of mobile money

Still, many people living in rural Africa do not have the approximate $200 needed for an entry-level solar home system, nor do they have bank accounts, so banks have been unwilling to extend them credit.

Enter mobile money.

Off-grid solar companies are taking off in East Africa in part because of earlier development projects for micro-lending that used mobile money systems for repayment. People can deposit cash with an agent in exchange for e-money, which they can use to pay bills via texting no internet access required. Mobile money also allows people to create a credit history that can be used to build small businesses.

M-Kopa, headquartered in Nairobi, Kenya, sells an 8-watt system that comes with a solar panel, a control box with a lithium ion battery, two LED lights, a phone charger, a flashlight and a radio. To buy it people must put $35 down and then pay approximately 50 cents a day for a year. Larger systems have fans or small televisions as well, and in the future, the company plans to offer refrigerators.

Companies had traditionally avoided serving electricity and water to poor rural people because they thought that they could not pay. While the $35 deposit is still a barrier for some people, the daily payments are typically within reach.

“The reality is that they already pay a lot for energy,” said Leopold, referring to money spent on kerosene. On average, it’s like $20 per kilowatt-hour. In the U.S., we pay four to 10 cents per kilowatt-hour.”

President Barack Obama looks at a mobile payment platform and solar exhibit during the Power Africa Innovation Fair, Saturday, July 25, 2015, in Nairobi.

Image: Evan Vucci / Associated Press

Customers can prepay for multiple days if they come into money. The control box tracks payments, and customers can see how many days of credit they have at any given time. If they go into default, cellular technology allows M-Kopa to switch off the power remotely until they pay. That capability makes the repayment rate high, north of 90 percent, said Pauline Githugu, director of legal and external affairs for M-Kopa in Nairobi.

“Once you get used to having that light, for most people, they find it difficult to go back to kerosene,” she said.

Githugu had been working for a local microfinance bank in her native Kenya when M-Kopa recruited her. She resisted until she realized that M-Kopa had 15 times as many customers as the bank.

“This solution seems to be something people really want,” she said.

So far M-Kopa has powered 400,000 homes in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and employs more than 1,000 people.

Not just a rural solution

Despite the booming off-grid market, many African governments still think of solar as prohibitively expensive or unreliable, said Leopold. But even when an African country decides to build a power plant to serve people close to cities, it still takes an average of nine years for households to get electricity, according to a 2014 World Bank report.

“By focusing primarily on the grid, you’re making a choice for people that you have to wait,” he said. “You have to wait nine years to get an electrified health clinic. You have to wait nine years for your kids to use a computer at school. You have to wait nine years for whatever job youre doing manually right now to get an electrified variant up and running.”

Ugandans use a mobile money point in Kampala, Uganda, on Sept. 29, 2016. Mobile money has become a way of life for millions of Africans who use their phones to pay utility bills, settle loans and even bail out friends in distress.

Image: Stephen Wandera / Associated Press

While grid-tied electricity can meet industrial demands, rural villagers who have no power dont need that right now, said Leopold. “Does a small village in the Kenyan countryside need to run an arc welder, a clothes dryer, and a sawmill simultaneously? No, they dont. What they need is something to improve their lives.”

Even for industry, microgrids can often do the trick, supplying heating and cooling and driving small machinery such as grain mills and pumps for irrigation.

Off-grid can be the most affordable solution for people living near cities, too. As African cities boom, new buildings, including slums, are springing up on the urban periphery. People in these areas are frequently opting for community minigrids or solar home systems.

“To transform a persons well-being, a child’s future … I find just the possibility of that extremely fulfilling.”

“If you do not have an air conditioner, a dishwasher or electric cooking, you don’t need grid-connected electricity,” said Franz, who lived in Nairobi for several years. “You can get along with 130- or 200-watt peak on your roof. You can have a small fridge, your mobile charging, light in every room and a TV running off that.”

Grid electricity in many African countries remains unreliable. People with means have traditionally relied on diesel generators as backup. Increasingly, these folks are opting for solar systems, Pielli said.

In many places in Africa, off-grid solar is changing lives on a daily basis. It means being able to blow out kerosene lamps that have long harmed childrens lungs and eyes as they try to study, said Githugu.

“To transform a persons well-being, a child’s future … I find just the possibility of that extremely fulfilling.”

This article originally published at TakePart here

Read more: http://mashable.com/2016/12/12/solar-energy-rural-africa/