Voices from the Solar Hub ending energy poverty in low income communities

By Shadrack Mbaka and Jane Wairutu

A resident of Kibera Informal settlement charges her solar lamp using solar rays. Photo courtesy of KCDF

Access to affordable and reliable energy remains a major debate, more so among slum dwellers and low income communities, that’s why Slum Dwellers International (SDI) is fronting solar power as a viable, long-term alternative source of clean energy. Solar energy has tremendous potential of energy to be harnessed using a variety of devices. For instance a typical Kenyan family living in one of Nairobi’s 158 informal settlements uses an average of 1 litre of Kerosene per week and spends an average of $15 per month on fuel for lighting. Kerosene lamps have insufficient light, expensive to run and are a major health hazard, especially to school going children who use small tin-lamp lanterns to do their home work.

Realizing the immense risks that come with access to alternative sources of energy, there lays insurmountable potential and emerging opportunities existing in the solar realms. In order to build knowledgeable urban poor communities around the solar sector, SDI, organized a solar hub edition, hosted by the Kenyan Federation of the urban poor-Muungano Wa Wanavijiji, in Nairobi between the 15-20 January 2017. The theme of the exhibition and conference is “Solar Energy for Sustainable Communities.”

Plenary at the Solar Hub

Participating SDI federation affiliates from Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya shared the different solar energy models and project financing systems in their respective countries, which inspired interesting conversation on the dynamics of the solar systems as well as making them accessible to both federation members and the market. Members are able to access the solar devices through credit facilities set up by the federation’s urban poor fund(s) repayable over a period of time at friendly interest rates.

Horizontal Learning

During the four day hub the participating federations had an opportunity to engage each other in an in-depth market evaluation, technical and socio-economic aspects. On the technical aspects, the National Slum dwellers Federation of the poor in Uganda highlighted that the solar lamp project performed much better than they had expected. The lamp proved successful at providing superior lighting enough for a typical room, than the common lamps there. The design is acceptable to customers and easy to handle and carry around. The customers who use the lamp now save on fuel expenses and dry cell batteries, hence less pollution. Youths have now also been trained to maintain the lamps thereby earning a living. A solar lamp provides an ideal solution to members of the federation and customers at residential and business use, who have suffered using kerosene lamps and low-cost battery driven flashlights. The lamp is charged with an integrated solar panel for six hours and gives a very bright light up to 6 hours and less bright for another 3.

The Ugandan team also informed the solar hub of the need to have a marketing team incorporated within the national projects teams and especially when the project is about selling single solar products.

As expressed by Said Swali, a federation member from the Uganda Federation, “It is therefore within our potential to create community energy resources in most exciting ways, for it allows communities to directly control and benefit from the energy technology on which they depend”.

For the Tanzanian Counterparts solar light sources are available on the market. More federation members as well as customers are willing to pay cash for the lamps as by installment. There is a local micro credit financing (Urban poor Fund), Jenga fund that helps to make it affordable to people with low income and cannot afford to pay cash for the solar lamps and panels. The federation provides customers with warranty for the lamps and panels. This therefore gives them confidence and assurance that the lamps are of good quality.

The teams also learnt from Tanzanian urban poor fund, the solar programme loan and repayment model is designed in a way that the federation is in partnership with the municipal authorities. Each client has to be recognized by the municipal local authorities as residents of the settlement for one to qualify access to a solar loan.

“More awareness campaign to demonstrate the lamp and educating customers will improve product awareness and bring in new customers,” said Theresia Mtanga a programmes officer with the support NGO Centre for Community Initiatives.

In Kenya, Muungano wa Wanavijiji and its support organisation SDI-Kenya are taking a more interesting is the strategic approach of deploying each and every solar project in the pipeline. Every settlement, more so in the capital Nairobi, has different stakeholders involved such as local communities, local authorities, private companies and third sector partners. In the Nairobi slums of Mukuru, Kibera and the Woodley market, the Kenya Alliance is planning to pilot solar energy projects, taking a community centered approach. The slums lack proper infrastructure and has been the setting of some incidents that have furthered contributed to its image as an unsafe area of Nairobi. Lessons from this project will be valuable for the scaling up of community led solar projects in Kenya and beyond to ensure that urban access to energy is addressed alongside rural.

Jack Makau of SDI-Kenya indicates. “What we are trying to develop is a hybrid solar mini grid in an informal settlement setting. The model seeks to bring on board local electricity providers in the settlements to distribute energy generated from this intended project hence commercializing the venture, “says Jack Makau.

Policy Approach

All three affiliates confirmed that at the national level, exists an adopted its energy policy. This policies point out close co-relations between energy and poverty eradication. However in spite of several initiatives in the energy sector, the lack of access to clean and efficient energy services—is a major factor in contributing to urban and rural poverty especially slum communities.

The participants agreed that understanding local needs and resources is crucial in choosing the energy technology to use. As a precondition for successful solar energy investments by SDI, training communities to operate and maintain the system is key to ensuring sustainability of energy systems.

David Sheridan a resident solar energy consultant with SDI urged the participants to not take more time in figuring out how policy will inhibit their innovations. “Do not let policy to push you around. Restrictions give you an opportunity to do it, if you can solve a problem then policy can always change.”

Field Visit- Olosho Oibor community Centre

On the second day the #solarhub took time off from their plenary discussions to go out for a field visit in Ngong hills. The Ngong Hills is approximately 30 km west of Nairobi, only a short drive outside of Nairobi. From one side of the hills, there is a view of the Rift Valley, and from the other side, a view of Nairobi off in the far distance.

Participants at the Olosho Oibor Community centre in Ngong Hills

The designated project filed visit site was the OLOSHO OIBOR Community Renewable project in Kajiado North Constituency, Kajiado County. Our hosts Sky notch Energy Africa, who are the project consultants led by its’ CEO Patrick Kimathi and lead project architect Mwaura Njogu give a brief overview of the Ngong Hills Hybrid Mini grid that Sky notch in conjunction with the Kenya Climate Innovation Centre, situated at the Strathmore University. The project was funded by United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO).

The participants came across the Ngong Hills Wind and Solar Power facility in the community. This grid connected and has a capacity of producing 12 KW for the communities’ consumption. Two metallic containers have been put up to provide space for an office, community hall, a workshop, a power unit and an internet cyber café. The centre provides power to the local facilities such as the Olosho Oibor hospital, Olosho Oibor primary school, a girl child rescue centre and a number of individual residents.

OLOSHO OIBOR Community

The participants learned firsthand how solar insolation provides natural light and energy while sunshine and wind can be used to generate electricity, Ngong hills for instance experience long hours of sunshine which typically amount to over 7 hours a day. These have enormous potential for solar energy generation.

A water solar pump model that pumps water to the Olosho Oibor primary school

Key lessons drawn

• Decentralized renewable energy is not second best to the centralised grid. They are a vital part of the energy mix and urban communities must accelerate their adoption. SDI having facilitated learning opportunities among organized communities, communities has already seen the benefits of communities moving up the energy ladder from solar lights to bigger energy solutions, and now ordinary urban and rural households and businesses can own their own solar energy systems and even water pumps.

• On policy; Kenya has passed legislation on the net metering system. If any institution that provides alternative power up to 500 kilowatts can have tariff to sell to Kenya power. In developed countries net metering works for consumers who produce 15kwts and above. Its an opportunity for the Kenyan federation to start lobbying for the tariffs to be changed from 500 Kilowatts to a reasonable figure of 15kilowatts. This means any household with a solar system can sell energy produced to the utility company especially during the day when households use less power.

• The urban poor fund Savings and Credit platform is a strong micro-finance sector, enabling thousands of slum dwellers households to gain access to micro-loans or finance schemes to purchase decentralized renewable technologies. Access to finance has been identified as the most significant challenge to the penetration of solar energy technology in urban poor communities within the SDI network. The effects of limited financing options are felt by end users.

• End users having easy access to technical assistance are another key factor. The presence of technicians within the federations well versed in troubleshooting, repair and maintenance would increase consumers’ trust.

Building communities technical capacities

The objective of the solar hub was also to train young people living in informal settlements within the East African hub to assemble portable solar lamps and then test them for daily uses with the intention of starting a small production centre if the pilot phase is a success. The solar lamps/panels will then be produced by these trained young solar technicians and first sold to the local market. Pre-fabricated lamps will be used as solar energy learning sets in community workshops. The youths were also trained to install solar home systems.

All indicators point towards a massive adoption and ownership of solar technology by urban and rural low income communities. All the above mentioned lessons can be overcome as awareness increases, training is made more available, real and perceived financial risks decrease and the cost of solar technology becomes affordable.

Credits:

Muungano wa Wanavijiji

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