Solar Energy for Low-Income Households

by Bruce Cameron, Kenya

The switch from kerosene to solar lighting could sweep across Africa as rapidly as the mobile phone has, perhaps with equally transformative results.

These notes summarise my impressions of the evolving situation in Kenya as regards use of solar-powered lighting in low-income households. I hope they will stimulate comment and discussion. They include two concrete suggestions that will benefit from further shaping through dialogue with interested parties.

Everyday kerosene lamps alongside a solar-charged LED lantern  Photo: B. Cameron

Everyday kerosene lamps alongside a solar-charged LED lantern Photo: B. Cameron

From the late 1990s, relatively cheap solar panels rated about 12–14 watts and mostly manufactured in Europe or India were widely marketed in Kenya, bringing small-scale solar energy to a mass market, or so it may have seemed. Unfortunately the amorphous silicon technology involved exhibits a marked reduction in performance over the first few weeks of exposure to sunlight. In practice these panels, some of which were excellent in themselves, were frequently accompanied by oversized batteries and unrealistic expectations, leading to wastage of the batteries and widespread disappointment. We can attribute this to a combination of factors including technical pitfalls, ignorance on the part of consumers, and generally poor advice from retailers. Solar energy acquired a bad reputation as weak, unreliable, and a waste of hard-earned money.

Various Western governments introduced policies to promote solar power in their territories. Entrepreneurs in China and elsewhere seized the opportunity and built factories producing the better-quality solar panels using crystalline silicon technology. Within a few years the price of these panels was declining steeply and sales in Kenya have been growing strongly. The reputation of solar energy has improved. It is now widely viewed as something to aspire to, although it remains unaffordable to most. At the same time Kenya’s burgeoning middle classes have been turning to solar energy out of frustration with high bills and frequent outages from the national electricity supplier.

For domestic lighting, recent years have seen the introduction of LED (light-emitting diode) technology. This technology has several advantages over fluorescent tubes, including longer service life, lower environmental cost from toxic constituents, and, where cable runs are short, more efficient use of limited energy. At present the purchase price still favours fluorescent technology, but we may see that reversed before long.

So there are strong technical and market forces driving increased uptake of solar energy. At the same time increased food prices have to some extent boosted rural economies after decades of impoverishment. The affordability gulf has started to narrow.

In the longer term, we hope that all households will have access to clean, reliable, and affordable energy. National policy aims to increase electricity generation, reduce prices, and extend the grid, but there is a long way to go and progress will take time. In the medium term, for rural homes we expect small solar energy systems to play an increasing role. This seems to be not only the direction pointed to by current trends, but also a desirable outcome that we can see many reasons for welcoming.

I shall not elaborate here the disadvantages of using kerosene for lighting, which are widely appreciated. This is not merely Western idealism: the users themselves are eager to move to something better. As the technical and economic factors continue to evolve, we may well be approaching a tipping point. When it comes, the switch from kerosene to solar lighting could sweep across Africa as rapidly as the mobile phone has, perhaps with equally transformative results.

We believe this transition is both likely and desirable. What can we do in the short term to hasten it? Below I outline two proposals:

Proposal 1: Solar Charging Stations for Portable Lanterns

Over the years, numerous manufacturers and development organisations have attempted to provide attractive solar-powered alternatives to kerosene for lighting. By way of illustration from my own recent encounters, the ARO Development Centre in Siaya County, Kenya, has been running a programme of selling solar lamps, with a discount available if the purchaser surrenders a kerosene lantern in part exchange.

There are many different solar lamps and lanterns available in Kenya, exhibiting a variety of design choices. Some of the design choices concern:

  • LED versus fluorescent light source
  • Focused reading/work lamp versus 360° room illumination
  • Type of rechargeable battery: lead acid/nickel metal hydride/lithium
  • Sizing of light source, battery, and solar panel
  • Solar panel built in or separate
  • Additional features (e.g. radio, phone charging)

Solar lights are typically sold at prices ranging from over Ksh 7500 (US$ 86.93) for a substantial lantern with added features down to about Ksh 1000 (US$ 11.59) for a four-hour reading lamp having a single LED. Such products at present remain mostly middle-class purchases and have not yet rendered kerosene lighting obsolete.

Our proposal aims to give households access to good-quality lantern lighting at a cost comparable to the inferior kerosene equivalent. It adopts an approach suggested by Dala Rieko, a public benefit organisation in Siaya County, Kenya. The approach is based on a solar charging station capable of servicing many lanterns. The cost to the lantern user reduces to a small payment per charge, including perhaps a hire purchase element covering the lantern itself. The charging equipment, including solar panel, requires an investment that can be recouped in less than a year. This concept provides an affordable pay-as-you-go entry to solar lighting that to some extent resembles the concept of community payphones (simu ya jamii in Kiswahili) that were commonplace in the early years of cellphone networks in Kenya.

A trainee technician uses a multimeter to measure the output of a solar panel he has made. Photo: B. Cameron

A trainee technician uses a multimeter to measure the output of a solar panel he has made. Photo: B. Cameron

The lanterns are robust and use LEDs. They contain batteries with enough capacity for the lantern to serve for 2–3 nights between charges. The lantern is brought to the charging station in the morning and collected recharged in the afternoon. The payment per charge, including allowance for the lantern, is directly competitive with kerosene. The batteries last two years or more and replacements are readily available. 

The solar-powered charging station can charge up to 10 lanterns at one time and the charging is completed well within one day. Each charging station can therefore support about 25 lanterns. Larger models are envisaged for schools. The lantern charging service can be provided from almost any local shop. An institution with an existing battery bank can run the charging station from the battery bank without a separate solar panel. A charger with the relevant specification is not currently available on the market. A prototype has been developed and tested by Nango Solar in Kisumu. We are eager to find out whether the concept will prove popular with the public at large.

Preliminary estimates suggest the prices below will be attainable from the outset, with volume effects expected to bring prices lower thereafter

Ksh US$
Lantern, including battery, if bought outright 2000 23.18
Replacement battery 750 8.69
Per charge 20 0.23
Charging equipment, including solar panel 40000 463.60

Proposal 2: Network of Solar Technicians

One factor slowing the uptake of solar energy in rural areas is the scarcity of reliable advice both for the initial installation and for any subsequent maintenance issues. A rural householder wishing to install solar equipment will often call in a local electrician and be guided by him. The local electrician may have had training and experience in domestic wiring for mains electricity, but is unlikely at present to have had any training or much experience with solar equipment. The knowledge required is different.

An alternative for the householder may be to buy a ready-made packaged solution that can be installed without having to take detailed decisions about sizing the panel, battery, controller, and cables in relation to one another. There are several offerings of this kind available in shops in town. In comparison with buying separate system components, these packaged systems seem expensive. In practice we do not come across them in people’s homes.

Similarly the householder by coming to town has a better chance of finding a qualified, experienced installer, but there is clearly a cost implication in bringing the installer to the rural home, especially if the installer is a salaried employee. In Nango Solar nowadays we usually find it difficult to offer installation of small home systems at an affordable price.

So there is a need for a large number of trained solar technicians dispersed around the rural areas. The appropriate level of training is not unduly onerous. Someone with aptitude can learn enough to troubleshoot common maintenance problems and start undertaking small domestic installations after maybe eight practical sessions coupled with a bare minimum of theory. The basic training should be followed by support in handling questions that arise. It should be emphasised that we are talking here about small domestic solar energy systems primarily for lighting. Subsequent training would cover more advanced topics.

At present, a local solar technician should be able to earn occasional extra income by this means and build up his or her local network of customers. It could well go hand-in-hand with running a lantern-charging service. However at this stage it would be wrong to imply that people will easily be able to support themselves through these activities alone.

There is a role here for private business based in an urban centre. That is currently where there is most practical knowledge of the equipment and most experience in installing and maintaining it. Such a business can provide training and support to the local technicians. It also gathers comprehensive knowledge of available products and can supply items known to be reliable. The support functions will range from telephone advice to the technician in the field through to handling more complex requirements and difficult repairs.

Vocational training institutions should be at the centre of the training component. They have all the organisational infrastructure to handle enrolments, assure professional delivery, and manage certification in relation to national standards and syllabuses. Historically it has perhaps been rare for them to count experienced solar practitioners among their staff, or to have access to a range of solar equipment, but we are in a time of dynamic development, and partnership with business may be a productive way to address such issues.

Among government agencies we are aware that the Energy Regulatory Commission has published regulations for the certification of solar technicians in several grades. In coordination with them, the National Industrial Training Authority has been developing the relevant syllabuses. We may hope that these initiatives will afford consumers some protection against the kind of disappointment and loss that was mentioned at the beginning of these notes.

Bruce Cameron is technical director of Nango Solar Limited, a business supplying solar energy services and products in western Kenya. 

Business is going green. Even if some of the Corporate Social Responsibility profiles (CSR) many companies like to garnish themselves with is just greenwashing, many do serious and good work. We cannot wait for politicians to take the lead. Those who can and will take responsibility must do it.

Initiatives with ideas like Nango Solar Limited are important steps towards a future sustainable society 

The more companies taking CSR seriously, the quicker and less painful the necessary road to sustainability will be.

CSR International |  CSR 2.0  |  CSR (Wikipedia)  |  CSR Norway  |  European CSR  |  CSR solutions facebook  |  CSR Global compact (UN)  |

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About svenaake

University Teacher.
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6 Responses to Solar Energy for Low-Income Households

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  5. Joanna C. says:

    Cool to see that Africa is marching toward green energy too. In some areas in Southeast Asia where electricity is unavailable or too expensive, small independent solar power systems and LEDs are implemented, often through the assistance of NGOs.

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