Most rural poor people still living in the dark criticise as ill-timed last week’s scrapping of the electricity subsidy. The subsidy was introduced in 2013 to help low-income households access power.

Only 57.2 per cent of Kenyans are connected to the grid, according to Infotrack. Another study found that electrification rates in Western Kenya remained low at five per cent for rural households. This is even though they are within 200m of the national grid connection point, according to the study by University of California, Berkeley, and Innovations for Poverty Action.

So with the subsidy scrap, the government’s goal of raising electricity access to 70 per cent by 2017 risks remaining just that — a goal.

 

SHIFT TO SOLAR ENERGY  

However, hope is not lost for the rural people, as many are now opting for solar panels to light their homes.

Regina Ocholla, 70, has used a kerosene tin lamp all through her life until two months ago, when her son financed installation of solar panels in her three-roomed house.

Ocholla, a resident of Nyakach village in Karachuonyo, South Nyanza, says she would spend at least Sh1,000 to Sh1,200 on paraffin every month, money she now saves for food.

“I no longer have to use a torch at night when I want to go outside because I have a security light. I have light in my house, day and night. I have also cut on the cost of kerosene. I used to spend Sh20 daily for each of the two small tin lamps, and I am no longer worried about money to buy kerosene,” she says as we visited her home just after sun down.

Ocholla can also charge her mobile phone at the comfort of her house without worrying about a phone-charging fee. She says in a day, the homestead of five people would each spend Sh10 to charge their phone at the neighbour’s home. The reverse is now happening, and the mother of seven earns an income from charging other people’s phones at Sh10 each.

Some homesteads in Ocholla’s village are connected to the national grid, but the system has been seen as unreliable, unlike that of renewable energy.

“The solar system is reliable and more sufficient than the government line, which only lasts three days a week, forcing many to return to kerosene use,”  Ocholla says.

Her last-born daughter, Jacinta Akoth, 25, says the small kerosene tin lamp is a painful reminder of a dark past that she wants to forget.

 

ECONOMIC CHOICE

Akoth is now enjoying clean energy, just like those living in towns, thanks to Solar Now, a clean energy company that has been installing solar panels and lamps to many households in Nyanza region.

Rukia Wakhu, a mother of seven children from Matuugu in Kakamega county, has also embraced solar energy. She said thanks to New Light Africa, trading in Africa as Heya!, her children can study long into the night, unlike when she was using a kerosene lamp.

“Two years ago when I was still using the kerosene lamp, my children could not study for long at night. Sometimes the Sh20 kerosene I bought could not sustain them long in the night, and they ended up going to bed early and in darkness. But thanks to the solar light, they can study beyond 9pm and even wake up early at, say 4am, to study. I have even seen an improvement in some of my children’s school grades,” she says joyfully.

Rukia said the solar product costs between Sh3,000 and Sh7,200, which she bought in instalments of Sh300 a month.

Solar Now business development director Ronald Schuurhuizen said they started making solar panels in 2006 in Uganda, and so far, they have established over 50 branch distribution networks.

He said they operate renewable energy projects across East Africa, with over 50 distribution centres in Uganda alone, and they now want to expand to counties in Nyanza, Western and Rift Valley regions.

“We provide free transportation and installation of the system, a two-year warranty, and five years of maintenance and service to the installation,” he said.

At a cost of Sh200 million, the clean energy company has so far benefited over 18,000 households and created nearly 500 full-time jobs in Uganda. Last year, the company expanded its services to Western Kenya and is planning to set up 25 branches in Kenya by the end of this year.

“We are also looking into expanding to Lodwar, Nakuru and some parts of Nairobi. We are putting up to Sh100 million into this plan to deliver quality solar energy lights and water pumps,” Schuurhuizen said.

Reagan Omondi, the Nyanza regional manager for Solar Now, said that with a first instalment of Sh8,100, Ocholla enjoys a 150-watts solar system with seven lamps, and she can also use television.

“Compared to the annual cost of paraffin of between Sh12,000 to Sh15,000, she is able to pay for the solar panel, which costs about Sh80,000, in monthly instalments of six to 24 months,” Omondi said.

 

HEAVY IMPORT DUTY

However, the cost of solar panels in Kenya is more expensive compared to Uganda due to heavy taxation of up to 50 per cent.

“We are lobbying the government to reduce taxes on solar appliances, which is higher in Kenya than Uganda, so that more people can embrace use of renewable energy,” he said.

Many households in Kenya and other African countries spend close to Sh170 billion on fossil fuel, according to the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund.

“These households spend up to 30 per cent of their disposable income purchasing fuel. The technology is inefficient and expensive and exposes users to health and fire hazards,” AECF Renewable Energy portfolio manager Victor Ndiege said.

He said energy is a binding constraint on growth in many African countries, especially in rural areas, where wood and charcoal make up about 90 per cent of the primary energy supply. This, he said, presents environmental and livelihood challenges, as nearly four million hectares of forest are lost each year, adding tot the degradation of water catchment and soil erosion.

 

INVESTING IN SOLAR POWER 

To address the energy problem, Ndiege added that AECF has supported over 50 private sector companies to reach the market, with various off-grid power products and clean cooking solutions for poor families.

This is through Sh5.3 billion that has been committed by three donors for seven years for renewable energy and adaption to climate technologies project. This in addition to private sector funding that matches the amount they are given by the donors, namely Sweden International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida), Danida and UKAid.

Pauline Mbayah, AECF Director of Strategy and Partnerships, said the fund puts money where no one has bothered to invest.

“We identify companies that do environment-friendly products that are quality and capable of addressing Sustainable Development Goals. These companies must also demonstrate that they can leverage with the same amount of money we provide on interest-free grants,” she said.

Mbayah said conversation is growing on how people are going to access quality reliable energy products off-grid in Nyanza and Western Kenya regions.

“AECF’s focus is to address market failures by plugging the gaps where the government cannot reach, in the case of electricity,” she said.

Ndiege said the AECF has just completed a five-year funding agreement with Sida for renewable energy and adaption to climate technologies in sub-Saharan Africa. The Sh4.8 billion deal will support Africa’s renewable energy sector.

“The programme, which is currently at its inception phase, will support private sector companies to accelerate access to clean energy solutions by rural communities in Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Kenya, Liberia, Mali, Mozambique and Zimbabwe. The funding competition will commence in June 2018,” he said.

Author: By AGATHA NGOTHO @agathangotho

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