Solar energy is the solution to electrify developing countries, particularly remote rural areas. Let’s invest in solar energy and train electricians; villages will rapidly have permanent and sustainable lighting.
For decades, the populations of remote rural areas have been the biggest losers in electrification programs in most developing countries. In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 10% of the population living in rural areas benefits from access to electricity. The electrification of these areas is a major challenge, as this population accounts for 80% of the inhabitants of the countries in question. If we invest in solar power and train electricians, villages will rapidly have permanent lighting.
If we recognize that access to electricity is a prerequisite for development, we must then determine which electrification model is best suited to provide an effective response to the context of rural areas, the type of needs to be covered in terms of development, and the conditions for the success of the actions to be implemented.
Select the electrification model depending on the local context
The major power grids provide an appropriate response to urban and semi-urban contexts. However, they will never be able to provide a response to the context of extremely dispersed housing, which is characteristic of a number of rural regions in Africa. For these areas, centralized production models, which generally use expensive and polluting energy, are not a relevant solution, both from a technological and economic perspective. It is a dead-end, powerless to supply the myriad of villages that are all distant from one another and do not have the resources that would make heavy infrastructure profitable. Neither Mali nor Benin waited for telephone booths before the widespread use of mobile phones. Consequently, in terms of electrification, why should they wait for the deployment of outdated and inappropriate solutions? Available everywhere, through its flexibility and the lightweight equipment that needs to be installed, solar power is today the only energy able to rapidly and efficiently supply electricity to the billion inhabitants living scattered in vast territories which will for a long time remain left out by the main power grids.
Focus on solar power
If we go back to the first years of the development of photovoltaics, it should be recalled that this technology was above all perceived as an energy for rich countries. But today, the improvement in performance and spectacular fall in production costs mean that photovoltaic solar energy is now competitive with all other types of energy. For example, in the municipalities of Yéréré, Sandaré and Diéma, located in the Kayes region in Mali, the cost per solar kWh to provide a supply pour pumping is estimated at FCFA 165, against FCFA 1,000 for the thermal kWh (generators). Furthermore, solar power remains our best weapon against climate change, through its lower environmental impact.
Community approach to provide a real response to development needs
Electrifying a territory or village is not just a matter of distributing solar lamps or individual kits to the least poor families. This position, which is not without commercial ulterior motives, is a false good solution. It does not provide a response to the Sustainable Development Goals. It does not satisfy basic collective needs, which allow lighting in a school, the electrification of a health care center or maternity clinic, or a social life to return when lighting is installed on the village square. It also does not provide access to high quality water, which it is now necessary to draw in increasingly deep groundwater. Simply distributing solar lamps does not provide access to tools of knowledge, or access to means of communication, without which millions of villages will remain cut off from the rest of the world.
I will never forget the face of an old man standing over a photocopier, who showed me, full of pride: “These are invitations, my son is getting married at the next new moon”. It was in Boukargou, a small village in the middle of the savannah, and in the evening dozens of us watched the final of the Africa Cup of Nations on TV. That night, dozen of us were thinking that thanks to a few solar panels, the end of isolation permanently paved the way for development.
In our view, electrifying a village means setting up a facility for community production, a solar farm which meets shared, complementary, collective and individual needs, and covers basic uses (education, health, access to water, social life), commercial uses, and domestic uses. The objective is to initiate a development model for activities based on access to modern energy services.
The backbone of this model is an operator to maintain the facilities, provide the expected services, and able to meet both the present and future needs of communities. There is no electricity without an electrician.
Training for sustainable electrification
The essential prerequisite for the sustainable success of all electrification projects is training, because where there is no electricity, there are no electricians. Consequently, there can be no sustainable projects without a skills transfer and knowledge sharing.
This is the condition that allows local actors to take ownership of projects, control their implementation, and ensure that there is a rational use of the equipment. This is also the only way to create and support operators who will be responsible for running the facilities, developing them, duplicating them, and offering new services.
Learn from experience
Electricians Without borders, along with other NGOs, has for years been demonstrating tried-and-tested local solutions, based on the use of renewable energies, first and foremost solar power.
However, technology is not sufficient. The lessons learned during hundreds of projects conducted for some thirty years now show some of the key factors for success in providing a sustainable response to the energy needs of isolated and poor communities:
- Taking the local context into account, and a shared analysis, with the actors in the field, of the resources and priority needs;
- Communities taking ownership of the project’s objectives, their involvement in its implementation and learning how to operate the facilities through appropriate support;
- Training a local operator for the maintenance of the equipment (see above);
- Setting up a legitimate and competent management committee to ensure that the facilities are used properly and that consumption is controlled, and to handle the collection and management of the resources to cover the servicing and maintenance costs.
For sustainable projects
The prerequisite for ensuring that a project has long-term impacts is to take into account, right from its design phase, the conditions necessary for ensuring it is sustainable. The robustness of the solutions chosen, the quality and durability of the equipment, and transfer of skills must contribute to this. But it is essential to anticipate the costs that will be incurred by the inevitable renewal of components (batteries, for example) after a few years of operation. For projects to cover basic services (electrification of a school or health care center), it is necessary to plan and implement arrangements that will allow communities, which are often very poor, to deal with this. Where relevant, it is almost always necessary to set up additional income-generating activities. When this is not the case, the maintenance costs will be provisioned and included in the project budget.
The end of the road?
Electricity is now recognized as being an essential driver for the development of the poorest communities. This obvious fact is now set out in the agendas of international institutions and is only waiting for sufficient resources to be mobilized to meet the challenges and needs. For rural communities not to be left by the wayside, there is a need to implement solutions tailored to their contexts, solutions that make full use of a tried-and-tested technology: solar power. The fact that its cost is now affordable, that it is easy to implement and has a capacity to meet a broad scale of needs makes it an instrument for large-scale electrification for developing countries.
The opinions expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official position of their institutions or of AFD.