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Developing Solar Power in Kenya
by Jennifer Glass
October 19, 2000

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Kenya used to be known as the jewel of East Africa. Tourists used to flock there for safaris and beach holidays, and the country was considered one of Africa's few economic success stories. But a lingering drought has left Kenya parched, and its devastated the economy. Once a food exporter, the country now faces the prospect of a famine. The drought has also strained Kenya's limited power supplies. The country depends on hydro for nearly all its electricity, but water levels are way down. The government's response is power rationing, which leaves many Kenyans without electricity for long stretches of each day. In our ongoing series on renewable energy, The World's Jennifer Glass reports on how solar energy is starting to fill the void.

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  At a shop in downtown Nairobi, business is booming for salesman Enos Otieno. He sells solar energy systems. Frequent power cuts in the capital have meant more customers for him.

Otieno: At the moment, you find that even in Nairobi town, even in the city center in the suburbs, since we have got power failures and all this, some customers would prefer to go for a solar model because it is independent, there are no failures. Every day we get sun.

Kenya is the ideal place for solar energy -- it's sunny most of the year. Mark Hankins runs Energy Alternatives -- a business that helps individuals and businesses design and finance solar energy systems.

Hankins: On a per capita basis, Kenya uses solar electricity more than any other country.
Glass: Why is that?
Hankins: Very simply put, Kenyans want to get TVs. Rural Kenyan people want TVs and the Chinese Great Wall, black-and-white TV came available, 40-50 dollars per TV. There's a pretty wide broadcasting network in Kenya, so people want a TV they buy a battery to power the TV black and white, and once they get tired of hauling the battery back and forth for charging, they buy a solar panel.

While Kenya leads Africa in the use of solar panels, still only a fraction of the population has them -- less than 10 percent. But the number of users contrinually gets bigger says Bernard Osawa, Energy Alternative's project engineer.

Osawa: It's steadily growing at probably between 5 and 10 percent per year over the last 10 years. We're positive it will continue in light of the power crisis we are having. More and more people are getting into battery backups and thinking about going solar given that by the time they have their battery backup they have 60-70 percent of the system.

To generate power, what's needed is a solar paned to collect energy, a battery to store it in, and a regulator that shows how much energy is left in the battery.

(Sound of an electronics workshop)

Many of the components can be made locally.. that's what's being done at this workshop in Nairobi. Robert Bresson is the marketing director for Rodson electronics where about a third of the components they build are for solar systems. That says Bresson, has kept the cost of systems down.

Bresson: Previously solar was an expense for the rich. People never considered that I can have solar panel, but with changing of technology, solar panels have become cheaper, batteries have become cheaper, everyone now is aware, it takes time, but it's happening.

While many African countries have just as much sun as Kenya and solar energy would solve their power problems -- most simply don't have the middle class that Kenya does have -- that's why solar is doing well here. A small system to run a black and white TV and a few lights costs about $500.

Leakey: (flipping light switch) This is solar.

At his home on an escarpment on the edge of the vast Rift Valley, Dr. Richard Leakey, the famed paleontologist ,uses solar and wind power to generate electricity. In his capacity as head of the civil service, he's trying to encourage Kenyans to use solar power.

Leakey: Over next year we will be looking at ways we can bring installation prices down or give tax breaks. There are many countries in the world now where if you collect electricity and you feed through into the grid, you can get a credit on your utility charges and there's no reason here why many of the flat rooves in the city shouldn't put up solar panels and shouldn't put that into the grid.

For years the Kenyan government had promised to connect everyone who wanted electricity to the power grid. But at a price of about 10 thousand dollars a mile, it's simply not cost effective for power companies. For many here, solar or wind power are their only alternatives. Even those connected to the grid this year have received a rude awakening. A three-year long drought means many rivers are low, and hydroelectric power plants aren't generating the electricity they once were. Power rationing has been in effect for months. And that's meant more people are looking at solar. Like Dunstan Makesa who's wavering about buying a solar system.

Makesa: It is a bit expensive to me according to my income.

But he knows the advantages, too. Having electricty means he can watch sports at home instead of going to a local bar, that his children will be able to study at night -- do their homework in a well-lit room. Like an increasing number of Kenyans, he's beginning to think solar power is a good investment.

For The World, I'm Jennifer Glass.


copyright Exploratorium 2001