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Solar kits bring clean light to Kenya's poor

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Isaiah Esipisu/Thomson Reuters Foundation

(Read caption) Timothy Nyongesa compares the light from a kerosene tin lamp with that from an IndiGo solar lamp, hanging in his home. Kenyans can buy the IndiGo solar kits for about $120 paid over 80 installements. Then they no longer need to buy kerosene, which produces harmful fumes when burned inside homes.

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At Sibanga market, 10 kilometers (6 miles) outside the town of Kitale in western Kenya, Timothy Nyongesa walks into the Mibawa Suppliers shop to collect a gadget that he hopes will brighten his children’s studies and his family’s health.

In exchange for an initial payment of 1,000 Kenyan shillings (about $12), Mr. Nyongesa walks out with a kit that will generate solar energy at his home. He jumps on his bicycle and snakes along a footpath to his village of Sinyerere, 6 kilometers farther into the countryside.

Nyongesa’s family is one of more than 3,000 in the Kitale area who since 2011 have switched to solar power instead of using kerosene lamps to light their homes.

“I cannot have my children study using a kerosene tin-lamp when those in the neighborhood are using electricity from the sun,” he says.

The solar kits, which aim to scale up access to solar power for Kenya’s poor, are marketed using an installment plan that puts the 10,000-shilling (about $120) pack within reach of people with modest incomes. After an initial deposit of 1,000 shillings, the user makes weekly payments of 120 shillings ($1.40) for 80 weeks before fully owning the system.

Scratch cards with codes enable purchasers to make their payments securely from home via SMS – using their mobile phone, which also can be kept charged with the solar kit.

The innovative effort, by Azuri Technologies, a British-based company that developed and manufactures the IndiGo solar kits, was recently named a winner of the 2013 Ashden Awards, considered the world’s leading green energy prize. The awards recognize innovations that promote sustainable energy to reduce poverty and tackle climate change.

“It has been tremendous to see the appetite for IndiGo,”says Simon Bransfield-Garth, chief executive officer of Azuri Technologies. “At the same time, we are acutely aware of the scale of problem we are attempting to tackle, and so all our effort is on growing to reach as many customers as possible.”

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In a statement at the launch of a new report on markets for renewable energy, Achim Steiner, executive director of the UN Environment Programme, said that uptake of renewable energies was continuing to increase globally as countries, companies, and communities saw the opportunities to capitalize on low-carbon economies and the potential for future energy security and sustainable livelihoods.  

Nyongesa’s interest in solar power, however, has as much to do with his children’s health as anything else.

Health experts say kerosene lamps produce fumes that are hazardous to breathe, and Nyongesa says some of his children complain about eye irritation, which he associates with prolonged use of the lamps.

Nyongesa, who has three wives, is coy about exactly how many children he has (“Let’s put it at 15”), but says that 11 of them go to school and use lamps at home for at least two hours a day to study.

Kerosene lamps are also bad for the environment. The British Air Transport Association calculates that each ton of kerosene burned produces 3.15 tons of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that is largely responsible for atmospheric warming, which contributes to climate change.

Nevertheless, a recent study by the US National Institutes of Health estimated that 500 million households globally still rely on kerosene or other liquid fuels for lighting and consume 7.6 billion liters annually.

The new solar-lighting system is the second Nyongesa has bought for his family in three months. He gave the first to his first wife to provide light for studying and other domestic needs.

The IndiGo kit consists of a 3-watt solar panel, a battery, two LED lamps, a phone charging unit, and connection cables.

The device is designed to serve needs of the poor, particularly in Africa. Apart from Kenya, it is also marketed in Malawi, South Sudan, and Zambia.

So far, the Mibawa Suppliers shop in Kitale is the only place in Kenya where the IndiGo kits are sold, says Edward Namasaka, who is the sole supplier in the country.

However, Mr. Namasaka says he has already identified five more traders in other towns in western Kenya and intends to begin supplying the gadgets to them soon.

Although raising the weekly payment may be a challenge for many people who survive on less than 100 shillings ($1.15) a day, many people prefer it to the high cost of purchasing kerosene and charging mobile phones, Namasaka says. The biggest incentive is that once the payments are done, the customer owns the IndiGo kit and can continue to access power without cost.

There are measures in place in case a user defaults on a payment. The battery-charging system contains a microchip that links it to a central server: If a weekly payment is missed, the system can be automatically disabled.

But Namasaka tries to be lenient, giving those who cannot service their loans a window period of up to one month to pay the belated installment.

Emmanual Siboe, one IndiGo user, called the system “a revolution.”

Apart from previously paying nearly 100 shillings a week for kerosene for lighting, he explained, “every time I needed to charge my phone, I had to walk all the way to the shopping center, and pay 20 shillings for the service.”

Mr. Siboe reckons that the cost of charging his phone, along with those of his wife and daughter, used to be 180 shillings ($2.25) a week.

“But with this gadget that harvests energy from the sun, I now charge it free of charge,” he says.

• Isaiah Esipisu is a freelance journalist with a focus on agriculture and environment. He can be reached at esipisus@yahoo.com.

This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

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