Has solar power’s moment in Africa finally arrived?

Ian Derbyshire

May 13th, 2016
Solar Powered Community in Africa

Photo credit: SNV and The Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Zimbabwe

Some rural areas of Zimbabwe are currently in a state of disaster after being hit by a severe drought. But there is hope that a new Practical Action project in the country using solar power to irrigate land could help overcome the problems that climate change is causing.

A couple of hours’ drive from Gwanda in the south west of Zimbabwe, close to the border with Botswana, you come across an extraordinary sight. A bank of solar panels – 400 in total – make for a dazzling spectacle under Mashaba’s blazing midday sun.

They constitute Zimbabwe’s largest off-grid solar farm and are heralding a new era in solar power for some of Africa’s most marginalised communities.

For Winnie Sebata, 67, retired school teacher turned budding entrepreneur, energy access has come at a perfect time. “We really hope this project will change the lives of this community and the lives of people of Zimbabwe. So we are lucky to have been chosen. We are 8km from the border, so hopefully cross-border traffic will open up more business opportunities”.

Electrification has given Mr & Mrs Sebata the chance to diversify their retail business, selling meat from local farmers, opening a hairdressers and providing a range of solar powered products to meet growing local demand.

Practical Action is leading a consortium of public and private partners both to deploy the technology in Mashaba and develop a sound business model to establish viable mini grids. With the majority of up-front investment for the 99kW project being met by the European Union, the four year project to install and bed down the scheme is well under way.

Apart from the Sebata’s business, the other early beneficiaries include the health clinic, the primary school, local smallholder farmers and several energy kiosks. By 2019, the grid will be serving more than 10,000 people in the surrounding area.

Shepherd Masuka, Practical Action’s project technician

Does solar power have the answer to drought in southern Africa?

According to Shepherd Masuka, Practical Action’s project technician (pictured above), the imminent arrival of pre-payment meters to aid the collection of fees will enable users to be charged for their electricity usage, with subsidised rates for the school and the clinic. Reliable revenue will allow for on-going maintenance of the grid with an estimated payback period of between 8-10 years.

The Mashaba scheme is just one of a growing number of such developments. A recent Economist article (Follow The Sun, April 16th 2016), highlighted the growth of solar power across the developing world with growing demand for energy, the falling price of solar panels (80% in the past five years) and technological improvements in generation and storage contributing to that growth.

Lessons are still being learned about improving the policy environment, providing access to finance across the value chain and protecting consumer’s rights. But certainly for Mr and Mrs Sebata, their new business venture looks to have a very bright future indeed.

For more information on Practical Action’s work towards universal access to modern energy services for all, visit us at http://practicalaction.org/energy

3 responses to “Has solar power’s moment in Africa finally arrived?”

  1. Salma Abdulai Says:

    Dear Sir,
    We are pleased to be writing to you from Northern Ghana. We are a social enterprise that support women to process and market Fonio (indigenous nutritious cereal)

    We currently need support in terms of solar dryer to dry the Fonio which accounts for 60% of Fonio processing to enable us reach more market and also do year round processing.
    We hope to discuss this into details with you.
    Thank you

  2. Ian Derbyshire Says:

    Thank you for getting in touch Salma. We’ve posted some information on solar dryers on our Practical Answers site: http://answers.practicalaction.org/ That may provide the information that you need.

  3. Chandi Mutubuki-Makuyana Says:

    Please get in touch in connection with acknowledgements of the first picture in this article.

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