Working towards solar energy in Tanzanian villages

Working towards solar energy in Tanzanian villages

Africa’s population is exploding. It is estimated that in the next 35 years the number of people on the continent will double. Yet when you roam the Tanzanian countryside, you find yourself in vast emptiness. Endless grasslands with herds of zebra, an occasional Masai leaning on his stick, one foot crossed over the other. Rolling hills dotted with villages where not much is happening outside the harvest season and youth hanging around without much to do.

At night time these tiny villages glow in the darkness: kerosene lamps, charcoal stoves, an occasional flashlight (but batteries are expensive) and mobile phone screens lighting up. Moon and stars provide some additional light, how romantic. And how frustrating when you live there and find your mobile phone empty once again, knowing the nearest possibility to charge it is an hour’s walk away.

You might wonder, why don’t these people use solar? The answer is simple. There are hardly any shops selling solar products. And even if solar came their way, how could they distinguish between good quality and junk? Besides, solar is quite an investment for a small farmer. In other words, the solar market is failing them.

Igniting a failing market
So, how can you ignite a failing market? Actually, this is what SNV has been doing for some years now. First of all you must be well rooted in the country. Know your way around; the businesses, the government officials, the way people think. Is there any demand for solar? Well, the answer is simple; 35% want it, but only 3% have it. The difficulty is on the supply side. Solar is easily sold in densely populated cities. But out in the country, distances are vast and qualified personnel absent.

Any NGO can load a truck with solar panels and give them away for free. For sure people will appreciate and might use them wisely. But your donation reservoir will empty soon. By the time all is gone, this handing out will come to an abrupt standstill. “When we make markets, we remove thresholds, striving to be disposable as soon as possible. We call it our ‘hands off’ approach,” says Martijn Veen - SNV Energy Sector Leader Tanzania. “We want to catalyze a market that continues and multiplies after we have left.”

A few years ago, funded by a grant from DFID channelled through the GIZ-managed Energising Development (EnDev) programme, SNV reached out to solar companies in Tanzania and offered them a temporary incentive if they would start selling in rural areas. This incentive covered roughly one third of their investments. After three months three companies had already expanded their business. By now it is eight. They have covered the last rural mile. In fact, the challenge to let your solar panels survive these bumpy rides to the remote villages is far greater than the term last mile suggests. But these companies took the step and have turned into professional solar companies.

The incentive is limited to solar systems that meet the quality approval standards of Lighting Global (the World Bank Group’s platform supporting off-grid lighting). For larger solar systems that need to be installed, pay-as-you-go schemes have been developed. Customers pay no more than they regularly do for kerosene, charcoal and mobile charging. Payment is done by mobile banking thus overcoming distance. If they lag behind, their system is switched off by the solar company. Sometimes it takes some family members to transfer money on their behalf. After payment customers receive a code to switch their solar power on again.


Rural youth to do the job
But who sells and installs these small solar systems? Here came SNV’s double edged sword. We not only encourage solar companies to reach the rural areas, but also bring in rural youth to do the job. Thanks to funding from the MasterCard Foundation and the Swiss Agency for Development Cooperation, we can train rural youth lacking formal education and match them with the companies.

At first companies were hesitant to hire these rural youth, who at best have a few years of primary school. But we convinced them to test the water. We taught these youths basic skills such as how to keep appointments and make simple calculations, plus basic solar installation techniques. Not that all went smoothly. In the beginning dropout rates were high, some youths just gave up. So now we first screen them on their motivation. “I love it when they get really ambitious and their small dreams about having a bit of cash turn into bigger dreams about doing business. They themselves have to grab the career opportunity we provide. We just give a little push,” says Kai Maembe, a youth skills development advisor.

More panels, less emission
The results of our market approach: rural houses with solar panels on their roofs. In Tanzania alone over 100,000 people enjoy solar energy via SNV-supported interventions, saving a total of 30,000 tons of CO2 emissions since we started. Next to that, in our youth employment programmes in Tanzania over 12,000 youth have been trained; 3,000 of them still employed after three years. Making a living in the village might reduce their urge to seek a better life in the city.

So, go to the villages one more time and inhale your last bit of battery fumes, coughing charcoal chimneys and kerosene lamps. Hopefully, this will all be history soon.

This is an extract from our annual publication, SNV Connect 2016. Read the full magazine to find out how our work in Agriculture, Energy and Water, Sanitation & Hygiene is improving the lives of millions of people around the world!