How solar power is lighting up business in rural East Africa

The rural town of Oldonyo-Sambu in Tanzania does not have electric power. But with outside help and a self-run local energy center, that is changing a bit.

Toru Hanai/Reuters/File
The sun is reflected on a solar panel at a solar power field in Kawasaki, near Tokyo in this June 13, 2012 photo illustration.

A version of this post originally appeared on A View From the Cave blog. The views expressed are the author's own. 

It takes only an hour’s drive from the major Tanzanian city of Arusha to arrive in Oldonyo-Sambu. While the distance connecting the small village famous for its giant market and a national hub, electricity has yet to arrive for the villagers.

The Italian conservation organization Oikos helped establish a solar energy program for the village in 2009. Technicians were trained, a building was built next to the market, residents led the business, and sales begun.

With its work done, Oikos stepped aside to allow the established business to run itself.

Now there are 300 customers for the solar panels, including five primary schools, two health centers and one secondary school.

Bringing electricity to the schools provides light for the students and in one case allowed for the introduction of a computer.

“We haven’t used the information age enough to solve our problems,” said Ramadhani Kupaza, director of Oikos East Africa, speaking of [the work in] Tanzania.

Accomplishing that takes electricity. The Community Energy Center sells varying sized solar cells to community members and businesses ranging from 20 to 140 watts. Options also exist for batteries to store the power captured by the cells.

Oikos staff stay in touch with the program, but have nothing to do with it at this point. With the proper set up, available materials, and a technician who can repair broken parts -- the project is now running as its own business.

“I want to buy two more,” said Lumanyaki Simion, a local business owner.

The music from his bar and restaurant blares out the door. The blue writing set against a light orange exterior paint above the entrance reads "Wakulima Bar.”

Before he bought the 140 watt solar cell from the center, the Wakulima Bar was not so loud. Now it is like many other East African bars. The "bartender" stands inside a cage with the television playing local music videos way too loud, and the booze is on shelves.

A small bar counter sits in-front of the cage with one intoxicated customer. The back opens up to a series of tables and a basic kitchen on the side that offers a handful of meal options.

Mr. Simion is a businessman. He bought the solar cells for his bar with cash and went on to buy two smaller ones for his own home, located a few hundred yards behind the bar.

As we arrived, he pointed out the two 20 watt cells on his roof. An LED light was illuminated out the front door, staying on all day long. Controls were located inside the house for charging the batteries.

He turned on his television and lights to show they work. Even through the rainy season the power stays on 24-hours a day. More cells will provide even better power at his home and new batteries will hopefully store more energy.

A boastful air fills his voice as he talks about the energy. As the US, World Bank and others commit to universal access to energy, people like Simion are seeking out other solutions to their power problems and are managing to thrive.

Tom Murphy reported in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project. 

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