Solar-powered phones recharge Kenya's conversations

An inexpensive solar cell phone made of recycled materials opens new opportunities for people in rural Kenya.

David Njagi/AlertNet
Chief Mohammed Abdi use his newly acquired solar phone to communicate with a villager in northern Kenya. Solar-powered phones fill a need in areas of Kenya off the conventional electrical grid.

The upcoming Rio+20 conference on sustainable development will try to identify solutions to worsening resource scarcity and climate change, but Habiba Rage may already be holding one in the palm of her hand.

The 38-year-old from Alago Alba in Kenya’s North Eastern Region has overcome her village’s lack of connection to the electricity grid with a cell phone that uses solar energy to recharge.

“Our village does not have electricity,” says the mother of four. “It is very difficult to own a mobile phone because of the energy it needs to keep working.”

IN PICTURES: Kenya on the run

Habiba needs a phone for her livelihood as a trader including to keep track of stock arriving from Isiolo, the nearest urban center. Attacks by bandits along the 110 km (70 mile) route are not uncommon.

Like many others in this marginalized region, she has long found it hard to stay charged up and in touch.

But communications are now getting faster and more reliable, thanks to Rage’s phone, which takes advantage of the scorching sun.

The phone was invented by telecommunications company Safaricom (owned by the UK’s Vodafone) and Kenya’s Mobitelea Ventures.

It is fitted with a charger that absorbs and stores energy directly from the sun. Users do not need a mains connection to charge their phones, nor do they have to travel long distances to the nearest shopping center to pay for the same service.

The gadget is not only relatively affordable but environmentally friendly since it is manufactured from recycled electronic waste, officials say.

“It is a brilliant innovation,” said Michael Odera, director of the climate change office in Kenya’s Ministry of Environment and Mineral Resources. “It meets environmental goals and also deals with problems linked to increasing power outages in the country.”

According to Odera, the phone is particularly useful among rural communities where there is no mains electricity, but it also serves the needs of the urban poor who are faced with electricity rationing. The phone’s price tag of 1,500 Kenyan shillings ($18) is about half the cost of the cheapest conventional cell phones.

It is an innovation that may help to make poor Kenyans like Habiba less marginalized, according to a recent report by Christian Aid.

The international agency estimates that only 5 percent of Kenya’s rural areas and 51 percent of the urban population have access to electricity.

The Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen) estimates that current capacity is 1,300 MW, greater than the total demand of 1,100 MW. But industrial growth means that demand threatens to outstrip supply, according to the Kenya Association of Manufacturers.

Meanwhile, many Kenyans cannot afford electricity because the cost of getting a mains connection can be as high as $600. 

The Kenyan government is paying increasing attention to the potential of solar power as a renewable energy resource as it seeks to meet its population’s energy needs in an environmentally friendly and sustainable way.

 “Kenya can satisfy this need [for more power] through investment in renewable energy,” said the newly appointed Minister for Environment and Natural Resources, Chirau Mwakwere, during a press in briefing in Nairobi.

The government also is trying to boost generation of hydroelectric power. But this will increase pressure on already strained water resources, and 80 percent of Kenya consists of arid and semi-arid land. This problem makes solar power an increasingly attractive proposition.

The African Energy Policy Research Network, a local non-governmental organization, says Kenya receives an estimated four-to-six kilowatt hours of solar radiation per square meter, the energy equivalent of about 300 million tons of oil per day.

• David Njagi is an environmental writer based in Nairobi.

This article originally appeared at AlertNet, the Thomson Reuters Foundation humanitarian news service.

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