Solar Academy Helps Pico, Home Solar Take Root in Malawi

A home and rural solar PVenergy storage boom is under way in sub-Saharan Africa, providing residents and businesses access to affordable, efficient, emissions-free electricity. Leveraging cost declines, performance improvements and popular mobile electronic payments services, national and multilateral development agencies are teaming up with African renewable energy entrepreneurs to pave the way for African nations to leapfrog a generation of power and energy, as well as telecoms, technology.

Equally impressive, the advent of off-grid, mobile “pay as you go” solar energy products and services is enabling cash-poor Africans to start local businesses and improve life and living conditions in their communities. Originating in Kenya, this wave of grass roots-driven sustainable socioeconomic development is expanding across sub-Saharan Africa.

Mojo Velo, a team of young “mobile journalists” from South Africa, recently uploaded a short film about an educational organization in Malawi that’s training local men to become solar PV installers and women to become local distributors of solar energy products and services. The short documentary is the latest a series they’ve produced as they bicycle from Cape Town to Nairobi, chronicling inspirational stories of Africans doing good for themselves, their communities and the environment.

Solar Leapfrog

“The Africa Progress Panel estimates that it would take until 2080 to connect all African’s to a centralized grid electricity system,” Mojo Velo’s Steven Bland highlighted in a Nov. 28 blog post. “In the absence of grid electricity, small-scale off-grid solar is seeing huge growth all over Africa. It is estimated 600,000 households are already connected.”

Less than 10 percent of Malawi’s population (some 19 million according to the latest National Statistics Office census) have access to grid electricity, Mojo Velo highlights. Malawi has one hydroelectric power plant and the wait for grid connections is very long. “If you look at the communities, there’s no electricity,” Gilbert Kuanda, Zayed Solar Academy director, noted.

Malawian engineers conducting solar energy training courses at Zayed are keen to provide young students the knowledge and skills to install home solar PV systems and produce electricity in a way that’s environmentally friendly and benefits local residents directly and immediately. Led by Kuanda, Zayed is also lobbying to have solar energy added to Malawi’s national educational curriculum.

“There’s a palpable sense of hope and excitement here at the Zayed Solar Academy, spearheaded by a group of young Malawian engineers who are committed to making solar the dominant source of power for all Malawians,” Mojo Velo’s Russell Galt related.

Empowering Women

A local women’s group was in the midst of testing a variety of home solar PV products — lanterns, panels, batteries, LED lights, etc. — with an eye to becoming distributors when they return to their villages when Mojo Velo visited.

“Our main aim is to empower them, because women are mostly vulnerable here in Malawi. That’s why Zayed thinks most about empowering women, so that they will be able to stand on their own,” explained program coordinator Grace Nyirenda.

“Before my bedroom was in total darkness, but now I have light and I am very happy. I don’t want this to finish,” said Alessa Chirwa, one of the women participating in the program.

Small-scale pico and home solar PV products and services are bringing rural African households into the ‘money’ economy. They can own an asset, start or expand a business and open mobile money accounts, etc. That’s the starting point for participating in a financial system that brings all kinds of benefits for residents.

USAID is the lead agency for President Barack Obama’s multilateral Power Africa Program, the twin goals of which are to install 30,000 MW of new clean power generation capacity and 60 million new electricity connections across Africa. The agency estimates that as many as 120,000 new off-grid solar electric connections will be made as a result of the latest $4 million round of grant awards from Scaling Off-Grid Energy Grand Challenge Enterprise.

Building a Solar Workforce in Africa

According to a USAID statement, the Power Africa Initiative invests American capital in infrastructure projects that are sure to provide strong returns, creating jobs in both Africa and the United States. Since many U.S. businesses are selling products and services in the African market for the first time, Power Africa plays a key role in providing market intelligence and opens relationships with regulators, African government officials, and African customers.

In Malawi, Zayed’s solar instructors aim to give locals the knowledge, tools and opportunity to remove candles and paraffin (kerosene) lamps from all Malawian households and replace them with pico solar energy systems and household products.

“Students shouldn’t have to struggle with reading using a paraffin lamp; it’s not healthy…They should be able to charge up their cell phones. They should be able to use [solar energy] for lighting in their houses at night, and you know, they’re enjoying it…That’s my target: to spread the dissemination of renewable energy technologies.” Zayed solar instructor Amos Banda stated.

Lead image credit: Solar Academy

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Andrew reports on renewable energy, clean technology and other issues and topics from posts abroad and here in the US.

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