Off-grid solar lights up Kiwa Island

by Esther Kahinga | Kenya Climate Innovation Center
Tuesday, 26 May 2015 10:51 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Micro-grid solar system lights up George Otieno's pub in Kenya - and more

George Otieno is 26 years old and lives on Kiwa Island, where he runs a pub. His business has been in existence for the last one and a half years, but it is not until March 2015 that he got a reliable source of power to run his business long after dusk. Since then, his fortunes have changed.

Kiwa is an island on Lake Victoria, about 800 meters off the shores of the lake, in Homabay County, Kenya. Kiwa Island is not connected to the national grid, meaning the residents mostly rely on kerosene lamps for lighting. Across the island, the town of Nandhiwa has power, but the logistics of getting the national grid to Kiwa means the island is not likely to get power in the near future.

The problem of non-electrification in Kenya is already big enough, even without considering hard-to-reach areas like Kiwa. According to the World Energy Outlook 2014, Kenya’s electrification rate stands at 20 percent and 35 million people do not have access to electricity. Only 7 percent of the people in rural areas are connected to the national grid. 93 percent of the rural population relies on kerosene for lighting. Kerosene lamps are a big contributor to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

Otieno started his business in January 2014 and bought an 80 watt solar panel and a battery to power a music system and light up his business. Being an entertainment place, most of his customers come in the evening to relax after working. The solar panel was not mounted on the roof and Otieno would keep it under the sun during the day.

On a good day when the battery was fully charged, his business would remain open up to 10pm. On a rainy day, Otieno would not take his solar panel out to charge and would rely on the kerosene lamp to light his premises during the night, which was unreliable and sometimes cost him business.

In July 2014, PowerGen Renewable Energy identified Kiwa Island as one of the places that needed a micro-grid and did a pre-survey where 14 people expressed interest in having their homes powered. After talking to the chief and other local leaders, the PowerGen team did a detailed survey in February 2015 and the installation of the solar micro-grid took place in March this year.

Otieno, offered to have the 1.5kW micro-grid installed on his land. The micro-grid enables him to enjoy power just like other people connected to the national grid. In fact, immediately after his premises was connected, he bought a television set to entertain his customers, most of whom come to watch news and football matches. His business has also improved and these days, the place remains open up to 1 am or when the last customer leaves.

He says, "Since PowerGen came, my business has changed a lot. I now have more customers and am able to keep the place open for long hours. Previously, when the solar light went out of power, I would just close.  With PowerGen, when I realise am running out of energy credits, and I still have customers, I just purchase more, and they can stay there as long as they want."

According to Otieno,  some users in the island are complaining that the energy credits run out fast, but they are happy to enjoy electricity  - the bright and clean light - and their children can now study for longer without straining their eyes, or inhaling smoke from kerosene lamps that cause respiratory illness.

Otieno, is just one of the 13 people that are enjoying the benefits of the microgrid in Kiwa Island. Demand for power is growing and PowerGen is monitoring the usage to determine how many more people can be connected on the existing microgrid without incurring more cost.

PowerGen Renewable Energy installs wind and solar micro-grids in Kenya and Tanzania. So far they have installed 22 grids in Kenya and one in Tanzania. The microgrid has a meter that is monitored remotely and users pre-pay for the electricity by buying energy credits.

When their units are almost running out, the users get a notification message on their phones and they are able to buy more units (energy credits) via mobile money transfer. The energy credits can be bought from as low as 20 U.S. cents. The Kiwa Island microgrid was put up with financial support from the Kenya Climate Innovation Center. 

Esther Kahinga is a communications and knowledge management officer at the Kenya Climate Innovation Center.