"The lack of power supply kept extinguishing my dreams of creating alternative job opportunities for the youths"
By Augustina Armstrong-Ogbonna
LAGOS, Dec 7 - For the first time in his 30 years on Sagbo Kodji Island, near Lagos, Friday Onos has electricity at home, thanks to a solar power project that could transform the lives of the island’s 80,000 inhabitants.
“The lack of power supply to this island kept extinguishing my dreams of creating alternative job opportunities for the youths here,” said Onos, 35.
Most islanders fish for a living, and in the absence of electricity, they smoke the fish and try to sell it quickly – often at a low price. But with enough solar power, they could refrigerate their catch.
Onos’s home is one of the few lucky ones on this neglected island to be equipped with solar power. So far only five out of nearly 7,000 houses in his neighbourhood have benefited.
When the solar project was first mooted, many residents did not believe it would work, following a failed government effort to install solar street lights. After a few months, the light bulbs stopped working, leaving many locals sceptical about the idea.
Onos, however, volunteered to participate in the new project and is now thinking of setting up a cold-room business, offering fresh fish storage.
For now, children find his solar electricity a novelty. “At night, (they) gather around my house and dance for joy, playing until they get tired,” he said. “They had never seen a 24-hour power supply before.”
Sagbo Kodji Island is one of 34 riverine communities in the Amuwo-Odofin area of Lagos in southwest Nigeria. The island, which has been settled for around a century, is bound by Apapa seaport to the south, but has yet to get an electricity supply.
According to local leader Solomon Suenu, the island community was founded by a fisherman from the ancient town of Badagry, who used to rest there during fishing expeditions.
He then brought his family to settle on the island, and was later joined by other traders and people from Lagos.
The fish caught by the islanders is smoked using wood stoves and sold in Lagos. Many Lagos residents are unaware of the islanders who crowd daily onto boats to tout their wares in the city centre, at markets and on street corners.
There is often a dense cloud hanging over Sagbo Kodji Island, due to the wood smoke from homes where women preserve fish or cook for the family.
Until recently, many children on the island believed light came only from small petrol-powered generators, unaffordable to most, or the floodlights of cargo ships sailing by to Apapa wharf.
But several months ago, a handful of homes on the island were equipped with solar power under a pilot project led by Arnergy, a renewable energy technology company founded in 2013 by a young entrepreneur in Lagos.
Its CEO Femi Adeyemo was shocked to learn that a community had existed for a century without electricity. After visiting the island and meeting community leaders, he decided to change that.
The system enables users to pay N100 ($0.50), N200, N300 and N500 per day for a 24-hour electricity supply, with power from the solar panels stored in batteries.
Before the company installs solar panels in a home, it takes an inventory of the gadgets and appliances its residents will use, ensuring the right panel is supplied.
“Sometimes people can be tricky,” Adeyemo said. “After listing the appliances that will be used and installation is finished, they later include others that are not listed.”
The company has technology that detects overloading via a wireless network and switches off power remotely from its office once a customer has used up their pre-paid units.
Arnergy has secured funding from investors including Nigeria's Bank of Industry, which has put up $600,000 to deploy the company’s system to 3,000 households in three states.
But powering the whole of Sagbo Kodji Island would be expensive, at a cost of around $1.2 million per 1,000 households, as the solar panels must be imported, Adeyemo said.
The company has sought backing from U.N. agencies and other international donors.
“Up to now, most promises are yet to be fulfilled,” said Adeyemo. “Many investors find it hard to believe that a community can exist inside Lagos - known as a megacity - without ever having been connected to a source of power.”
But with more financial support, the social and economic life of the island’s residents could develop much faster, he added.
SMOKE AND MIRRORS
Businesses would come alive, children could study at any time of the day, and women would no longer inhale smoke that has damaged their health.
“This solar power project will change the air they breathe,” said Adeyemo.
According to a 2007 World Health Organisation report, indoor air pollution from solid fuel use kills around 80,000 people in Nigeria each year. Over 60 percent of the oil-rich country’s population is not connected to the national grid.
But a N9.2 billion federal government programme to supply clean energy cook stoves to women in rural communities has run into troubled waters.
Hamzat Lawal, director of non-profit group Connected Development (CODE), said women in communities like Sagbo Kodji would benefit from the initiative. But no concrete plan has yet been put in place to produce or procure the stoves, he noted.
Government officials are not answering questions about the future of the project, which is shrouded in secrecy, he said.
The original plan was that the new cookstoves would be fuelled by wood from fallen trees, which would be replaced by LPG once the infrastructure was ready to refill and maintain the cylinders, providing local jobs too.
“We know there are real women in poor communities like Sagbo Kodji who need this source of energy,” said Lawal.
Without an alternative fuel supply, they will cut down trees for firewood, he said. “We lose our forest, the Sahara desert encroaches, and our women continue to inhale smoke.”
Many residents in Sagbo Kodji are hopeful their homes will be fitted with solar panels in the next phase of Arnergy’s project - but that will depend on whether the company gets financial support to expand its activities on the island.
“I will be happy to witness light in every home on this island,” said Madam Felicia Akodji, a 68-year-old woman community leader. “Or are we not part of the Lagos megacity?"
(Reporting by Augustina Armstrong-Ogbonna; editing by Megan Rowling)
This story was sourced through the Voices2Paris UNDP storytelling contest on climate change.
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