The Future is Bright for Africa’s Solar Startups

The Future is Bright for Africa’s Solar Startups

January 4, 2017


This article was updated on January 5, 2017 to include findings on how emerging economies are playing a role in driving solar energy prices down.

On a continent where seven in ten people lack access to power, the search for reliable energy sources is a pressing mission. In Africa, those who can afford electricity pay about 66 times more as those in the United Kingdom, and yet solid biomasses like charcoal and fuel wood are by far the most used source of energy in sub-Saharan Africa.

Rising electricity costs have led to intermittent blackouts and the use of solid fuels contributes to a significant number of deaths per year through pollution and fire. A lack of electricity means more than a lack of light. It means food cannot be dependably refrigerated, that families must breathe in harmful fumes like those from kerosene lamps, and countries’ GDPs are at a disadvantage for growth. 

In response to this crisis, Africa is in the midst of what has been termed a “solar revolution.” Solar power companies are able to reach off-grid areas in rural villages and in many cases are cheaper than a connection to the national grid. The solar revolution has inspired a host of companies to begin offering different solar power options based on the needs of specific communities.

Mobile solar technology makes electricity accessible in the most remote places, but the threat of theft or damage must also be taken into account.

The Solar Turtle developed by Ugesi Gold, a South African-based renewable energy business, is one of the most mobile solar options. The company conceived the Solar Turtle in early 2016 to provide electricity to an off-grid primary school in Palm Ridge, Gauteng.  The Solar Turtle is a set of solar panels carried on a truck within a shipping container, providing the panels security from theft at night when they can tuck back into the container. One of the objectives of Ugesi Gold is the empowerment of women, and the container also has space for a women-owned kiosk that gives students the opportunity to charge their cell phones and mobile devices and sells battery packs that allow students to bring power home with them.

Africa GreenTec, a German company, promotes a similar sustainable solar model in Mali. Its solar container can be easily set up and dismantled in case of storms. GreenTec currently operates four sites in Mali and is funding its fifth. 

Oolu Solar, a West African-based company, markets itself to individual households. With an in-home solar system of three lights and two USB plugs powered by a battery with a six-hour charge, Oolu provides households with electricity for a monthly cost that is much lower compared to the national grid service. This distribution model is particularly useful in that customers can pay their subscription fee through their mobile phones.

Like Oolu, M-KOPA Solar is a Kenyan company whose solar-powered products are geared toward households. The rent-to-own home system comprises a digital TV, rechargeable radio, a USB port, a flashlight, and a solar panel, and a control unit. The subscribers start with a 35-dollar deposit and then 365 daily payments of $0.43 through a mobile money system, at which point the subscriber owns the entire system.

In a very different approach to solar power, Morocco launched the first phase of what will become the largest solar power facility in the world. The Noor plant already covers thousands of acres of the Sahara Desert and generates up to 160 megawatts of power. Morocco currently uses imported sources for 97 percent of its energy. When it is completed, the Noor facility will provide more than a million Moroccans with renewable energy, greatly decreasing Morocco’s reliance on energy imports.

Africa may eventually lead the world in renewable energy; as it is, the continent is currently progressing from only intermittent electricity to green energy sources, while the rest of the world has long relied on fossil fuels to generate power. Solar energy still accounts for less than 1 percent of Africa’s generated power, but its ability to access off-grid communities makes it one of the most attractive options moving forward.

Emerging Markets: Trailblazing the Solar Revolution

Energy experts have long predicted an inevitable shift from fossil fuels to clean energy. The shift is happening faster than anyone thought it would, particularly in the solar energy sector. Solar power has become one of the most affordable energy sources. As noted in a recent article, an unexpected market is leading the way in the shift to solar: emerging economies. Why? Providing electricity via solar, for example, doesn’t always require expensive, centralized infrastructure. A solar panel on the roof can provide enough electricity for the basics. 

Countries located on or near the equator get the most sun. They're where three-quarters of the world's population lives and where electricity is most lacking. The International Energy Agency estimated that 1.2 billion people did not have access to electricity in 2016. With access to solar energy, how quickly will that figure drop? It's already down 15 million from 2015. Additionally, in 2015, countries in emerging economies invested a collective $154.1 billion in renewable energy, while the 35 member nations of the OECD invested $153.7 billion. Given the difference in GDP between these groups, the proximity of how much they invested in renewables is striking, and says a lot about what's to come. 

[Image credit: Pixabay]

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