Generating power and money

Solar power provides income-generating opportunities in East Africa

John Keane

The introduction of solar power systems to rural communities in East Africa is providing new business opportunities, as well as affordable and safe electricity supplies.

Johari lives in the Iringa region of Tanzania. She used to work as a manual labourer, breaking rocks and selling the stones for building material. But now, after a short training course, Johari is assembling and selling small solar panels that can be used to power radios and recharge batteries for lamps and mobile phones.

Johari is one of several hundred people already trained by SolarAid, a charity set up in 2006 to fight climate change and global poverty. The organization is currently focusing its efforts in Kenya, Malawi and Tanzania, and promotes economic development by encouraging entrepreneurs to set up their own businesses building and selling solar products. The businesses provide new sources of income for the trainees, who can supply solar equipment at affordable prices, giving even the poorest people access to clean, renewable energy.

The market for inexpensive solar power is considerable. Using Tanzania as an example, only 2% of rural communities are served by the main electricity grid, forcing those without to burn kerosene, diesel and candles for light in the evening. All of these sources emit carbon dioxide, cause accidental fires and, in the case of kerosene and diesel, can lead to respiratory disease. Many people also rely on cheap but poor quality disposable batteries for their radios, which they have to replace regularly. The used batteries are rarely disposed of safely, and are often left to decompose on the ground, poisoning the land and posing a danger to livestock and small children.

The good news is that solar power is a viable and realistic energy alternative. In much of Africa there is plenty of free sunlight year-round that can be converted to electricity. There are, however, three significant obstacles preventing greater access to solar power:

  • financial barriers – solar power is traditionally seen as too expensive for the majority of people;
  • access to the market – it is difficult for many solar companies, often based in large towns, to reach customers living in rural areas, and of course for potential customers to contact them;
  • education and awareness – many people do not understand how solar power works, what it can do, or how to choose a system and maintain it. Many systems fail due to poor maintenance, misuse and incorrect sizing, affecting consumer confidence and the reputation of solar power.

SolarAid is tackling the above problems through what it calls microsolar and macrosolar projects.


Microsolar projects provide opportunities for enterprising people to set up businesses selling solar power equipment. These entrepreneurs market low-cost solar systems tailor-made to meet the local demand for affordable electricity. The projects provide business management, technical and marketing training to enable individuals and community groups to establish and operate successful businesses. For instance, part of the income generated by the project participants is reinvested to ensure the long-term continuation of their businesses.

Microsolar projects attempt to overcome financial barriers through the promotion of small solar panels and products that, because of their size, are less expensive than the more usual, larger solar systems. Of course their small size also means that microsolar products only generate small amounts of power (typically less than 2 watts), but even 0.3 watts of power is enough to play a radio all day long for years on end, or to power long-life or energy-efficient LED (light-emitting diode) light bulbs. Rural communities benefit by being able to recharge their mobile phones using a reliable and low-cost energy source. Farmers are then able to communicate with buyers to find the best prices for their produce, giving them increased access to new markets and removing the need to deal with local middlemen.

Microsolar products are also small enough that travelling salesmen can easily transport them to rural areas that are not connected to the grid, and display them in village markets where there is a high demand for solar products. Households that start using microsolar products no longer need to buy as much kerosene or as many batteries, and can use the money for other necessities.


Macrosolar projects are designed to enable institutions in rural areas not connected to the electricity grid, including schools, clinics and community centres, to benefit from electricity-generating solar installations (typically 100–500 watts). All the projects are designed to improve community services and generate an income by including a business component such as a phone recharging service.

In Mumbwa district in Zambia, for example, one solar installation provides lighting for a community centre, which houses a small library and an area where local women’s groups meet in the evening to make clothes. The centre also uses the system to earn money by recharging mobile phone batteries. A vocational training centre in Malawi, meanwhile, is also using its solar system to provide lighting and power for a television. The centre generates extra income by charging community members who want to watch sports events on TV.

While the ways in which each system is used may vary considerably, the themes common to all of these projects are community use and income generation. If a system cannot generate funds, it is likely that it will fall into disrepair. SolarAid works to ensure that every system installed includes a component that can be used to generate an income, and will enable the community to save part of the proceeds and reinvest it in the system.

The larger solar power systems are often too expensive for many individuals or communities to purchase outright, but SolarAid does not provide them for free. Around the world, too many solar projects have failed as a result of poor planning and the lack of local participation, as community members feel they have no vested interest in the system. To avoid this, SolarAid provides users with details of how much the components cost, how long they are likely to last and, based on this, works out the minimum income targets that the community needs to meet per month and per year.


SolarAid’s projects give low-income rural communities access to an electricity supply that serves local needs and can generate an income by selling solar-powered services. To apply for a system, community members first need to put together a sound business plan detailing the benefits for end users, how the system will be used to generate an income, and how it will be managed. They have to commit themselves both financially and physically, meaning that they also have to contribute through some form of work, such as helping to install the system or teaching other community members about solar power. End users also have to attend training courses prior to installation. This helps to ensure that the users know how to operate the system correctly and how to monitor it and carry out repairs should part of it fail.

SolarAid is currently carrying out research into using solar systems to power water pumps in Malawi that can be used to irrigate farmland. Irrigation has been shown elsewhere to dramatically increase, crop yield which in turn can lead to increased incomes for the farmers. They are also developing a pilot project in Tanzania with NoPc, an organization working to bring the internet to schools in rural areas.

SolarAid sees its microsolar and macrosolar projects as just the beginning of its work in Africa and elsewhere. Countries with high levels of solar insolation (sunshine year-round can certainly look to solar power not only as an off-grid solution, but also as power source that can contribute towards the expansion of the main electricity grid.

Ultimately, SolarAid wants to help governments understand the benefits of solar energy so that they are more likely to adopt solar solutions in the future rather than relying on carbon-emitting fossil fuels.

John Keane is head of programmes at SolarAid.

08 December 2008

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