SIDA, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, is halfway through a 5-year commitment to bringing off-grid solar power to Zambia, one of the many countries that make up sub-Saharan Africa, where 70% of the people have no access to a functioning electrical grid. Those that do are often bedeviled with frequent interruptions of service and high utility bills. In the absence of reliable access to electricity, many rely on diesel generators for power but the majority live in a world that goes dark after sunset. If they have light in their homes at all, it comes from smoky candles and oil lamps that fill the air with dangerous chemicals that are harmful for humans to breath.
Now SIDA says it will expand its off-grid solar initiative to Burkina Faso, Liberia, and Mozambique and is backing the expansion with an additional $50 million in funding over the next 5 years. Carin Jämtin, director general of SIDA, says that investment is expected to unlock an additional $200 million in private investment in off-grid solar in the area.
In a press release, Jämtin says,”Electricity is a prerequisite for people to lift themselves out of poverty. By leapfrogging the national electricity grid and promoting innovative off-grid solutions, we make it easier to study after dark, charge mobile phones and computers and keep food chilled. Electricity also creates jobs by improving the conditions to run shops and other businesses.”
The cell phone has changed the way people in that part of the world live. Where once they had no access to a traditional telephone network, now they can communicate with their families and the outside world via wireless networks. That access makes it possible for people to obtain micro-loans to buy things like solar panels, refrigerators, and LED lights, which they pay for over time using online bank accounts.
The SIDA initiative will leverage that new economic power to allow people to purchase small solar systems for their homes and pay for them in easily manageable installments each month. In most cases, the cost of the zero emissions solar energy will be less than what people are already paying for diesel, kerosene, and candles.
“Large parts of Africa skipped landline telephony in favor of cellular networks,” says Anders Arvidson, project leader at SIDA. “Now we do the same in the energy sector. Through solar home systems or micro grids for villages, millions of people can get access to electricity that otherwise would have been left unconnected in the foreseeable future.” SIDA is a major supporter of the Beyond The Grid For Africa initiative.
The BFGA pilot program in Zambia has already brought off-grid solar power to 450,000 people in that country already. When it concludes in 2021, it is expected 1.6 million Zambians will have access to electricity for the first time. Here’s how it works. BFGA asks energy service companies to submit tenders presenting their business models, how many people they want to reach, and the end price for the consumer. Contracts are awarded to the companies that have the best and most sustainable business models in the long term after the contribution from SIDA has ended.
The BGFA contracts cover some of the costs for the implementation of the services, but most of the investments are made by the companies and external investors. “This is what is so important,” Arvidson says. If we only funded electricity connections without continued support, it wouldn’t spark long term change. Our goal is to stimulate sustainable business models — companies that will keep growing when the contracts with BGFA expire.”
The Zambia program has exceeded all expectations. “We have proved that small scale energy solutions can generate large scale effects,” Arvidson adds. “But despite the large numbers, it is meeting with those who have gained access to electricity that is most inspiring. Electricity changes people’s lives in a way that can be difficult for us living in Sweden to understand.”
To people in the western world, where private homes with 12 kW solar systems are not uncommon, these efforts must seem rudimentary. But if off-grid solar power can move people overnight from the 18th century to the 21st century, that’s a miraculous thing. Changing lives. What more important investment could there be?