Off-grid solar connecting rural Africa to new opportunities

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How does off-grid solar connect rural Africa to new opportunities? Snehar Shah, Azuri East Africa General Manager, shares his thoughts in this blog post.

Off-grid solar connecting rural Africa to new opportunities

More than 2 million households in Africa are now connected to reliable clean energy via small solar home systems (SHS) on a pay-as-you-go basis. Once considered a short-term solution or back-up for unreliable grid electricity, solar is now fast securing its place at the forefront of energy access for all. Any future planning and strategy for next-generation energy in Africa now includes solar as an established, reliable and affordable option. This was particularly evident at Power Week Africa in Johannesburg last week, where the role of off-grid decentralised energy systems for Africa took centre stage alongside traditional oil, gas and electricity discourses.

Connecting the unconnected

For those of us in the sector, we welcome the shift in approach from governments, energy companies and even financiers to see the viable role off-grid solar has in connecting a growing population in Africa without access to the grid. A staggering 600 million Africans still lack access to basic energy for clean lighting and powering household devices. Acknowledging that the grid will never reach the majority these people is essential to actively providing energy access.

I never limit the role of off-grid solar to a discussion solely about connecting people to energy. Off-grid solar and its technology is doing far more than providing light at night: people across the most remote and rural parts of Africa are, for the first time, able to access a range of digital services and household devices on par with urban households across the globe.

Different energy sources shouldn’t mean different standards of devices and access to technology – why shouldn’t a rural house in Nyanza power the same appliances as an inner city Nairobi house? Off-grid solar is being coupled with energy-efficient smart TVs, rechargeable radios, satellite entertainment, internet access and a range of other appliances and services to truly change the lives and livelihoods of families adopting it.

The real impact of change 

Azuri is among a number of companies in this sector that have moved beyond looking at energy access in isolation. Energy access, we believe, is key to creating a level playing field where all African consumers have access to modern digital services and products, wherever they live. Energy access is an enabler for opportunity: from socialising to information, entertainment to comfort, connectivity to education. These should be universal opportunities, and off-grid energy is essential to providing them.

We are excited by stories from customers who are taking full advantage of the potential of energy access and added services, brought to them by off-grid solar.

Take for example Frank Kiema, a bodaboda rider in Kenya, who since installing off-grid-solar signed up to Uber and has been able to double his daily income from KSh1,200 ($11) to Ksh2,500 ($24) because he is always connected. Or there is Alubanus Ndolo, who’s restaurant business is booming since installing solar-powered lights and satellite TV. Solar enables him to stay open late with customers flocking to him ahead of other cafes in the area to watch TV and be entertained while they eat. Similarly, Kenyan farmer Joseph Otieno, has never looked back since installing off-grid solar. He purchased a smartphone the same day he installed PayGo solar and now connects to buyers via social media and WhatsApp and has joined  online farming groups where he sources advice and tips to help him improve harvests and and profits.

The link between connectivity and economic development

Connectivity unleashes a range of benefits, to the individual and to the wider community. Off-grid solar is bringing a level of choice and services that have for too long been limited to urban populations and access to the grid.

Rural African consumers are showing the world that through connectivity they can create new business and income opportunities. Energy access is a platform for a wide range of benefits they will fully take advantage of.

A recent study from GOGLA, the off-grid solar industry body, shows that around 58 percent of households connected to off-grid technology undertook more work and enterprise thanks to their solar home system. The same research shows that more than one-in-ten off-grid solar customers started a new business within 12 months of installing. Light at night and reliable energy access gives customers the opportunity to choose to work more or spend their time elsewhere. Energy access enables opportunity and provides off-grid households with ‘connected’ choices. Every evening becomes an opportunity, be it to socialise watching television, read by clean lights, prepare food for market, keep the restaurant open… or do them all!

The connected home in rural Africa has become a reality through off-grid solar and innovative solutions being developed by companies like Azuri. Customer stories, such as those shared above, do more than showcase the benefits of off-grid technology for the individual, they also serve to demonstrate how off-grid solar and a new connected population could help struggling economies. Our restaurant owner has employed three new local people to help serve the daily influx of customers. Meanwhile, our farmer regularly calls on local farm hands to help with more regular and larger harvests. And as for our bodaboda rider, he is now able to send his children to a prestigious school to help further their education.

The good news is that the link between connectivity and economic wellbeing is becoming more obvious to all and so more financing is being unlocked, at rapid rate, to help reach more of the unconnected 600 million. Off-grid solar is helping people to connect to information and tools that help them improve productivity, modernise their farming practices and access new markets. To invest in solar is to invest in equality, accessibility and opportunity for all, and the returns are truly life-changing.

Snehar Shah, General Manager of East Africa, Azuri Technologies

Snehar has more than 20 years expertise in investment, finance, and business development, specific to African consumer markets. Snehar has been General Manager for East Africa at Azuri since 2016. Prior to joining Azuri and the off-grid solar sector, Snehar spent a number of years in telecoms, working for a mobile towers business as Regional Chief Financial Officer and he also headed up Orange’s mobile money business unit.

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