Light and dark
– by Arwed Milz
Installing a solar home system.
Driving along the streets of Burkina Faso’s, cities you’ll find blue solar-module panels blinking in the sun. Some sections of large markets even look like small solar trade fairs. All components for small and larger solar home systems, with which families can produce the energy needed for their homes, are available.
In Burkina Faso, relay stations for telecommunication companies have been run with solar energy since 1982. Today, cell-phone charging stations, lamps, radios and televisions are powered with solar devices in many places that are not connected to the grid.
The cell-phone networks developed earlier and better than the power grid. Soon, many people owned mobile phones, but only few had grid connections to charge them. Accordingly, charging stations were often generator powered. In 2006, the company Mircosow began building charging stations for mobile phones and other gadgets based on solar modules.
It can be profitable to own charging station. To charge a cell phone costs users 10 to 15 eurocents. Charging stations are also rented out. Some households own complete solar home systems.
Component outlets and photovoltaic installation companies have sprung up at the local level all over the country. They are mostly owned by local entrepreneurs. Local companies build small and large systems for private household as well as for commercial, state-run and charitable clients. The latter often rely on donations.
A few European companies are active in Burkina Faso’s solar market too. However, internationally financed large-scale projects remain exceptions. For example, the EU plans to fund the construction of a 32 giga watts photovoltaic power plant near Ouagadougou, the capital. It is supposed to cover the energy demand of 400,000 people, which would equal six percent of the national power supply.
Expenses and quality
State subsidies for renewable energies do not exist in Burkina Faso as they do in Germany, where producers are paid to feed energy into the national grid. Whoever feeds electricity into the grid free of charge, however, may retrieve it from the grid for free when needed.
The elimination of customs charges on solar modules in 2003 had a positive impact on Burkina Faso’s solar markets. Modules now cost between two and three euro per watt. Solar modulators cost between € 20 and € 60. Solar batteries are less expensive than in Europe.
Unfortunately, only people with higher incomes can afford all necessary components. It is helpful that a certain share of the rural low-income population has access to bank loans, which have contributed to market growth in recent years. If there were more installment credits, however, more families would be able to afford solar systems.
Sophisticated market analyses would also help. Retailers would then be in a position to better adjust their supply to customers’ demand. If their volume of sales increases, they can lower their prices. In any case, it is obvious that demand for 30 watt solar modules is high in rural areas, where 80 % of the Burkinabé live.
A big problem is that the quality of solar components is often only average or even insuffient. Cheating is going on too. For instance, there are brandname solar modulators, which only consist of two small components and have no practical merit. Sometimes Chinese solar modules are sold with the lable “made in France”. Retailers, who sell those items, usually mean no ill; they are ignorant and out of their depth.
Similar ignorance is evident in the assembly of solar systems. Clever amateurs are able to assemble good charging station, but installing a solar home system is much more challenging. Too many devices tend to be connected to small systems, and people falsely blame “Chinese electronic junk”, when inverters brake down.
More systematic training is needed. It is not difficult to teach people to build small solar home systems. A lay person can learn it rather quickly. The Barefoot College in India trains illiterate women from all over the world. In 2011, six women from Burkina Faso participated in such a training, and each later installed 100 small solar home systems in their hometowns. Today, they are responsible for maintenance.
The installation of solar home system could also become a new business segment for local companies with qualified staff members who were trained in Europe. Accurate market analyses would help to identify potential demand.
Aside from sufficient training, Burkina Faso also lacks a consumer-advice agency that might conduct product tests und inform the public on what devices are especially efficient for solar home systems. Many technical solutions that are being marketed today are not ideal. For instance, energy-saving light bulbs and faint LED are readily available, but super efficient LED, which make solar home systems really become economical, are scarce. Wholesalers could easily buy them for a good price in China. Energy-efficient radios and TV sets are also hard to come by.
The rural people ought to be more informed about the economic and environmental benefits of solar home systems. Grid connections are usually too expensive for peasant families, so they run countless gadgets with disposable batteries. Some extended families with 20 to 30 members use up to 1100 batteries per year. These are often carelessly tossed into the fields and poisen the farmland. With a solar system, the same households could switch to rechargable batteries.
Burkina Faso has everything it needs to use solar energy: sunshine, component markets, installation companies and potential customers. Awareness raising and solid market information would help to further develop the solar markets and improve standards of living.
German institutions – especially GIZ – can contribute to making things happen. For good reason, renewable energy is rightly one of the issues they focus on. They could become involved in Burkina Faso, where the demand for solar energy is huge and unsatisfied. Germany’s Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Technology even sees opportunities for additional exports from Germany. Unfortunately, it only offers its know how to German companies.
Arwed Milz coordinates the pilot project “Reis statt Giftmüll” (rice instead of toxic waste) for the German association Lernen-Helfen-Leben (Learning-Helping-Living) in Burkina Faso. The aim is to get smallholder farmers to switch from disposable batteries to rechargeables.