By our DIT Volunteer Jack Tanner
I would firstly like to start by saying that this has truly been the most amazing, eye-opening experience of my life and want to thank everyone involved in making this opportunity for me so special. It has been an extremely rewarding experience which has allowed me to grasp a better understanding of the renewable energy sector and life in a developing country. I have learned a lot about myself over the past few months and will certainly not take my privileged life back home in Ireland for granted. I have been guilty in the past of worrying over so-called “first world problems” such as the battery on my phone dying or seething over a delayed bus resulting in missing a few minutes of an eagerly anticipated champions league game. Living and working in Kenya has unwrapped a priceless gift, one you can’t receive under a Christmas tree surrounded by loved ones. It has allowed me to work and live for a short period of time in a part of the world I never dreamed of actually going. I met so many warm-hearted people during my time in Kenya, it has honestly altered my perspective on life and I will use this experience going forward for the next step in my career.
Working with Renewable World
Renewable World empower energy poor communities to develop sustainable livelihoods through the provision of renewable energy systems. In June, I joined the Renewable World East African Team working on bringing solar power to the Kenyan shores of Lake Victoria. The Renewable Energy Solutions for Lake Victoria Ecosystems (RESOLVE) project was launched in 2013. It aimed to improve health, incomes, education, and diversify livelihoods in six fishing communities along the shores of Lake Victoria. Further from this project, the Lighting up Lake Victoria project has commenced, which aims to install an additional six solar micro-grids. Renewable World targets “10 in 10” – ensuring that 10% of fisherman’s cooperatives and 100,000 people living in all countries have access to energy within 10 years.
A solar micro-grid is a small and discrete energy system, owned by the community that provides electricity to households and small businesses. Solar technology is ideally suited in Kenya where the hours of sunlight each day are constant throughout the year and expansion of the National Grid is still limited. The micro-grids installed, as seen in figure 1, are simple steel frame structures that hold solar panels and a control box housing the batteries, charger and energy distribution systems.
The installed energy hubs have a capacity of between 1.5 kW to 8kW, which can be expanded, and have been used to support over 50 connections on some sites. The wide-reaching impacts of access to electricity in these areas have huge benefits to each local community, creating growth and sustainability in such a short timeframe since the project’s initiation. Locals have both expanded existing businesses and set up new ones, including phone charging stations, kiosks selling chilled drinks, battery charging for local fishermen’s lighting equipment, maize milling, and office services for printing documents.
In the new sites as part of the Lighting up Lake Victoria project, there has been a well installed with a solar water pump to irrigate an area of the community’s land so that they can grow higher quality fruit and vegetable crops for their own consumption and to sell to the market. For example, at Kiwa, a well has been dug approximately four metres deep close to the lake where the water table is high. Water is not allowed to be pumped directly from the lake so that is the reason why a well has to be implemented. Water is then pumped from the well to a 10,000-litre water tank. The water tank is located at a higher vantage point than the area of land to be irrigated so that a gravity fed drip irrigation system kit can be installed. The solar panels from the energy hub provide the pump’s electricity. Irrigation takes place during the evening, a valve on the water tank is opened and water flows down through a filtration system and onto the crop root zones via high-quality irrigation tape. This greatly reduces labour costs due to the simplicity of the drip system, currently this is done by hand using water from the lake. The installation of these drip irrigation kits allows the farmers to produce high-quality vegetables that meet the standards of restaurants and produce exporters.
In addition to these irrigation kits being installed, an agronomist has been contracted to support the local communities. Nicknamed the “Crop Doctor”, agronomists are concerned with the health and well-being of crops used for food production, fuel, and land reclamation. Agronomists conduct experiments to develop the best methods for increasing the quality and production of crops. Part of the agronomist’s remit is to effectively work with the local farmers to provide them with sufficient training on crop rotation to prevent soil exhaustion, planting of the best economically viable fruits and vegetables for selling to the markets, educating them on what fertilizers and pesticides to use for different crops, water quantities required, preservation of crops, along with a range of other technical agricultural and horticultural information.
With every project that is carried out, there are four main activities that makeup Renewable World’s scope of works. Firstly, in activity 1, initial engagement with the community is made, along with feasibility analysis and mobilisation. Early-stage discussions are made with the community to explain the model of the energy hub and in particular the way the constitution will work and the role in which the Community Based Organisation must operate and perform. Explanations of how the energy system is to be controlled must be clearly identified and any new executive members must be aware that the energy system is for the whole community. This activity must share and explain the CBO constitution and the rules that govern the selection and impartiality of executive members. Working with key members of the community, undertake community focus group discussions – this includes youth and women. This exercise is designed to get a detailed, equitable and inclusive view of the demand for the complete community has so that the CBO, the business model, the fee structure and the energy hub design is well matched to express needs. Also undertaken at this stage is the mobilisation of new entrants to the hub: a workshop is employed to prepare households and businesses connecting to the new hub and engaging with the women’s agriculture group. The feasibility study includes a technical and agricultural analysis. It is at this stage, resulting from the survey carried out, that a proposal for the most suitable irrigation and agriculture method is advised.
Activity 2 consists of purchasing and installation of micro-grids and agriculture equipment, irrigation system and training in irrigation and agriculture. It is during this period of the project that the well is dug, the structure for the water tank is installed, trenches for water pipes are dug and water pipes are installed between well and water tank, water pump, water tank and irrigation kit are installed. The women’s agriculture group are also trained on new agriculture practice and new irrigation method.
Activity 3 consists of capacity building, training, and development and activity. This stage is broken into six different training elements, the first being to develop leadership and governance training for CBO and agriculture cooperative. This consists of delivering a standard governance curriculum tailored to constitutional and institutional needs. This should be designed for and targeted at both the specific governance needs of the CBO and agriculture group and the capacity of the executive; it should be based on a clear understanding of the energy CBO and agriculture group’s staff needs, meet international standards and involve learning outcomes and testing of participants capacity.
The second activity looks at financial literacy and entrepreneurship training. The aim is to deliver a standard financial literacy curriculum specific to constitutional and institutional needs. This should be designed for and targeted at both the specific financial management needs of the CBO and the capacity of the executive; it should be based on a clear understanding of the energy CBO’s staff needs, meet international standards and involve learning outcomes and testing of participants capacity. To deliver structured, professional and targeted SME and entrepreneurial training. This should be designed for and targeted at both the specific business needs related to the identified improvements and utilisation of the new energy source for the CBO and new crops for the agriculture group. It should be based on international standards and involve learning outcomes and testing of participants capacity. Monitoring and evaluating will test the learning outcomes and capacity of entrepreneurs close after this training.
The following activity is to produce a business plan for microenterprises, agricultural cooperative and CBO. Cash flow predictions are used to formulate business plans to ensure new ventures are managed as efficiently as possible to ensure sustained growth. This is used to educate locals of the benefits of any such enterprise being set up and diversifying the communities.
Another vital element of the system is to train CBO members on energy hub technology and billing system. Initial training is carried out by Renewable World. Following this, the solar energy contractor that installed the system will provide top-up training for the CBO members on how to use the energy in a more effective manner and how the billing system operates. Time is also allocated to follow up on CBO and technical mentoring, long-term support, provide progress reporting and any additional support the community requires.
The final activity is to facilitate the ERC certification of a solar technician to enable a member of the community to be sufficiently trained to operate, maintain and repair energy hub.
Activity 4 is where monitoring and evaluation of the project are carried out. Two reports are required: Firstly, the baseline survey and sustainability report is carried out by Renewable World. Using household and enterprise baseline study surveys, research is undertaken to determine community-wide demand and to record the current situation in the community, prior to implementation of the new hub. After one year of implementation of the energy hub an end line survey and sustainability report is undertaken to again ascertain the community-wide demand, and to record the new situation in the community.
I would like to sign off by again thanking everyone who made this experience possible. It has honestly been the most rewarding experience of my life and has given me a huge amount of self-confidence for whatever the future holds for me. I would recommend anyone thinking of applying for any future travel scholarships to do it and am freely available to talk to any applicants wanting to know of my personal experiences.
Renewable World would like to thank the Dublin Institute of Technology and the DIT Foundation for their continued and fruitful partnership with our organisation and for funding Jack’s scholarship.