A blog from our DIT Scholar

Every year Renewable World partners with the Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) to support a travel scholarship for one student. This year Keith Fahy was selected and has joined our East Africa team in Kenya for a three-month placement. Read about Keith’s experience from his first month with us. 

The DIT Travel Scholarship in Renewable Energy is an annual scholarship, which provides the opportunity for a DIT graduate with a Masters Degree or PhD to pursue a practical work assignment with Renewable World in a developing country within the area of renewable energy. Renewable World tackles poverty in developing countries by providing affordable renewable energy systems for energy-poor communities. I would like to express my sincere appreciation to the DIT Foundation for giving me the opportunity to work on this project as the DIT Travel Scholar in Renewable Energy 2018.

The experience began for me on Sunday 18th June when I walked through the arrivals area of Jomo Kenyatta airport in Nairobi, Kenya. I was really happy to see Benson Maroro, Renewable World East Africa’s Technical Project Officer. Benson drove me to my hotel in Biashara St. in central Nairobi.

An introduction in Nairobi

The next day I had my first formal meeting with representatives from the Renewable World East Africa team; Geoffrey Mburu and Benson Maroro. Geoffrey, the Regional Programme Manager for East Africa, explained how Renewable World staff in Nairobi work flexibly, seeking out a range of different spaces to undertake different tasks, utilising hot-desks and working remotely from various locations in the city. This style of working results in a reduction in administration costs for the organisation.

Geoffrey continued to describe the workings of a non-profit, non-governmental organisation (NGO) and introduced the concept of capacity building in communities. Renewable World builds the capacity of a community to understand renewable energy, and working specifically with Community Based Organisations (CBOs) to build their capacity to manage the energy systems independently. This means providing training in governance, financial management, and technical operation and maintenance. Through this Renewable World helps the members of the CBO to understand the financial business model best suited to ensure the systems are sustainable, and to equip them with skills to promote and sell renewable energy within their communities. Renewable World works within communities supporting them to establish local enterprise using the energy for income generating activities.

Geoffrey went on to introduce Osienala, a partner NGO based in Kisumu. Established in 1993, Osienala was created to build local and international awareness concerning the problems facing Lake Victoria, while at the same time creating structures that would support local communities to become responsible custodians of their environment and the lake. Osienala works in partnership with Renewable World within the Lake Victoria basin, supporting the integration of the Renewable World micro-grids, and solar-powered Energy Hubs in villages along the shores of Lake Victoria. Osienala is located in the Lake Victoria Centre for Research & Development at Dunga Beach, Kisumu. The plan for me is to spend the next month working from the Osienala office.

Working from the Osienala office in Kisumu

On the first day in Osienala, I had the pleasure of meeting Dr. Obiero Ong’ang’a, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Osienala, he is a renowned educator and natural resources conservationist, he advises many international and local boards in charge of education, natural resources management and sustainable development. We enjoyed a long discussion on the challenges faced by the lake and the counter measures promoted by Osienala.

I was then introduced to Professor Herick Othieno, a Professor of Physics at the Maseno, a University in Kisumu and author of Energy Resources in Africa published by Springer Press. The Professor provided a unique insight into working with development agencies in Africa. We discussed promoting the ownership of projects by local people. Professor Othieno explained that the local community need to feel their opinion is valued and given equal weight with all stakeholders. Early engagement with the community is important for success in every project.

I met with Anne Okelo, a Technical Officer, working for Osienala in a programme called Devolution and Climate Change Adaptation Programme implemented in Homa bay and Kisumu Counties. We discussed capacity building in terms of an NGO employee. In this context capacity building means cross-training Technical Officers for the success of the programme. This can include: correct methods employed in data-collection, analysis, and financial management. The training is provided in a structured way through donor agencies and organisations. If a donor organisation is willing to build capacity in the programme team, the individuals within the team in turn can build capacity in the local community.

Anne explained that Technical Officers work in the local community; providing training, gathering and analysing data, writing reports and liaising with the Programme Manager to identify unmet needs in the community. Technical Officers go into the field with a willingness to work outside any rigid definition of their role to bring value in every aspect of the business.

Field trip: visiting the Energy Hubs

The start of the third week brought my first field trip. The trip involved travelling with Benson and driving the entire Kenyan perimeter of Lake Victoria, visiting Energy Hubs (solar microgrids) in Sika, Luanda Rombo, Ragwe, Mirunda, Got Kachola, Ng’ore, Kiwa and Rasira. Access to these villages required using various modes of transport: car, motorbike, Probox, ferry and motor boat. The Energy Hubs are located in off-grid locations. They comprise of a photovoltaic (PV) array, battery storage, charge controller and power inverter, all contained within a secure enclosure. The electricity is distributed via overhead transmission lines, with meters located at the top of the transmission poles distributing electricity to homes within the community.

The community energy hub.

The Energy Hub is owned by the community and managed through a Community Based Organisation (CBO) with guidance and assistance from Renewable World staff.

Customers within the community buy credit for their future consumption using their mobile phones to top up their account. The provision of affordable and clean energy in the home promotes the use of clean and efficient electrical lighting. Electrical lighting is cheaper and more sustainable than the previously employed method utilising kerosene lamps. Kerosene lamps are a health hazard, the fumes are dangerous for kids and adults. The provision of this affordable and clean energy in the home aligns with goal 7 from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to transform our world.

Kenneth's kerosene lamp.
Kerosene lamp

The provision of electricity also promotes the development of micro, small and medium enterprises such as the charging of batteries for fishermen to operate solar lanterns to attract fish at night on the lake, the development of a local pharmacy, shop, cinema, and a hotel. The CBO acts as a business; they are tasked with funding more connections within the community. It is this commercial activity that builds the capacity to generate income thus empowering the community. The incentive for the CBO to fund more connections is that new customers means more income to the Energy Hub, thereby providing finance to pay for operation and maintenance costs and future expansion.

Internal lighting powered by clean, efficient and renewable energy

In addition to providing energy for domestic, micro, small and medium enterprises, Renewable World promotes sustainable agricultural practises through the provision of irrigation systems for local communities. The irrigation systems comprise a shallow well, pump, storage tank, interconnecting pipe work and drip irrigation kit.

Women stand with freshly picked produce.

The section of our trip from Got Kachola to Ng’ore was very interesting. Dickson joined us for this part of the trip. Dickson is a local electrician, he was born in Ng’ore. It was late in the evening on the third day and we were behind schedule. Prior to our departure from Got Kachola we discussed the road leading to Ng’ore. The guys explained the road surface is more appropriate for a 4×4 truck as opposed to our saloon, to further complicate the situation we had not eaten since breakfast. The journey to Ng’ore is approximately 40 minutes, and the road passes through a village with a local restaurant. It was 9.30pm as we approached the local restaurant, we realised it would be closing soon, so we decided to order a meal, request for it to be cooked and stored until we returned. The range of food available was very limited and Benson felt that it might not suit an Irish palate. Luckily, earlier that day Benson had purchased fresh fish from local fishermen. The fish had been caught that morning from Lake Victoria. I was very happy when Benson offered one of his fish for my evening meal. Benson and Dickson negotiated the deal with the local chef, agreeing that we would be back later that night for a feast.

The trip continued to Ng’ore, the road surface deteriorated, in places we would drive for 20 metres and then stop, get out and assess by torch-light the next 20 metres. Progress was slow but steady until we misjudged a section of road and the car became wedged between two large rocks. There was no going forward or backward. We stepped out of the car to assess the situation. We were about 1km from Ng’ore village. The area is extremely remote. The dispersed houses along the road were in darkness, although intermittently in a small number of homes an individual light dimly lit a single room, or front porch. These individual lights are probably supplied from a domestic solar panel, battery and light. I felt safe at all times as we worked on freeing the car. Security was not an issue, every now and then people walked by alone or in small groups, appearing from the darkness they would say ‘hello’ and continue on their journey.

Eventually we managed to free the car and decided to stay in Ng’ore. It was not worth the risk of attempting to travel at night due to the road surface. Again I have to express my gratitude to a travelling companion, Dickson, who offered us accommodation in his grandmother’s home. We gratefully accepted. We decided to park the car, and walk the final kilometre into the village. As we approached the village we could see the Renewable World lights shining in the distance. It was very obvious the impact of the Energy Hub in the community, 10 homes with electrical lights providing spill over light into the village streets to allow us to walk through to the Energy Hub.

Charles with a television powered by the community energy hub.

In the village we told our story to Charles the Hub Manager; Charles invited us into his home, and set off on his motorbike to collect our evening meal. The hospitality was amazing. In Charles’ home I met his daughter; she was doing her science homework under a solar-powered light.

In another example of the hospitality in the village, four members of the local CBO called over to the house. Charles arrived with dinner and we all sat down to discuss the Energy Hub and the possibility of utilising surplus energy for additional purposes, e.g. potable water generation or ice-making for storing fish. The conversation was enjoyed over a fresh Nile Perch caught earlier that day in the lake. Thanks again Benson!

Once we had finished our meal, Benson, Dickson and I thanked our gracious host and members of the CBO and departed for Dickson’s grandmother’s house. The house is located in the hills around Ng’ore, it’s a beautiful location. As we walked out of the village, close to midnight, we passed local women stoking open fires outside their homes as they smoked fish, and a house where a celebration was taking place. The celebration was actually a funeral celebration to mark the passing of a relative. Dickson explained that in his culture, post-burial there is a celebration of the life of the person who passed away.

Ng’ore was a wonderful experience, the hospitality afforded to me was truly amazing and something I will not forget, it demonstrated to me just how warm and welcoming local people are in this part of Africa.

Impressions from the first month

I am now four weeks into my scholarship and thus far I have a very positive impression of the work accomplished by Renewable World. In addition to the provision of clean renewable energy in these energy-poor communities, the project team focused on training basic leadership skills within the community. The training includes basic leadership dynamics and financial management for the members of the CBO. Training promotes self-advocacy and empowers community leaders to identify local opportunities for improvement from a local perspective.

So far Renewable World has provided 244 connections, with the total number of beneficiaries including service users of 3,184. While each village is unique there is a common theme which is a sense of pride in having access to the benefits of electrical energy, it is an added benefit that the energy is supplied from a clean renewable source.

In terms of challenges, the following questions remain: (1) what is the best solution for maintenance activities in each Hub? (2) How should Renewable World withdraw, divesting full ownership to the community, without risking the sustainability of the Energy Hub project?

Issues can occur when NGOs exit projects too early. While it is vital for the CBO to manage the operation of the Energy Hub, the CBO needs a gradual reduction in support, thus ensuring a sustainable solution. Therefore, the exit point for Renewable World, from the day-to-day operations of each Energy Hub has to be carefully judged.