Lighting Up Lake Victoria

December 1, 2017
View of Kiwa Island looking towards the Lake

Our Trustee Neil Pinto visits our project sites in Kenya

Our Trustee Neil Pinto traveled to Kenya last month to witness first-hand Renewable World’s project sites on the shores of Lake Victoria. Below, he shares his thoughts on the experience.

“I’m just back from my first trip to Kenya as a Trustee of Renewable World, where we have 10 existing energy hubs. These hubs essentially comprise a Photovoltaic (PV) array of up to 6kW, with battery storage to allow supply at night. Electricity is generally distributed by via overhead lines, with meters located on the top of the poles. The systems are owned by the community, with guidance and assistance from the Renewable World staff in the country. In the newer systems, meter readings are sent wirelessly to the central hub, which in turn has a wifi connection to allow remote access to consumption data. Customers buy credit for their future consumption, often using their mobile phones, and the hub manager in the village can advise as to their balances. Consumption levels are low – often little more than a light and perhaps a mobile phone charger for domestic customers. The provision of electricity, however, catalyses the development of small-scale commercial use. This includes the charging of batteries to allow the fisherman to operate solar lanterns, used to attract fish at night. These are both cheaper and more environmentally benign than the existing kerosine lamps. It is this sort of commercial activity which will start to generate more income to allow the community to escape from the poverty in which they are at present trapped.

“I’ve worked a lot in Africa, trying to help in the development of the power sector from a broader national perspective through the provision of consultancy advice. This trip was an opportunity to see how small-scale projects really can make a difference. Another difference from my consultancy days was that for this trip I paid for my flights and accommodation in Nairobi!

Prior to the site visit, I met with the Board of Renewable World East Africa. The Board kindly agreed to my inclusion as a director. I’m keen to try to use some of my knowledge of the power sector and local contacts to try to support the team here.

“After flying to Kisumu, in the West of Kenya, our first visit was to a village called Sika. Sika is located on Mageta Island in Lake Victoria, and necessitated travel on small locally built boats, propelled by outboard motors. These are extensively used around the Lake, but also there are beautiful sailing boats which look a little like Arab dhows. The boats berthed in mud adjacent to the village, and to avoid the team getting our feet dirty, one of the stronger young villagers kindly carried us off the boat on to terra firma. Sika is not, and realistically will not be, supplied from the national grid. It is a small community, most of the men fish for tilapia and Nile perch. Dagaa – a small silvery fish about 6 cm long – is also caught in bulk and dried in the sun. There is limited agriculture – the preserve of women. The women also are normally responsible for the sale of fish – the remit of the men ends when they land their catch! The objective of our trip was to investigate whether the village would be a suitable location for a new hub. We were enthusiastically welcomed by the community, and the chief convened a meeting attended by most of the villagers. At present, about 25% of the households have small home solar cells – an array on the roof with a battery, but these are inadequate and the capacity of the system is usually insufficient for other than a few hours use at night. Subject to final assessment, this project should hopefully be commissioned in 2018.

“By way of contrast, we then went on to Kiwa, where there is an existing Renewable World hub. This again necessitated a boat trip. At present this hub supplies 56 customers – a mixture of household and commercial users. The villagers were very pleased with the new arrangement and were keen to extend the usage to include the chilling of fish. At present ice is brought to the village and after landing the fish is stored in large chests, layered with ice. The ice retailers are able to negotiate favourable terms, as are the middlemen who buy the fish to transport to market. Renewable World is actively seeking energy efficient solutions to allow the villagers to store fish for longer and therefore hold more power during these negotiations. The hub also supplies a pump which extracts water from a well close to the lake – laws forbid the direct extraction of water from the lake, and the arrangement also allows some natural filtration of the water. This will shortly be connected to an elevated tank, which in turn will allow irrigation of crops during the dry season. The villagers were also concerned about hippos, which seem to have a particular appetite for tomatoes.  Existing fencing around the fields was totally inadequate – it takes a lot to stop a hungry hippo. At present the only feasible solution is for people to frighten them off. The hippos come at night – I’m not sure that this job is one that I would be keen to volunteer for!

“Remba is located on another island and necessitated a long 75-minute boat trip – as some of our local staff can’t swim, this was not appreciated by all the team. Approximately 400 people live on the island, including some Kenyan Somalis. Again the principal economic activity was fishing – it seems that the island is well located near to good fishing grounds, and catches are plentiful. The isolation of the island, however, brings problems and all of the population are relatively new arrivals. There are some existing home solar systems and entrepreneurs have also established small networks with diesel generators. The latter are unreliable and the networks are potentially hazardous. Commercial activity centres on small shops selling imported produce, and some bars, video halls and mobile phone charging. The houses are tightly packed with little space between them, and the construction of an overhead system would present some technical problems – not least as the ground underfoot is all very rocky. We came across a small private school in the middle of the village. Two classes were being taught in the same room – at one end one set of students were learning about teeth, and the other the teacher was explaining the role of multi-purpose hydro projects in Africa. As I’ve been involved in such projects over the years, I couldn’t resist taking over and making a small contribution!

“In Ragwe, on the mainland this time, there are two Renewable World systems separated by a few kilometres. The newer of the systems was commissioned in May 2017. It supplies 31 customers, again a mixture of domestic and commercial. It’s interesting to compare with the older system – there has been clear progress with the metering system, but also with batteries.  The newer systems have sealed batteries whereas in the old systems regular maintenance is required, topping up the cells with distilled water.   

“Mirunda Beach is the newest of the hubs, and at the end of our visit, the community thanked us profusely for the system that we had installed. Whilst still in its infancy, small commercial activities have already been expanded, and the request was for more connections.   

Finally to Ng’ore, where again we have an existing system. The community had shown initiative in starting some fish farming, but again the issue of chilling and storage is key.

We’d cut it a little fine for our return to Kisumu, to catch the flight back to Nairobi. Our driver Justice, however, was more than up to the challenge and we made it with minutes to spare. This left me a final day in our office with the local team, headed up by Geoffrey Mburu, and ably supported by Benson Maroro (who came on the field trip) and Jayne Koki.

“For me, the takeaway from my trip was the extent to which lives are being changed by the introduction of more reliable electricity supplies. The enthusiasm of the villagers was infectious and the need for development and extension of the networks clear. Effective fish storage and chilling will make a huge difference to the communities, but it is important that this increased level of economic activity improves the quality of life. Lighting to allow children to study at night, thereby improving their future opportunities is vital. Empowerment of women – central to the Renewable World engagement programme – helps to ensure an equitable allocation of benefits. It is easy, however, to look through rose tinted spectacles from the UK. Beneath the smiles of the children and the welcome of the villagers, there are tensions and problems in these communities. This was clearly evident in Remba, but exist in other areas also. Local engagement, therefore, forms a key part of the Renewable World remit, and this does not stop on project commissioning. The hub management committees are not always as effective as they might be in managing the money which builds up in their accounts. More work is required in ensuring maximum utilisation of the solar energy. There is, however, tangible progress and it is clear that the model which has been developed is capable of expansion to larger communities.  This will not, however, be possible without additional funding.

Additional information on Renewable World can be found on this website. We will be organising various fundraising activities over the next year. Any support would be gratefully received, but please don’t feel that you have to wait till then!”

Neil Pinto