Renewable energy, refrigeration and local radio on Lake Victoria

January 18, 2013

I recently had the opportunity to accompany a group of access:energy  technicians and engineers on a maintenance trip. access:energy, based in Kisumu, West Kenya, is one of Renewable World’s local collaborating partners on the RESOLVE (Renewable Energy Solutions for the Lake Victoria Environment) project, due to begin next month. 

Access:energy is a Kenyan-based social enterprise. With a workforce mainly consisting of locally trained Kenyans, access:energy designs, manufactures and services renewable energy systems. Because of their social ethos, they undertake significant work with communities in remote parts of Kenya to provide affordable access to power. 
Mfangano Island is access:energy’s most remote project. We travelled for an hour by road, followed by two ferry rides. The majority of the island’s population of 16,200 do not have access to electricity and the local economy relies on the lake – fishing in particular.  Most families have a radio and a mobile phone, their key means of communication. In 2011 access:energy was approached by an eager organisation from the island called Organic Health Response (OHR), asking for their expertise on using green energy to power the island’s first ever radio station. And so the numerous journeys via fishing boat and foot began, and towards the end of 2012, access:energy had successfully installed what could possibly be Kenya’s first renewable energy powered community owned radio station and internet booster, called Ekialo Kiona (meaning ‘whole community’ in Suba). It not only provides a centre for the islanders to access the internet as well as free advice and support, but is a hub for the local people to express their thoughts and interests across the island. With the radio tower situated on the highest peak on the island, radio coverage has been reaching households up to 80 kilometres away, covering not just West Kenya, but parts of Uganda and Tanzania as well.

One of the two ferries, and the mountain looming ahead as we begin the ascent

Once we had arrived on the island and packed up our maintenance materials, the two hour trek up the mountain began. With thunderstorms looming in the horizon, the technicians had to be quick with their tools to fix the detected problem. 

Accompanying each of their hybrid and turbine installations, access:energy has created an SMS-enabled monitoring device, known as a bit harvester. This clever piece of technology relays lots of information including the power generated by the energy systems, the energy consumption, local wind speeds and direction, and anything else that they feel is necessary via SMS on an hourly basis, allowing them to remotely monitor the energy system. On this occasion, the bit harvester had stopped working and soon after assessing the components it became clear that the high wind speeds were so strong on the summit that the wiring had short circuited.
By the time the first rain drops from the thunderstorm had fallen the technicians had fixed the bit harvester, replaced some key components and carried out the required routine maintenance on the turbines, what all seemed to be in record breaking time. The local farmer who had kindly donated his land for the purpose of installing the radio tower allowed us to seek refuge in one of his mud walled, thatched roofed huts whilst the torrential rain poured down in true African wet season style. With the radio station up and running, we were able to tune into Ekialo Kiona Radio until the rain passed, before making the slippery descent back down the mountain.
This site in particular is a testament to access:energy’s ability to assist people in the most remote areas. In this instance, prior to the ferry service opening, the components of the hybrid system (solar pv panels and two 12m turbines) and the materials for the power station compound had to be delivered to the summit of the 1,600m wooded mountain without a car or ferry. How was this done? By a small fishing boat from the mainland and then to the summit by foot. Remarkable, but not unusual for Renewable World partners; equipment has travelled by mule and canoe, amongst other seemingly unlikely modes of transport. It is working with innovative local partners who overcome barriers such as these that, together, we ensure impact in hard-to-reach rural areas.
With this in mind, I look forward to working with access:energy in the near future. Renewable World’s RESOLVE project will progressively work with six local fishing communities over a three year period to assist and improve living standards and boost local economies by diversifying sources of income. We are also working with the ‘beach management units’ to support business planning and negotiation skills to support optimisation of income. access:energy will be working on technical elements, with further partners providing the necessary training and monitoring to ensure effectiveness and impact. Read more about the project here.

Fishing boats on the lake, and the wind turbine and the radio mast