Solar minigrids light up remote Samburu villages

Sloar minigrids

A view of the 541 kW solar minigrid at Kalobeyei Settlement in Turkana County. The project is developed and run by Renewvia Solar Africa

Photo credit: Courtesy

Tucked in the serene greenery of well-protected acacia under the towering Ndoto mountains, about 70km from Laisamis, Samburu County, Ngurunit was disconnected from the world until recently.

Until 2020, Ngurunit had no mobile communication network and electricity was the preserve of those who could afford solar panels.

But today, about 1,000 people are connected to electricity, thanks to a solar minigrid installed by Renewvia, a renewable energy company with operations in Kenya, Nigeria and South America.

Some 14 off-grid power systems have been established in Homa Bay, Siaya, Turkana, Samburu and Kajiado counties, said Renewvia African project development director Douglas Cox.

Renewvia wants to serve more than four million off-grid households, he said.

“Renewvia generates solar power and sells it to customers in rural areas that Kenya Power and Lighting Company has no plans to reach,” he said. 

National grids

“There are about 500 million people in the world who live so far from the national grids that extending power lines to them is very expensive.

“We believe that solar minigrids are the best way to achieve universal electrification in our lifetimes, and the best way to do so while protecting the environment.”

Renewvia’s power stations and customers are linked through internet-connected smart meters, enabling them to pay their prepaid bills using M-Pesa.

While some locals had household solar systems, they kept breaking down due to overcharging, said Ngurnit resident Dima Wambille.

“We now have a reliable power supply. However, the cost is high compared to what Kenya Power charges.”

Ms Christine Yusuf, a businesswoman in Ngurunit, also called for a review of power tariffs.

But Mr Cox said their tariffs are higher than KPLC’s because of the high cost of construction and operations in remote areas.

“We arrive at the final rate in consultation with the communities, who understand that, unfortunately, cheaper options are not yet available in their areas,” he said. 

“It is in our best interest to make the tariffs as low as possible, because when electricity is affordable, people use more of it…”

More financing

The Ngurunit power station, he said, cost about $130,000 (Sh13 million at 2019 exchange rates), Mr Cox said.

For greater uptake of minigrids in Africa, he said, continued government support, more financing and the streamlining of regulations are needed.

About 8.6 million of 12 million households were connected to electricity as of December 2021, the Energy and Petroleum Regulatory Authority (Epra) says.

More than 590 million Africans have no access to electricity, a report by the Africa Minigrid Developers Association (Amda) shows.

The number of minigrids in Africa grew from 288 sites in 2019 to 400 in 2021, serving more than 500,000 people.