MUHURU BAY, Kenya, April 4 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) -
M ary Atieno was often forced to sell her tilapia well below the
market rate because she had to get rid of the fish quickly in
the searing heat bearing down on her village on the shore of
Lack of electricity meant Atieno was at the mercy of
commercial fish buyers and made little or no profit because she
could not refrigerate her catch of tilapia and Nile perch.
Poor rural communities, like Muhuru Bay in western Kenya
where Atieno lives, are often far from markets where they can
sell their produce and lack basic infrastructure and electricity
despite rapid electrification elsewhere in the country.
Atieno's fortunes changed when British-based charity
Renewable World joined forces with community groups and a
private company to set up solar micro-grids, small local power
networks not connected to the national electricity grid.
With a grant by British charity Comic Relief, fishing
cooperatives in the area received solar freezers to chill their
catch rather than having to resort to preserving it with smoke,
a practice that makes the fish more chewy and harder to sell.
"With the deep freezers, we can store fish for up to four
days while we source for a profitable market," Atieno, a
43-year-old married mother of four and secretary to Ngore
Mtakatifu Women Group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
With its year-round sunshine, solar power is ideally suited
to Kenya where electricity access surged to around 60 percent in
2016 from 27 percent three years before, according to government
data, due to a drive to achieve universal access by 2020.
Remote areas such as the lakeshore settlements on Lake
Victoria lag behind though, experts said.
"For a long time, some of these settlements along the
lakeshore have been neglected," said Herick Othieno, a solar
energy expert at Maseno University in Kenya.
"It's only recently that power started getting there," said
Othieno, who led the creation of Renewable Energy Solutions for
the Lake Victoria Environment(RESOLVE) with Renewable World and
its local partners.
Soil in the area is poor and hard to cultivate, leaving
commercial fishing in Africa's largest lake as one of the few
alternatives to make a living.
Increasing access to solar power is helping to lift local
people out of poverty by improving their income and sparking
business opportunities beyond fishing, experts said.
The Muhuru Bay community solar hub is one of six that
RESOLVE established on the lakeshore, with their power capacity
ranging from 1.5 to 2.0 kilowatt (KW) which can be expanded and
support up to 50 connections.
Users pay a connection fee and are charged by the hour for
using the technology as part of a pay-as-you go system for
off-grid electricity that has become popular across Kenya and
many other countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
Thirty households are connected to the system in the Muhuru
Bay area, managed by community organisation Ngore Renewable
Energy and Auxiliary Project (REAP) and benefitting 1,400
people, including small businesses.
"We also have some running barber shops and phone charging
businesses with the solar power," said Lucas Okoth, REAP's
The micro-grids installed by Renewable World are simple
steel frame structures that hold the solar panels and a control
box housing batteries, a charger and energy distribution
Each grid has a smart meter connected to mobile phone-based
money transfer service M-Pesa through which customers make their
payments before they are transferred electronically to the solar
hub's bank account.
The fishermen have also been able to cut costs by using
solar rechargeable lamps on their boats during night time
They now spend 200 Kenyan shillings ($1.94) a day, a quarter
of what it used to cost them to fuel their fishing lamps with
kerosene, said REAP's Okoth.
Villager Lovis Odhiambo said his home is healthier since he
has become a customer as he no longer has to use sooty and
smokey kerosene lamps and his children are more comfortable
studying at night thanks to solar lighting.
It is also cheaper - he used to spend 50 shillings a day on
paraffin compared to the 200 shillings he now spends every month
on solar power.
"The table cloths were always dirty with soot and the smoke
was irritating to the eyes. Sometimes it felt like we were short
of breath and the house would smell of the paraffin," said
A SOLAR "GRAVEYARD" NO MORE
The amount of solar energy captured into the national grid
is currently negligible despite the government's call for
investments in renewable energy sources.
Kenya's Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) identified high
initial capital costs and low awareness of the potential
opportunities and economic benefits offered by solar
technologies as some of the reasons.
Some projects also fell into disrepair despite receiving
"In the past they used to say Africa was a 'graveyard of
failed solar projects' because of all the 100 percent subsidised
installations which broke down and never got fixed because no
mechanism was put in place for operation and maintenance," said
Charlie Miller, director for national programmes at Power for
"That's really starting to change now," said Miller, whose
coalition of more than 170 public and private organisations
campaigns for universal energy access by 2030.
(Reporting by Moraa Obiria in Muhuru Bay. Editing by Astrid
Zweynert @azweynert. Please credit the Thomson Reuters
Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers
humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights,
climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org)