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Off-grid devices switch wealth in rural Uganda

By Vision Reporter

Added 8th August 2012 12:45 PM

ONLY 12% of 6.5 million households’ access national grid electricity, according to Uganda National Household Survey report 2010.

By Ibrahim Kasita

OSCAR Beddi lives with his family of 12 in a mud-and-wattle grass thatched hut along Uganda’s shore of Lake Albert. The entire family’s livelihood depends on fishing.

Every evening when the sun sets, Beddi and his six sons go out on their boat to fish the much prized Angara (Alestes fish). They entice the fish into their nets with a tadooba (kerosene) lamp attached to a float.

The lamps, which also provide lighting for his hut, pollute the atmosphere with climate –damaging Carbone-dioxide and are expensive to operate. Over 50% of Beddi’s small income goes for kerosene.

For beaten-down fishermen of Lake Albert, who are already suffering from a sharp decline in fish stocks due to overfishing, the costs is exorbitant.

Worse, majority of the Uganda’s population are in the same situation. Only 12% of 6.5 million households’ access national grid electricity, according to Uganda National Household Survey report 2010.

The low coverage and slow advancement of the national electricity grid is reported to be caused by the high cost of grid extension, sparse population, low ability to pay and remoteness of most rural villages.

This combined together with high population growth (creating higher demand in urban areas) and the low power generation/transmission/distribution capacity implies that many parts of Uganda, especially in the north and northeastern will continue to have low electrification and access rates respectively.

“Most of our people use tadooba (oil candles) for lighting. This has raised their expenditures as they to petrol service stations to buy paraffin,” Robert Ddamulira, WWF Uganda Country Climate manager, noted.

No wonder the same household report pointed out that the major type of illness affecting Ugandans is the respiratory tract infections among others.

“The tadooba smell and smoke are a danger to people’s lives on top of the fire danger it brings to the household. It contributes to global warming by emitting carbon dioxide,”Ddamulira explained.

However, commercial off-grid systems have improved the lives of rural Ugandans by providing them with clean, affordable lighting and energy needed for health, production and education.

Clean light

In northern Uganda district of Alebtong, Patrick Abali (32) purchased Firefly Lamp to not only light his home at night but also start business of charging mobile phones.

The Light Emitting Diode (LED) lamp has three parts – the light, the battery and the solar panel to charge the battery. Other components are the switch and a micro-controller to avoid overcharge and over-discharge of the battery.

“I am not worried about the prices of paraffin going up because my fuel (sun) is free. My children can now read and night and prepare well for their examination,” Abali said.

“Most importantly my wife has a commercial venture to manage. She re-charges phone batteries of our clients and that is another side income for the family.”

According to the main findings of “Phone Charging Micro-businesses in Tanzania and Uganda” research conducted in 2011, phone charging is a highly viable economic activity where the grid is absent or where grid electricity is present but used by few people.

The report, conducted by Simon Collings of Global Village Energy Partnership (GVEMP) International, stated that the availability of a local charging service results in greater phone use and increased expenditure on airtime.

“The lack of accessible sources of electricity for recharging a phone is a huge constraint on use and denies many people the full benefits to be derived from a phone which include increased economic activity, banking services, information, and reduced travel time, the report read.

It stated that phone charging is a highly profitable activity. On average businesses in Tanzania are charging 19-20 phones a day and in Uganda 7-8 phone a day..

According to the report, a business charging 20 phones a day (600 phones a month) at $17 cents a go earns revenues of $100 a month.

“The size of system required to service this level of business costs around $480 (excluding installation) meaning the business can pay for itself in five months,” the report adds.  “Once the system is paid for the business has virtually no costs. In addition to charging phones the entrepreneurs operating from their home also used the solar PV system for lighting and TV.

Dr. Izael Da Silva, the director of the Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC) in his book published in 2002: “Global Lighting Energy Savings-Potential Light and Engineering stated the single greatest way to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions associated with lighting energy use is to replace kerosene lamps with white LED lighting.

Off-grid systems

Off-grid lighting systems are standalone rechargeable lighting appliances or kits that can be installed, assembled and used easily without having to seek assistance from a technician, according to Light Africa a joint IFC/World Bank project.

The modern off-grid lighting products comprise a small (1W – 5W) all weather solar panel and a lantern/lamp with a rechargeable battery that powers the lamp for at least four hours each night.

The batteries, most of which now use the mobile phone battery technology, may be built into the lamp or may come as separate battery units to be connected to the lamps after charging.

Batteries are charged when the solar panels are left in direct sunlight, usually on the rooftop, for at least six hours. This enables users to get a minimum of four hours of lighting at night.

Additional features of modern off-grid products that are popular with consumers include mobile phone charging kits, which enable consumers to connect and charge their cell phones directly from the solar panel or from the solar-charged batty.

Off-grid benefits

The benefits of Off-grid system is it extends extend the working day for small and medium enterprises and this leads to growth in production, improving working conditions and increasing customers.

Further the technology enhances safety and security via outdoor lighting for personal, business and community activities as well as education by creating conditions to attract teachers retain students, expand time for student reading and studying both in the classroom and at home.

The long productivity time in homes raises household incomes as well as expands time for adult literacy and higher education programmes. The systems improve health services delivery and reduce greenhouse gas emission.

Despite Uganda’s ambitious plan to connect rural areas to the national grid, there still remains a big market for off-grid business as defined by the total number of unconnected households and their current spending on kerosene for lighting and other lighting products.

Off-grid technology remains the short and medium term solution to light and transform the lives of rural people in Uganda.

Off-grid devices switches wealth in rural Uganda

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