Solar powered lights are changing the way people do business in Kenya. In the town of Embu, which is located in central Kenya northeast of Nairobi, Violet Karimi is a farmer who can now take advantage of the evening hours to sell her produce, thanks to the arrival of solar lights in her town. Now at night she leaves her three children studying at home by the light of a solar lantern and takes fruit and vegetables harvested on her farm to sell in Embu’s open air market.
“I collect my stock and head to the market where I trade until late in the evening,” said the 36-year-old. “This is possible because the solar lights in the market and the rest of Embu town are switched on the whole night.” On a good day, she says she can bring home as much as $30. That’s three times as much as she could sell during a shorter day before the solar lights made longer trading hours possible. “Customers want to shop in the evening because that is when they leave work,” she said. “The solar lighting has encouraged them to stay and buy as long as they like.”
Solar lights have other benefits as well. Before they came to her village, Karimi and her children depended on smoky kerosene lanterns and candles to light their home. Both give of toxic fumes and increase the risk of fire as well. She says the lights in the village also make her feel more secure at night. Even after working late into the evening at the market, she feels comfortable hiring a motorbike taxi to take her home. “The streets are well lit with solar energy and so I am not afraid of traveling at night because there is security,” she says.
Others in Embu County have seen commercial benefits from the installation of the small solar grids. They collect solar energy, store some of it in batteries for use at night, and distribute the rest to customers. Joe Njiru pays $10 a month to the Embu County solar micro grid but makes five times as much from his bar business. The bar’s eight light bulbs and satellite TV help keep customers chatting, debating local politics, and buying his beer well past midnight.
Two years ago, few customers would stay past 8 pm, he says. The bar had a power connection to the national grid, but there were frequent power outages. “Every day there were blackouts in the evening because that is when people with illegal connections would interfere with electricity as they tried to switch on,” said Njiru. “Customers could not stay long because they feared to be mugged on their way home.”
Energy company officials would sometimes come by and disconnect his power, saying he had not paid his monthly bill, Njiru says. But now, he uses a banking system — M-Pesa — that connects him to the local microgrid via his mobile phone and pays online. “For us, investing in the solar project is a double win,” says Embu County Governor Martin Wambora. “Solar energy is cheaper to maintain in the long term and puts us in solidarity with the world’s push for a global green economy.”
For now, the microgrids in the area do not store enough power for anything other than LED lights and small televisions. There is a need for more extensive microgrids that would make it possible for businesses that need more power to get started. “This is where development partners should come in and support solar micro grids with finances so that they can be able to expand their generation and storage capacity,” said Lois Gicheru, the chief executive officer of Solafrique Ltd., an enterprise that works with African communities to help them access renewable energy.
In Kenya, solar power is not only helping people earn more money, it is also spreading the micro-finance culture so vital to small business development. Those are huge dividends from small investments and will help Kenyans enjoy a higher standard of living, thanks to energy from the sun.