Mukande, a 31-year-old woman from a remote village in Gisagara District is sweeping the ground outside her home while talking to one of Ignite’s on-field agents. Her husband is out in the field, working on their maize crops.
Her 11-year-old son is standing close by, next to one of the family’s cows, while her younger daughters are running around the yard. “Having light in our home completely changed our lives”, she exclaims. “The kids can now do their homework after dark, and I can cook whenever I want to”.
Mukande and her family have had access to solar-based electricity in their home for the past year. “Now with the lights, we sleep much better. We used to sleep with the cows before, because it wasn’t safe to leave them outside due to the many thefts going on after dark. Now, thanks to the light we keep them outside, and everybody has more room to sleep comfortably,”Mukande points out “.
Mukande’s story is a depiction of millions across Africa, who have been connected to electricity in recent years through off-grid solar solutions. During the final months of 2020, Ignite’s employees canvased various villages across Rwanda’s rural communities, gathering some meaningful testimonials about life before, and after gaining access to power. And the changes are undoubtedly monumental.
Across the continent, the number of people gaining access to electricity doubled from 9 million a year between 2000 and 2013 to 20 million people between 2014 and 2019, with Kenya, Senegal, Ghana, Ethiopia, and Rwanda playing the main role in the revolution. In Rwanda, the access rate rose from 9.7 per cent in 2010 over 34 per cent in 2020, to almost 85 per cent in 2019. As numbers of connections per year grew, so did the role of solar off-grid systems, reaching more than 25% by 2019.
But alongside vast improvements and development, Africa’s population growth rate is outpacing the rate of electricity connections, and Covid-19 is already affecting electrification efforts, as global and local budgets are directed to fighting the pandemic. While billions of dollars go to vaccination efforts, and other pandemic-related, necessary affairs, it is important to remember that unlike other countries that can put all their efforts into the Covid fight, Africa has other crucial needs that must be addressed. Electricity access is a leading necessity, vastly influential on multiple elements of everyday lives, and leading to ample development across the continent.
More opportunities for a better tomorrow
“Before having light we used petrol and risked burning the house”, says Celestine, 45, who lives with her husband and their 2 children in a village in the Gisagara district. “Now we feel much safer.”
Throughout the rural areas of Sub Saharan Africa, petrol and other combustible fuels are used for lighting, cooking, and heating purposes, which are often done through indoor open fires. The fire and smoke contribute to high mortality and disease rates, as homes can be easily burnt to the ground, and smoke causes various diseases including pneumonia, lung cancer. Across the region about 1 million mortalities a year are caused by smoke-related health issues.
The problem is not only in the household. About 730 million tons of biomass are burned for fuel each year in developing countries, releasing as much as 1 billion tons CO2 into the atmosphere. In addition open fires emit high concentrations of a number of black carbon and methane, both with significant climate consequences.
Having home electricity also provides various opportunities for increasing household income. “Before having lights, we used to bring maize to clean, and had to finish before nightfall, and now we can continue after dark.” Mukande explains.
“Before having the solar system we used to sell 30 kg of maize, now we are selling 60”. Across the SSA, over 52% of the working population is in the agriculture field. But albeit a source of employment for over half of the continent’s population, the sector contributes only 23% of the GDP, due to poor irrigation, rotting crops, and insufficient national funding. This contributes to food insecurity which is a major concern for the continent, even more so now during the Covid period. To that end, upping crop sales by 50% is that more meaningful.
Education has been a sore spot for people all over the world since Covid began. In the western hemisphere, millions of children have been studying from home, via different online platforms. But across remote communities in the SSA region, such platforms are not really an option. School closures in the region sent around 250 million children home, and learning completely stopped for most of them, with many likely to never return to class. Having home electricity is meaningful for the long term, as it may enable access to online schooling. But even the light alone makes a meaningful difference. “Before we had light, the children didn’t have time to do their homework. They were at school until 5:30pm and then did house chores,” says Nyirarukundo, 43 from Kivomo.
“Now kids are studying and getting good grades at school”. And it is not just the kids that put in more effort into their education. “My 27 year old son is studying! And showing interest! His sister, 15 years old, is also doing much better in school. Their knowledge increased”, Mukamparaye, 57, from Kivomo exclaimed excitedly.
Despite the immense progress throughout the past decade, more than 600 million people across Africa are still living without electricity access, and these numbers are expected to increase due to population growth and the Covid pandemic. For us who take electricity and its various effects for granted, it is crucial to take a look at some of these testimonials, portraying the change that electricity has, on the smallest, and largest scales. As we redefine global priorities during these turbulent times, it is important to remember that basic infrastructure such as running water and electricity play an essential role in human development, and should not be left behind.
The author is an entrepreneur and investor, leading sustainability-driven companies in Africa and the Middle East.
First published: The New Times