Last December, 36-year old Nicholas Kyalo journeyed back to his Ukambani home village, accompanied by his wife and two children for Christmas.
Nothing had changed. The sleepy village was pitch-dark when they arrived. Since 1984 when he was born, his home area is yet to be connected to electricity.
This time, however, he came armed with a solar kit safely tucked in a hand bag, not only lighting up his Kibwezi home but also a Christmas tree.
“Our village neighbours were amazed,” he quips.
Kyalo says he bought the small lighting system from solar firm M-KOPA. Pressed for cash, this was only made possible through the solar company’s flexible payment plan that allows small payments over a period of time instead of lump sum payouts.
The solar system comprises a pair of light bulbs and storage battery, slightly larger than the size of a TV decoder.
Back at his rented single-room house in Kajiado, 80km south of the capital Nairobi, he says the solar kit has saved him huge energy costs, freeing up cash that he used to open a small welding shop.
Though the house is connected to the national grid, 90 percent of his energy needs are now met by solar.
Kenya Power’s supply has been relegated to powering his small TV.
He says he pumped the savings into buying a welding machine and grinder at a total cost of Sh30,000. Prior, he leased the two machines at a cost of Sh1,000 per day, draining him.
M-KOPA alongside other solar providers run the pay-as-you-go model where clients pay for use of home solar systems as a service until the full cost of the equipment is recovered upon which users assume ownership. Payments are through mobile money.
Miles away in Busia in western Kenya, another solar concept is taking root. Solar-powered mini grids are sprouting, lighting up remote off-grid villages.
Here, we meet Frederick Ojiambo in his 20s. Since being connected to a solar mini-grid, the barbershop owner makes an average of $380 (Sh38,000) monthly. Emboldened by the bright fortunes electricity access has brought him, he’s now branching out into chicken farming; he plans to acquire an electric eggs incubator.
“My friends and I used to walk for ten kilometres to the nearest town centre, Funyula to get our hair cut. This gave me an idea to start this barbershop which is doing quite well,” says the former farmhand.
Through an electric clipper, the young man has found his financial footing.
Ojiambo is among dozens of Sidonge village folks in Busia who have recently seen their fortunes turn for the better with entry of electricity in the area.
But theirs is not the traditional connection to the national grid operated by Kenya Power. It would take years for the central grid to reach Ojiambo’s remote village.
For two main reasons.
To begin with, the heavy cost of stretching the national grid through construction of new overhead transmission lines to transport power to the remote, economic backwater area fails the cost-benefit analysis test in resource allocation. The cash-strapped government would better use the funds for other more pressing and urgent needs.
Second, such village populations have low incomes and purchasing power, meaning they cannot pay what it would cost to connect them to the national grid, without heavy State subsidies. Most of these rural customers would ordinarily use power for low demand needs like charging phones, lighting few rooms and playing small electronics.
So how did Sidonge village and a few others around the country get access to electricity if not through the national grid?
For Ojiambo, the barbershop owner, and the new crop of businesses sprouting in his home area, his power needs are met by a small power grid (mini grid).
A mini grid is a smaller version of the national grid, complete with a power generating plant and distribution lines, but on a smaller scale.
The technology has helped decentralise electricity to off-grid areas, igniting rural economies ahead of the arrival of the national grid.
Mini grids are steadily gaining popularity especially among off-grid regions of Africa and have been billed as the grid of the future, being implemented today. They are seen to complement African governments’ efforts of achieving 100 per cent electrification rate in the continent in the shortest span possible and with less upfront resources.
The Sidonge mini grid in Busia involves a small solar power station and wires running short distances to customers’ premises.
It’s operated by RVE.SOL, a Portuguese company, which recently acquired more solar-powered mini grids from Seattle-based investment fund Vulcan founded by the late Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
RVE.SOL operates in Kenya as Kudura Power East Africa and acquired the small grids in Marsabit, Turkana, Kajiado, Nakuru and Migori.
“The acquisition puts us well on our way to operating 50 sites and serving 45,000 people with renewable electricity by mid-2021,” the firm founder and managing director Vivian Vendeirinho was reported as saying.
Nairobi-based PowerGen is yet another mini grid private developer and runs solar powered micro grids in Narok.
Milsa Okochi, also a resident of Sidonge village, is yet another beneficiary of the mini grids campaign. Before electricity made entry into the area, Milsa was a stay-at-home mother of 10, occasionally engaging as a farmhand. By her own admission, she never had any business experience.
But after the mini grid was set up, and following a series of training, she acquired a blender and proceeded to set up a fruit juice enterprise.
Today she makes a profit of $30 (Sh3,000) per week and pays only a bill of $5 (Sh500) per month in electricity costs. Her neighbour Ojiambo pays electricity bill of $10 (Sh1,000) per month for his barbershop, while his take-home income averages $380 (Sh38,000).
Interest in off-grid energy solutions has gained currency in recent years, with firms setting up mini grids while others deploying pay-as-you-go solar kits.
Other private companies operating solar powered mini grids in Kenya include US based Powerhive in Kisii villages and until recently Vulcan.
Analysts have pointed out trends that appear to be transforming the economics of delivering energy to remote rural customers.
The list includes falling costs of solar equipment and backup storage batteries, internet of things (IoT), which has enabled remote monitoring and servicing as well as mobile money that has ensured flexible payment systems for the unbanked village population.
Lastly, production of energy efficient appliances – LEDs, TVs, fridges – has meant these appliances deliver same services for much less energy, favouring low-budget village folk.
The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 140 million people in Africa will gain access to electricity through mini-grids. This would require the installation of 4,000 to 8,000 minigrids a year for the next 25 years.