Somalia’s Solar-Powered Recovery
Investing in solar-powered energy and water solutions is one of the most sustainable and efficient ways to help Somalia rebound from years of conflict.
In late 2011, I visited Mogadishu to observe first-hand the Somali capital’s fresh wounds from the latest round of fierce fighting. Glimmers of hope appeared that this time would be different, that some semblance of stability and governance could take hold. As a graduate of electrical engineering with a specialization in renewables, I was pleasantly surprised in the immediate interest by some businesses and non-governmental organizations in solar power. They connected the dots between one of Somalia’s greatest resources — its reliable sunlight — and one of its greatest needs — reducing the extraordinarily high costs of energy for households and businesses.
Having studied engineering at the University of Nairobi, I knew the potential for the market to take off in Somalia. I was witnessing solar solutions in Kenya go from a novelty to a multi-million dollar sector. So I made the decision in 2012 to return to Mogadishu and found SolarGen Technologies. Like other start-ups, we tried everything in the early days to gain our first clients, access our first seed capital, and — most importantly — deliver high quality products and services to those who were willing to take a chance with us.
At SolarGen, we take great pride that our projects are contributing to the recovery of Somalia’s economy. We remember our early projects like the installation of 79 solar street lights in Mogadishu which provided light for security at night for residences, as well as helped businesses stay open later. Likewise, we helped electrify an important marketplace in Mogadishu with a 20 kilowatt photo-voltaic system, and installed a 17 kilowatt system to power a water pump for a borehole that served both a large number of internally displaced persons as well as a nearby dairy farm.
International donors funded these type of projects, but after less than two years the always entrepreneurial Somali business community began to make their own investments in solar-powered solutions. In 2014, we completed a large solar-powered irrigation system outside of Afgoye — an important farming town 30km away from Mogadishu. The system is still producing 2,800 cubic meters of water a day for the farmer who grows lemons and bananas. We also began to work with local businessmen who were operating diesel-powered generators to run community boreholes. We explained the economic advantages of solarizing their systems: large reductions in fuel costs and fewer down-times. We then helped them access finance to make the upfront investment in the solar technology. These businessmen have already made a profit and, because of the consistent volume they are producing, they have also dropped their prices.
As early champions of the solar industry in Somalia, we are excited to take part this week in Mogadishu in a forum focused on financing sustainable energy. The Federal Government of Somalia, the United Nations, international donors, and the private sector will be sitting down to discuss how to increase rapidly energy access to underpin the larger goals of economic recovery and nation-building. The challenges are enormous. Despite progress this decade, Somalia remains one of the most energy deprived countries in the world. The majority of Somalis do not have any access to electricity and those who do pay between 10 and 30 times the amount that their neighbors pay in Ethiopia and Kenya. Somalia cannot fully recover unless we bring these costs down and provide affordable solutions to more people.
SolarGen, after five years of growth, will play its role. We have now grown to 40 employees and we are implementing projects for the public and private sector across the country. In 2017 alone, we installed more than 30 solar-powered water pumps for communities with a collective capacity of more than 500 kilowatts. Thanks to our design and installation, a leading livestock company in Kismayo is now relying on a solar system to provide water to its quarantine facility, and a large dairy farm outside of Mogadishu will soon have a solarized cooling tank.
What we are most excited about is the potential for solar mini-grids to provide electricity to the millions of Somalis living in rural areas. These systems, which we have designed and constructed in Kenya, can provide basic lighting and charging points for small and medium appliances, power critical water pumps, and serve the energy needs for small and medium enterprises. Even more, the systems can be designed in a way that reduces the cost per user by between 50% and 75% of what they are currently paying for old diesel generator systems.
We are about to begin our first mini-grid in Somalia and we think the potential is limitless. As is the case in many countries rebounding from conflict and natural disasters, like this year’s severe drought, financing will be one of the greatest obstacles. There are so many other competing priorities for the government, civil society, private sector, and international community. Nevertheless, we must all come together to find innovative ways to match resources with the new green technology solutions that will help Somalia recover and ultimately thrive in the 21st century.