The Global LEAP Awards and Solibrium Limited teams in Kakamega, Kenya.

The Global LEAP Awards are an international competition to identify and promote the world’s best, most energy-efficient off-grid appliances. In 2019, the Global LEAP Awards launched the inaugural Solar E-waste Challenge to identify innovations in solar E-waste management across sub-Saharan Africa. Through a rigorous evaluation process, the competition selected eight winners spanning five countries to implement projects in consumer awareness, take-back and collection, product reuse, repair & recycling. This blog series explores solar E-waste ecosystems and provides insights into each company’s unique challenges and opportunities.

Background

“Our aim in Kakamega is to develop a tool that can track and locate e-waste here, but also be replicated in other counties. We want to solve the information gap and empower other e-waste stakeholders to take specific and targeted action.”

Hardley Malema, E-Waste Project Manager at Solibrium

Solibrium sales agents selling Omnivoltaic solar products in Kakamega county, Kenya.

Headquartered in one of the most densely populated rural regions in Kenya, Solibrium Limited is a solar distributor that aims to offer alternative clean and affordable energy solutions to bottom-of-the-pyramid consumers.

Solibrium is an offshoot of Eco2librium, a social and environmental conservation focused enterprise that uses business as a force for good in Western Kenya. Eco2librium was founded in an effort to help in conservation of the unique Kakamega Tropical Rainforest in Kenya, which is the last remaining relic of the ancient Guineo-Congolian rainforest that once stretched along the equator across the entire expanse of Africa.

Eco2librium focuses primarily on mitigating the effects of deforestation by introducing energy efficient cookstoves and forestry conservation projects. After years of observing the challenges off-grid communities face accessing clean and reliable energy sources, in 2016 the team began introducing small-scale solar solutions. The team registered Solibrium to provide clean and affordable energy solutions to underserved rural communities.

Kenyan students using a lamp distribributed by Solibrium.

“We realized that we need to provide an affordable form of electricity to our communities in Western Kenya, many in remote, rural areas where there is no grid. We started an initial solar pilot and found that there is a huge need for affordable solar energy,” explained Chris Amutabi, Assistant Director of Eco2ibrium.

Since registering four years ago, Solibrium has grown to offer a range of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar kits and customized larger systems for businesses and medical centres. As a new distributor, most products have not yet reached their end-of-life (EoL). “So far, we have not had a big challenge with e-waste, so we are focused more on forward planning so we are ready when it becomes an issue in a few years,” explained Amutabi.

Both Eco2librium and Solibrium are registered B-corp companies, “As a B-Corp, we are conscious about the environment in our business. We thought further along the supply chain about the environmental impacts of these products when they reach their end-of-life. We came up with the idea to do awareness creation on best practices of life extension and find ways to properly dispose and recycle components. Under this mandate, we created a project called Resource Efficiency and Waste Management for Off-Grid Solar (REWMOS)”

REWMOS, unique in the sector, is a pioneering collaboration between Solibrium and a Swiss-based organizations REPIC and Myclimate Foundation. The organizations are dedicated to reducing the negative environmental impacts of solar home systems (SHS) by exploring viable business models that can incorporate e-waste with vigorous sales of solar products.

Challenges

After reaching most of Western Kenya, Solibrium has ambitious goals for national expansion. Amutabi said that the team worried about what business growth would mean for e-waste levels, “The e-waste that will come out in the next ten years will be enormous. Now we really want to grow our partnership with government agencies and the informal sector so we can build a system to manage e-waste coming from SHS. We need to think about what will happen to the e-waste coming from the growth happening now in the off-grid solar industry?”

Returned solar components at the Solibrium headquarters in Kakamega.

While Kenya boasts the largest off-grid solar market in sub-Saharan Africa, Kakamega County remains the hub for Western Kenya solar retailers. Solibrium is investing now in developing e-waste management infrastructure to prevent negative human and environmental health impacts in the coming years. However, with minimal information on product sales, types and consumer behaviors, it is challenging to plan.

Hardley Malema, Project Manager at Solibrium, leads the REWMOS project and identified lack of information as a key challenge in e-waste management efforts: “We don’t have any information on the distribution of e-waste in this region, what is where and who has it. In addition, through surveys that we conducted, we found that many people do not know the best practices for life extension and how to properly dispose of their e-waste.

Consumers generally dispose of EoL products in unsafe ways: they throw it in their farms or pit latrines. These methods are not good for the environment. There is a huge knowledge gap that we need to address collectively and thus a lot needs to be done with regards to e-waste.”

Additionally, in Western Kenya there is no infrastructure to support e-waste collection and management. Through the REWMOS partnership, Solibrium aims to become an e-waste leader in the region, and play a role in developing “good infrastructure, a good system through which e-waste can be channeled for recycling, for proper disposal, and also for refurbished to extend product lifespan.”

The Global LEAP Awards

The Solibrium team learned about the Global LEAP Awards Solar E-waste Challenge through our network of partners in the REWMOS project. “We decided to apply to upscale our activities. Our main goal with the Solar E-waste Challenge is to develop a tracking tool to find out what kind of E-waste exists and where it is. The Challenge will complement and grow our REWMOS activities and focus on more than just our own E-waste, but waste across the region,” explained Malema.

The Global LEAP Awards Solar E-waste Challenge came at an opportune time for Solibrium, “We had already identified the e-waste gap in Kakamega County and were working out plans to address it and fund that work. Through our project, we will develop a comprehensive solar e-waste tracking tool to identify types, quantities, and locations of products to make predictions to guide future E-waste management planning,” explained Amutabi.

Solibrium aims to repair and refurbish all products if possible.

Solibrium’s project has three main components:

  1. Gather information and research on solar use and prevalence, as well as the e-waste problem in Kakamega County
  2. Develop virtual and physical infrastructure for solar e-waste tracking
  3. Develop and pilot a take-back/buy-back business model

“We understand that information is power, without information we cannot address our challenges sufficiently. Our approach has been collecting and creating useful information and sharing it with the government and other stakeholders for reference to assist in decision making as they develop policies and a framework that will address the issue of e-waste in the country,” said Malema.

They hope that the e-waste tracking tool will be helpful not just for companies like Solibrium and the government, but also for recycling companies. The tool would enable recyclers to plan ahead by predicting how much e-waste is expected in a particular region in the country.

The Solibrium team hopes that their model and tracking tool can be scaled to track e-waste across Kenya and adapted to other national contexts. “Our aim in Kakamega is to develop a tool that can track and locate e-waste here, but also be replicated in other counties. We want to solve the information gap and empower other e-waste stakeholders to take specific and targeted action.”

Although the e-waste quantities generated in Africa are low, it is unclear what quantity is actually collected and properly recycled. Any present statistics are largely based on estimates. Solibrium’s tracking tool will serve the wider sector by creating and sharing essential data on e-waste levels and locations.

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Global LEAP Awards

Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership | Identifying & promoting the world’s best, most energy efficient off-grid appliances