Midwifery by Mobile Phone Torch — Why I’m Determined to Solar-Power Rural Ethiopia
Ethiopia exhibits the prerequisites for an almost completely renewable energy supply, in large part due to its superb hydrological and solar-power resources. In spite of this potential, however, more than 80% of Ethiopia’s population have no access to electricity, particularly for the 80+ million (out of Ethiopia’s total of 105 million) who live in rural areas.
Alongside candles and battery torches, the majority of these off-grid households use kerosene lamps for lighting. All three, but especially kerosene, are highly inefficient, expensive, unhealthy and polluting light sources. One woman who is working hard to try and make electricity more accessible and affordable to rural Ethiopians is Rekik Bekele, founder-director of Green Scene Energy PLC. The initial tool of her trade for addressing the status quo is solar power for lighting, radio and mobile-phone charging.
Q: Tell us about yourself, Rekik.
I was born and raised in the capital, Addis Ababa, growing up with all of the benefits that big city life has to offer. Having said this, in the city you grow used to complaining about the regular power outages and periodic water shortages. It was only after I graduated from university in 2008 that I discovered a world so different than the one I had grown up in.
Q: What was this ‘new world’ like?
Well, immediately after graduating I was thrown directly into field experience, working as an engineer for solar installations in some deep rural areas. One of my first assignments, for example, was to install a solar system for a hospital in Qoddaa, an area in Shishinda District of south-western Ethiopia’s Kaffa Zone. There was no electricity available whatsoever. It was revelatory to me to witness situations in which nurses were delivering babies after dark with a mobile phone torch sandwiched between their teeth, hoping that the battery didn’t run out. Another common lighting source in the hospital, as everywhere, was kerosene lamps. I won’t bore you with the details of when one of those lamps fell down and smashed during an operation in the middle of the night.
On the day that we finished installing the solar-powered lighting system for the hospital, the entire community, young and old, gathered to celebrate. They slaughtered a sheep, brought food and drinks, and included us in their celebrations late into the night.
The community’s joy was summed up by one old man who said, ’This is like shaking the hands of God!’
When he said that, I suddenly realised how privileged we are in cities, as well as how much we take for granted. It is so easy to complain when you have a power cut while in most rural areas of Ethiopia, obtaining light, heat and cooking fuel is expensive, dirty, time consuming and often damaging to the health — especially kerosene lamps. And it severely damages the environment, especially the conventional three-stone open fire which is used most. Witnessing that moment was a turning point for me: it made me eager to continue working on spreading renewable energy solutions to people in rural areas.
Q: So this experience was at the core of Green Scene Energy’s birth. What does Green Scene do, exactly?
Green Scene provides energy-efficient lighting and cooking solutions to off-grid users. We were established in 2016 and are starting off with easy-to-use solar kits which combine a lantern, mobile phone charger, mp3 player and radio. They are a more practical, safer and healthier alternative to both the traditional open fire and kerosene lamps.
We are currently focusing our activities in Oromia, Ethiopia’s most expansive and populated region, which surrounds Addis Ababa and reaches all the way from the country’s western to its south-eastern border.
Our aim is to avail these technologies to the poorest communities. Since paying upfront costs for such kits is a large burden to most, we are taking advantage of Africa’s emerging pay-as-you-go payment methods. Mobile payment allows the buyer to pay for the product in small installments from their mobile phone. This makes sense because the number of people who own a mobile phone far outstrips access to other services, such as banking. In this way, people who have previously been invisible to certain service providers are now included and empowered by the service. Our local agents are continually encouraging mobile payments alongside cash, which is still the preferred payment method for everything in Ethiopia.
It is also important to recognise that, besides their obvious environmental benefits, solar-powered kits provide people with significant savings in the long run: once the full cost of the kit has been paid off, no recurring costs will arise. The obvious comparison here is the cost and hassle of needing to buy kerosene frequently.
We provide a two-year guarantee and take care of repairs because we recognise the importance of building trust in these novel products, as well as trust in the market as a whole. Burdening people with products which don’t last and can’t be easily repaired does more harm than good in the long term. Africa has experienced enough of that already!
Q: How do you convince people in these rural areas to shift their behaviour and decades-old habits?
An important part of the job is to work with the known and trusted figures of each community — respected leaders, elders or church and mosque leaders. If these people aren’t on board, we won’t expect to sell a thing. After introductions are made, we begin by demonstrating the kits and their benefits. We install a kit in order for them to see how it works, how simple it is. We want people to see that the kits deliver what we promise. Once the individuals with authority and influence understand the benefits of the kits and approve of them, it creates a snowball effect. Our local agents remain points of contact for any questions or problems that arise.
Q: That sounds like an exciting but challenging task. What is your ultimate goal?
My goal is to establish thriving, self-sustaining markets which avail these solar lighting solutions to all off-grid areas of Ethiopia, and possibly to other parts of East Africa too. It is an ambitious goal but it is certainly possible: indeed, considering the country’s situation in terms of population growth, deforestation and land degradation, it is a ‘no-brainer’. Of course, it is not a goal that I can achieve entirely on my own, and the way we collaborate with partners, investors, the government, communities and other stakeholders will be crucial to our success. One of our current collaborators is Power Africa, whose support and guidance in piloting the pay-as-you-go payment method has been invaluable.
Also Ethiopia has a young, energetic workforce who are eager to get their hands on anything that can bring them (and thus, the country) forward. We want self-sustaining solar panel factories dotted throughout the country. I can’t wait until we can actually achieve production in Ethiopia as an alternative to importing. I very much appreciate the huge investments made by the Chinese recently, but Ethiopian labour should be at the heart of those investments. Look at athletics legend Haile Gebrselassie, for example: he could have invested his fortune anywhere in the world, but he chose to plough it back into Ethiopia by investing in people and businesses here. We need more examples like him!
Q: Please talk more about who you need on board to reach your ambitious goals.
(1) The consumers are in place and willing.
(2) The Ethiopian government is in place and willing, making great strides to instigate policy on renewable energy. For example, the Ministry of Water, Irrigation and Energy has a Rural Electrification Fund which promotes renewable energy in rural Ethiopia. The Development Bank of Ethiopia, in collaboration with The World Bank, provides low-interest loans for the private sector working on renewable energy.
(3) In order to catalyse lasting change for the private sector, however, I believe that these types of investments need to be intensified and amplified. For this, Green Scene needs investors and funders.
Q: What is coming up for Green Scene?
So far in 2018 we are working to electrify a village in Oromia Region called Abu Serkama. We are working closely with key community members to provide the whole village of about 500 households — that’s about 2500 people — with electricity. Once everything is in place, Abu Serkama will be a model demonstration to everyone of what is possible.
Q: Last, how often can we expect to hear from you on Medium?
I will be writing about Green Scene’s progress every couple of months. Questions, comments, suggestions and words of wisdom from readers are more than welcome. Please contact me if you’re also a champion of renewable energy!