How Solar Stores Are Helping to Meet Rural Uganda?s Energy Needs

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Attorney Sari Schwartz and Rachel Ishofsky, associate executive director of Jewish Heart for Africa discuss how cell phones and hair trimming in rural Uganda sparked the introduction of mobile solar kiosks. A pilot project, the aim is to see whether these solar stores can be run profitably, thus creating both an independent business and a source of safe, reliable energy.

The focus of international development is shifting. Foreign assistance in its traditional form is being called into question for its potential to foster an endless cycle of dependence. Grantees are left devastated when grants dry up. During this paradigmatic shift, microfinance has been regarded as a beacon of progress. The rationale: help empower people to claim ownership of their own success.

While the popularity of microfinance is undeniable, providing small business loans may not be the only answer. As the concept of social entrepreneurship and businesses with double bottom lines continues to grow, Jewish Heart for Africa has implemented a new kind of social enterprise for rural energy development.

The opening of a rural solar store

In sub-Saharan Africa, over 80 percent of the population is forced to rely on wood, charcoal and animal dung to meet their energy needs (2007 Human Development Report HDR, United Nations Development Program). Trees are being cut down at an unprecedented pace for the sole purpose of having something to burn.

Last March, when the Jewish Heart for Africa staff visited its multiple project sites in Uganda, they narrowly escaped a mudslide that killed over 300 people in the Mt. Elgon district, home to several ongoing JHA energy projects. The cause of this mudslide was deforestation; without trees and the stability that tree roots provide to the ground, a storm in the rainy season resulted in massive devastation.

Another energy challenge is the health risk associated with current energy sources. Women use wood and coal burning stoves for cooking, children sit and do their homework by the light of candles and kerosene lamps. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), these daily household activities cause over 1.5 million women and children to die each year of respiratory disease associated with smoke inhalation. Furthermore, countless fires are caused by these open flames in homes often built of thatch.

Finally, the cost of candles and kerosene lamps is often prohibitive, with the average household in rural Uganda spending between $1 and $2 a week on these unsustainable energy sources. This can amount to over 30 percent of their household income.

While solar energy seems to provide a natural solution to the above, the challenges of solar home solutions are manifold: encouraging people to obtain large-scale solar systems for their homes proved unrealistic due to the sheer expense of installation; purchasing panels for those in need was not a viable alternative, since costs to maintain the systems were not within reach for recipients. Finally, replacement light bulbs alone could cost a family upwards of $50 per year, a sum that is not feasible for families living on less than $1 a day.

The need to identify a sustainable alternative to reduce deforestation and reliance on dangerous and costly energy sources, such as kerosene, served as the inspiration for Jewish Heart for Africa’s newest groundbreaking project: the opening of a solar powered kiosk to serve those living in rural areas of Uganda.

Source: pv magazine (link opens in a new window)