Wednesday, 2 December 2009

UK charity SolarAid offers green answer to African energy problems

Jonathan Clayton in Rumphi, Malawi

Noel Halawa has never forgotten the plague that destroyed his family’s life.
He first saw a few of the caterpillar-like army worms in a neighbour’s bush early one morning in 2005. By nightfall they had spread into nearby maize fields. Within days, moving like a blanket of locusts, they devoured the entire village harvest. “They destroyed every crop. It was devastating. My father lost everything. I vowed to do something to stop it happening again, it caused so much misery and suffering,” he said.
Malawi is one of the poorest countries in the world. Most of its 12 million people are dependent on subsistence farming. Food supplies are precarious. Every year the country suffers shortages, usually brought on by droughts or heavy rains, and needs emergency food aid from the UN.
A plague of crop-eating insects, easily fought off in the developed world, represents a disaster of tsunami-like proportions. Once a farmer loses his crop he cannot earn money to feed his family, nor can he buy seeds for the following season. The cycle of poverty begins.
“People were distraught. They were staring disaster in the face,” said Mr Halawa. “The whole village was in panic, but no one could do anything.”
He said that farmers did not have crop sprayers. In remote rural communities, it is virtually impossible to hire or borrow one at short notice.
“Even if they did have one, a local farmer cannot afford insecticides and pesticides. The Government sometimes helps, but they cannot react quickly enough, and often do not have enough money themselves,” said Mr Halawa.
That gave the 36-year-old entrepreneur an idea, and he set to work. It took two years, but eventually, after much trial and error, recycling abandoned goods such as cooking oil containers, he created a rudimentary crop sprayer.
The 9-volt device was powered by six batteries — enough to last three weeks if used between two and three times a week for less than an hour at a time. Mr Halawa soon found himself with a thriving business. In his home region of Rumphi, in northern Malawi, dozens of farmers wanted to hire the sprayer. However, only a handful could afford the cost of about 75p a session. “The problem was single-use batteries ... They are expensive, do not last very long if the device is used a lot, and we have to go a long way to find them,” he said.
In Malawi, where only 4 per cent of the population have access to electricity, rechargeable batteries are almost unknown. On one of his visits to the nearby city of Mzuzu, Mr Halawa heard of a new shop, sponsored by the UK charity SolarAid, which was offering an almost magical answer to his problem — solar power. SolarAid was established three years ago to fight two key threats facing the developing world: poverty and climate change.
Those behind the organisation realised that the two were often linked by the absence of a commodity taken for granted in the West: electricity.
No electricity means that rural women in Africa have to fell trees and turn wood into charcoal, just to cook. This adds to deforestation, which increases soil erosion and further deteriorates habitat, fuelling global warming. Without electricity, they also cannot see at night. Children cannot do their homework.
SolarAid has been selling, at a subsidised price, small solar panels, no more than 6in square, attached by wire to an LED bulb. This provides enough light for an entire room.
If the panels are left in the African sun during the day, they quickly store enough energy to last up to seven hours. The result is changing the lives of many poor Africans. “When I saw them, I could not believe it ... It was the answer to my dreams,” said Mr Halawa. He quickly adapted his sprayer so it could use the device. He took out a micro-loan for 4,500 Malawian kwatcha (about £18) and bought a unit to power his sprayer. He cut costs elsewhere by using local witchdoctor remedies to make herbicides to kill the pests, instead of buying expensive chemical products.
“Without the need for batteries, I was able to cut my prices. In no time, I had 65 regular clients, and a thriving business,” he said.
SolarAid panels are most commonly used for lighting homes. Darkness falls early and quickly in African villages. Traditionally, families use kerosene lamps that belch out foulsmelling fumes, clogging young lungs and stinking out small homes with eye-stinging smoke. They are often knocked over, and the leaking paraffin or kerosene starts terrible fires.
The solar units have also been adapted recently to charge mobile phones or small radios — often the only source of entertainment and news in villages. People are then no longer forced to walk miles each day to spend income on batteries or kerosene. The economic savings are incalculable.