The Sunshine Miracle That is Helping to Empower Nigeria

Africa’s biggest economy is caught in a crisis of power. But in one small community in the south of Nigeria, a solar power-generation project offers a light of hope for a renewable solution.

By Felix Okoanegbete and David Michael Terungwa for the African Climate Reality Project

Light has come at last to the community of Ofetebe, set in rugged terrain near a forest and a river in Edo State in Central Southern Nigeria. In the local health centre, it shines on babies being delivered by a midwife at night.

In a barber shop run by Mr Sunday Abim, it casts a glow on men who travel from near and far to have their hair cut and styled. In the home of Mrs Temitope Francis, it illuminates knowledge and learning by allowing her school-going daughter to do her homework after dark.

Pa Emowaen, a 90 years old great grandfather, turning on the light in his room.

In this community of approximately 2,000 people, in a country where only 25 per cent of the population has regular access to electricity, the advent of a reliable source of power is changing lives for the better. And it all has to do with what Mrs Francis hails as “the miracle of sunlight”.

Here, through funding from the UNDP GEF Small Grant Program, a Solar Micro Off-Grid Facility (SMOF) has been put in place to generate 4,000 watts (4 kw) of electricity from the ‘Green House’, a central location within the community. From there, it is distributed to power a community borehole, the Community Clinic and 40 Households.

According to Mr Godfrey Ogbemudia, from the Community Research and Development Centre (CREDC), a partner in the project, electricity is supplied by the solar facility for four hours a day, from 6pm to 10pm. A further two to eight hours of electricity can be enjoyed through the use of individual battery packs, with a prepayment keypad meter installed in each household.

For the people of Ofetebe, farming and fishing are the main occupations. But despite the high level of agricultural activities, there is no good access road in the area, which contributes to the high price of kerosene, used as fuel for lanterns.

Before solar energy made its way into the community, much of their little and hard-earned income from agricultural produce was spent on purchasing non-renewable energy sources. This not only increased poverty, but also the stress of sourcing kerosene during times of scarcity.

As an unsustainable energy source, kerosene can also be harmful to health. The continuous inhaling of CO2 has exposed people to respiratory ailments. The community clinic did not have electricity supply, forcing health workers to close before it was dark.

Poor energy access also meant there was no access to clean and drinkable water. Now, solar energy powers the community borehole, providing water for the community and reducing dependence on rainwater and river water.

With its benefits for healthcare, education, productivity, and quality of community life, the solar energy project in Ofetebe could prove to be a role-model for renewable energy solutions in Nigeria. The energy sector is of great strategic importance to the national economy, and a major driver for growth. But the country is facing an energy crisis, with only 50.6 % of the population connected to the grid (UNDP, 2015).

According to the World Bank’s 2014 statistics, Nigeria has an estimated population of 178 million people and an installed generating capacity of 12,522 MW of electricity. When comparted to South Africa, which has a population of 53.6 million and an installed generating capacity of 44,000 MW of electricity, the scale of the challenge facing Nigeria becomes clear.

On average, Nigerians consume 126 kwh of electricity per person per year. South Africa’s annual electricity consumption per capita is approximately 4,800 kwh, or times more. This illustrates the severity of the power generation gap in Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, with a GDP of $521.8 billion. South Africa is second with $350.6 billion.

According to the Federal Government’s 2010 Power Reform Roadmap Report, Nigerians spend over twice as much on self-generated light and power, using candles, diesel, and petrol, as they do on grid-based electricity. At least 6,000 MW is generated using petrol and diesel generators.

This represents a financial burden on Nigerians, of between $6.7 and $10.47-billion, compared to grid-based power. This is not counting the premature deaths and chronic ailments resulting from breathing polluted air, and the harmful environmental impact effects of the greenhouse gases emitted through the burning of fossil fuels.

Nigeria is endowed with oil and natural resources, and yet the country has never had an adequate supply of electricity. This is likely to worsen, as the country’s population increases and economic development puts greater strain on energy capacity.

With the gradual diminishing of fossil fuel reserves, and renewed efforts to save the eco-system from global warming, many nations are turning to alternative sources to meet their energy demands. In Nigeria, the energy crisis leaves many industries running at high cost and keeps many private homes in blackout.

Rural electrification presents a daunting task, since populations are often dispersed across difficult terrain, raising the cost of per-consumer investment and making service quality difficult to maintain. About 80 per cent of electricity generation in Africa is through fossil fuel. Fossil fuel-based power generation is the most expensive form of energy globally, yet it is the largest source of electricity generation in Nigeria.

The good news is that solar energy has emerged as alternative to grid-based electrification. Nigeria’s annual average of daily solar radiation is as high as high 7 kWh/m2/day in the northern border region, and about 3.5kWh/m2/day in the coastal regions. This means that the annual average of daily hours of sunshine varies from 9 hours in the north to 4 hours in the south.

The Draft Revised Edition of Nigeria’s Renewable Energy Master Plan acknowledges the abundant solar resources and aims to deliver solar electricity of up to 30,000 MW in the next 15 years. Solar energy replaces fossil fuel-generated electricity, and thus reduces CO2 emissions.

The power of solar can be harnessed in many ways. It can counter the threat of deforestation, and can create jobs in agriculture and manufacturing.

In the Ofetebe community, 15 youths have been trained to install and maintain the Solar Off-Grid facility, empowering them to become renewable energy entrepreneurs. Female trainees were given special consideration, to ensure gender balance.

The project builds on a business model that includes an income generation component. The money is generated by the Local Electricity Regulatory Committee (LERC) members through TOKEN paid by beneficiaries as energy charge. The money is used to do minor repairs.

Three members of the community, two women and a man, were selected by the elders, and trained by CREDC to manage the facility. The trained LERC manages the facility with little supervision from CREDC. Because the people were part of the process of implementing the project, they see the project as their own and ensure that the services delivered by the facility are sustained.

According to Mrs Obasuyi, the nurse/midwife stationed in the community Health Center, ‘’solar light has changed the way we work here. We now deliver babies at night with the solar light providing better light. Before, we used lanterns which gave poor light, produced smoke and made my work difficult.”

Thanks to the solar light, the Health Center now has a small fridge where vaccines and other drugs are safely stored. With solar providing light at night, the number of people reporting to the health center with cases of snake bites has reduced to near zero, and the borehole powered by the solar has reduced cases of waterborne diseases.

Mrs Temitope Francis smiles as she contemplates the way life has changed for the better in her community. “We are very happy here,” she says. “I no longer spend my money on buying kerosene, which is very expensive and very scarce. It is a miracle that the electricity can be generated from sunlight. We are grateful to God.”

The hope now, in a country beset by an energy crisis, is that the light from Ofetebe can radiate forth and set an example for all of Nigeria’s people.