Published in: State of the Planet | Earth Institute | Columbia University
At 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, lights flicker on at a small hairdressing salon which lies at the center of a bustling little trade market in Ruhiira Millennium Village, Uganda. The proprietor, Mr. Asimwe Enock, patiently trims a group of fidgety school children in assorted uniforms. Outside, a crowd of onlookers cheers on a snooker contest, whilst the surrounding tailors, vegetable sellers and drink vendors compete for customers’ attention. Yet it was only four weeks earlier when all this activity was cut short each afternoon due to a lack of access to electricity. Even if the village was connected to the national grid, because it is so remote, fees would be prohibitively expensive. The people of Ruhiira normally would return to their homes each afternoon, lit only by kerosene lanterns or candles. But now business owners like Mr. Enock can pay for electricity simply with their phones.
One-hundred twenty light bulbs were switched on in Ruhiira for the first time last year, using the innovative SharedSolar system installed by the Millennium Villages Project (MVP). The impact on villagers’ lives has already been tremendous.
Solar powered micro-grids have been installed in eight different points in Ruhiira, with the capacity to serve 20 households each. Transmission lines link consumers to the meter. Sunshine is plentiful in Ruhiira even in the rainy season, and the batteries have a three-day storage charge, so the power source remains constant.
SharedSolar households now spend on average 12,000 UGX (approx. 5 USD) on their energy needs per month. Consumers are able to pay in small installments for what they need, when they need it, using their mobile phones. The grid’s meter controls the output of solar-generated electricity based on the customer’s usage and remaining credit.
Mr. Enock was able to get rid of his expensive fuel-powered generator, and is now able to power the electric razor in his salon using solar power. He has also started a small side business charging mobile phones. That, and the longer opening hours facilitated by lighting, means he has increased the number of customers and his income.
“I used to have 10 customers per day, but now I am getting 17 since I can stay open till 9 p.m., in addition to charging several phones,” he says. The SharedSolar system has reduced his weekly power bill from 6000 UGX (2.5 USD), to only 2000 UGX per day (less than 1 USD), translating to more money in his pocket.
“I have four children, and the extra money has eased my life, I can now easily afford their school fees and books and other expenses. I also want to expand my business and open a mobile phone shop in the future,” he says.
Mr. Byarugaba, also a father of four, runs a tailoring business next door and is now able to take on bigger orders since lighting up his shop a month ago.
”When I turn on the light it shows everything in my shop, it is so exciting,” he says, pointing happily to the colorful fabrics which surround him, “I have been able to get rid of all the candles and increase my profits,” he says.
The beauty of the system is that it pays for itself – after the initial investment, the fees paid by consumers cover both service delivery and maintenance. This is important, considering that the premise of the Millennium Villages Project is to be largely self-sustaining by 2015. Local ownership is the key to long-term sustainability of progress made on the Millennium Development Goals, and thus the MVP is building the capacity of small operators and local communities to look after all types of infrastructure.
Solar power is also better for the environment, and saves money previously spent on candles, kerosene and batteries.
“People are no longer affected by the smoke from kerosene and candles, which also represented a fire danger,” notes Pius, the energy technician for Ruhiira Millennium Village.
“The standard of living has improved, whilst the cost of living has gone down. People know they are lighting their pockets, so they make sure to turn off the lights when they are not using them,” he adds.
School students are a major beneficiary of Ruhiira’s lights. Four schools have been connected to the solar scheme, which means that children can read and study for as long as they need too. Asiimwe Nakiet, the head teacher of St. Everis school, says he hopes children’s grades will improve with additional study time.
SharedSolar systems will be installed in an additional 40 households and businesses in Ruhiira in the coming weeks, and the scheme is also being rolled out in Mali. It is expected to light up the lives of villagers by facilitating the social and economic gains needed to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.