Hugging Africa's Renewable Energy

Africa is the least energized continent in the world. A satellite image of Africa at night reveals only scattered lights across the continent. This is a stark contrast to other parts of the world that are well lit in similar satellite images. Although this is mostly indicative of electrical lighting, it is symbolic of Africa’s state when it comes to overall energy production and usage.

But Africa’s potential in renewable energy is world-beating. All the way from Eastern Africa to Western Africa; Southern Africa to Northern Africa and Central Africa to Africa’s Small Island States, renewable energy is gathering pace through bold initiatives by both private and public sector players as well as communities themselves.

Africa’s renewable energy journey is however greatly hampered by severe capital and skill challenges. Most renewable energy projects of consequence are extremely capital intensive and can therefore not be undertaken in similar fashion to other green ventures like organic farming. This reality has been proven time and again in a number of renewable energy ventures that diverse African communities have undertaken.

"Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go." T.S Eliot

Solar Energy

Solar photovoltaics are the most ubiquitous form of renewable energy in most African communities. Unfortunately, poor households have not benefited as much as high income households from solar PV systems because of the high upfront costs. This has been the case in Wasini Island in Kenya’s South Coast.

The Island’s two thousand dwellers have lived without electricity for decades owing to the logistical challenges of extending the national grid to the island. This forced community members to depend on paraffin-powered lanterns even as their counterparts on the mainland were increasingly connected to the grid.

However, over the last two years, about fifty islanders have installed solar into their homes. They can now access electricity at night and power their electronics as they light up their houses. It is mostly because of such installations that Kenya has an installed solar PV capacity of 3,600kwp. Only South Africa is ahead of it with an installed solar PV capacity of about 11,000kwp.

For the last three decades, hundreds of communities across Africa have engaged in solar energy projects of varying degrees. Apart from actual installation in similar fashion to Wasini’s people, other solar projects entail actual assembly of small solar panels that are then used in low-voltage energy activities like phone charging. One of the organizations that undertook such a solar project was Kibera Community Youth Programme (KCYP), a Community Based Organization (CBO) based in Kibera, Kenya’s largest slum.  

In 2005, KCYP started assembling small solar panels. They became so experienced that they were even part of the team that installed solar panels at Mama Sarah Obama’s homestead. The then octogenarian is the US President Barack Obama’s grandmother.

The solar panels that they assembled ranged from six, nine and twelve volts and were sold at an average of $5. This project however never fully took off because the low-voltage electricity that these small panels provide is unable to power much needed entrepreneurial activities like welding.

Sasafrica Media, a social enterprise that is based in Wasini Island compared the small panels to giving small aquariums to the island’s fishermen and expecting them to make a living from the aquariums. In the same way that fishermen make a living by plugging into the ocean through their fishing nets, communities need to plug into reliable, consistent electricity through either the national grid or local mini-grids.

Whether local or national, on-grid solar is a cost and skill intensive venture that is mostly possible through intense public-private partnerships that essentially consign local communities to beneficiaries as opposed to drivers of such ventures. However, the fact that such on-grid solar is not community driven shouldn’t negate its vital importance to communities.   


Bio-fuels (Jatropha)

Kitui County in Eastern Kenya is predominantly inhabited by the Kamba community, Kenya’s fifth largest tribe, comprising of five million people. Located a few kilometres away from Kitui town, is the Green Africa Farm that is owned by Green Africa Foundation. The Kamba community that neighbours this farm is a major stakeholder in the farm.

In the early years on the new millennium, Green Africa Foundation planted jatropha in dozens of acres on the farm, making it a trailblazer in bio-fuels. Row after row of the Green Africa farm was full of the small jatropha curcas whose oily seeds are pressed to produce diesel. Also lining sections of the farm’s store were specially designed lanterns and cookstoves that could run on bio-fuel.

At its height, as it rode on the jatropha crest, Green Africa Foundation was on the forefront of Kenya’s official bio-fuel inroads. But in less than two years, the seemingly imminent bio-fuel boom became a bust that was exemplified by jatropha’s fall from glory. Some of the reasons of this fall were global in nature.

Between 2000 and 2006, global biodiesel production multiplied six-fold from one to six billion liters while global fuel ethanol production almost tripled to 40 billion liters. Unfortunately, part of this growth resulted in the destruction of rainforests in Southeast Asia and channeling of food crops like corn towards bio-fuel production. When it was introduced in Kenya, Jatropha was touted as a plant that could grow well in semi-arid places where food crops couldn’t survive and would consequently not be replacing any food crops. However, other factors related to the economies of scale eventually came into play and severely undermined the jatropha promise.

At its peak, hundreds of smallholder farmers in eastern and coastal Kenya grew jatropha as a ‘fuel crop’ that could grant them the twin benefit of fuel and money. But they later realized that the seeds didn’t have a ready market since there was no established large scale jatropha processing plant in the entire country. In addition, even those who were able to press their seeds into bio-diesel through the help of organizations like Green Africa Foundation found out that such bio-diesel wasn’t always compatible with their stoves and lanterns.

A few thousand miles south of Kenya in Malawi, jatropha was also embraced as a formidable source of renewable energy. Through its Agriculture Sector-wide Approach, Malawi’s government recognized ‘the promotion of jatropha growing for production of biodiesel to reduce air pollution.’ But just like the Kenyan experience, it was never clear whether jatropha was in fact a rural development tool or a commercial bio-fuel crop.

Although there is a jatropha processing plant in Malawi’s capital Lilongwe, many smallholders are located hundreds of kilometres away, making transportation of jatropha seeds both logistically challenging and costly. Consequently, farmers from the southern and northern regions where jatropha flourished were often left with stacks of jatropha seeds that they couldn’t sell. Meanwhile, the pressing plant at the capital continued operating thanks to regular supplies from farmers who se farms were much closer to it.

Legislatively, jatropha’s growth in Malawi was also affected by the lingering confusion about its status – was it a tree or a crop? The answer to this question would determine which government department would be responsible for it and which corresponding policies would then be applied to it.

Indeed, the underwhelming jatropha experiences of rural communities in Kenya and Malawi have proved that bio-fuel plants like jatropha may have great promise but it is a promise that doesn’t seem to enhance community livelihoods in short and mid terms.

Small Hydro Power

Back in the year 2000, Nottingham Trent University (NTU), the then ITDG Energy Program and local villagers in Kirinyaga teamed up and developed two small hydro power establishments in the two rural areas. Consequently two hundred households ended up with electricity that was generated right at their doorsteps. This pioneering initiative proved that small hydro power is possible and sustainable but also expensive. Together, the two small hydro projects cost $14,660.

On their own, the two communities in Central Kenya wouldn’t have been able to implement these unprecedented projects. This scenario mirrors the on-grid solar predicament, further vindicating the argument that local communities need support that will place them either on the national grids or local renewable energy powered mini-grids.


It is quite telling that sub-Saharan Africa consumes less energy than the State of New York. This is not surprising, considering that 600 million Africans have no access to electricity. Although tragic, this presents the continent with a golden opportunity to leapfrog the developed world in anchoring new energy in renewable energy-powered grids.

The Africa Progress Report 2015 talks of this leap-frog effect, ‘African nations do not have to lock into developing high-carbon old technologies; we can expand our power generation and achieve universal access to energy by leapfrogging into new technologies that are transforming energy systems across the world.’

Indeed, there are African communities that are now enjoying electricity for the first time ever thanks to renewable sources. In Kenya, Takamoto Biogas is helping farmers in rural areas to install biogas through their Pay-As-You-Go scheme.[1] These farmers have reared livestock for millennia but have never used livestock waste as a source of electricity. Takamoto Biogas helps them to tap into these renewable energy resources by setting up the biogas infrastructure into their homes.

The infrastructure includes electricity poles, underground cables, meter box and the transformer. Most of the rural farmers have neither the expertise nor the resources to set up such infrastructure. Takamoto takes away this burden from them and just like electricity consumers of the national grid, they pay back every time they purchase electricity credits. To facilitate purchase of the credits, this biogas firm has set up smart metres that transmit critical consumption data back to company headquarters.

For close to three years, Takamoto has been setting up biogas for farmers mostly in Central Kenya. Farmers who have benefited from this biogas wave have at least two cows. As an icing on the cake, their biogas units are also equipped with outlets that produce manure that further enriches their crops without degrading the soil like some fertilizers.

Trees also benefit from the biogas. The company estimates that for every 155 families that switch to biogas, at least 1,860 trees are saved. This is because the most common cooking fuel in rural Kenya is either firewood or charcoal, both by-products of trees. So widespread are these two cooking fuels that they consume a minimum of 5.6 million trees daily.[2]

In popularizing and establishing biogas, Takamoto is not only providing clean cooking and lighting energy for rural families in Kenya, but also helping to protect the country’s much needed trees. This Takamoto approach shows the renewable energy nexus between communities and the private sector. It is a win-win arrangement through which the community is able to access energy from their own raw materials. On their part, Takamoto reaps returns that enable it to continue servicing the biogas infrastructure and providing biogas expertise.

At a broader international level, the Africa Biogas Partnership Programme (ABPP) is spreading the biogas wave in five African countries – Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burkina Faso. Although led by two Dutch organisations Hivos and SNV, this initiative supports national programmes in the five countries. Its goal is to provide half a million people with sustainable energy by 2017.

Ethiopia has been a key part of this goal. Since 2009, ABPP has been setting up biogas plants in Ethiopia.  In the first phase of the programme between 2009 and 2013, ABPP constructed 8,063 biogas plants in 163 districts across Ethiopia. In the second phase that will conclude in 2017, the programme targets construction of 20,000 plants. Several steps towards realization of this target were taken in 2014 when 1,762 plants were set up.

About 70 percent of the rural poor in Africa own cattle, making biogas a particularly relevant energy source for them. The situation is even better in Ethiopia, which has Africa’s largest cattle population, currently standing at 54 million. A single cow can produce approximately 0.5 cubic meters of gas per day, which can fuel a single burner stove for an hour. The two hours of cooking that two cows can therefore produce is sufficient for a family of less than ten in any given day.

Although the Africa Biogas Partnership Programme is a macro programme, it is built on micro-communities. It may not be community-funded, but this very need for external macro-funding for renewable energy projects like this one shows the sheer energy gap that still exists in Africa and how difficult it is for local communities to fill this gap on their own.

The next biogas frontier in Africa now involves compression of the biogas into cylinders so that it can be purchased by the millions in urban centres who use natural gas for cooking. The market is already there and it is just a question of green technology catching up with this market.

The biogas wave is but a manifestation of the renewable energy undercurrents that are sweeping across the continent. The Africa Progress Report 2015 captures this reality succinctly, ‘No region has more abundant or less exploited low-carbon energy resources. Harnessed to the right strategies, these resources could resolve two of the most critical development challenges facing Africa: power generation and connectivity. Renewable energy could do for electricity what the mobile phone did for telecommunications: provide millions of households with access to a technology that creates new opportunities.’

These new opportunities are already being created as ripples of renewable energy across Africa become steady waves.

These are low carbon energy sources and as they become increasingly affordable, they should provide low hanging industrial fruits that will enhance the livelihoods of low income Africans. Indeed, the primary beneficiaries of renewable energy expansion in Africa should be the 600 million Africans who still don’t have electricity in their homes. This new found energy will potentially provide 600 million concrete opportunities for enhancing their wellbeing.


Africa Progress Panel (2015). Power, People, Planet: Seizing Africa’s Energy and Climate Opportunities. Geneva; Switzerland.

WWF Report Summary (2014). Enabling Renewable Energy in South Africa: Assessing the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme.

International Energy Agency (2014). Africa Energy Outlook:A focus on energy prospects in sub-Saharan Africa.  Paris; France.

International Renewable Energy Agency (2012). Prospects for the African Power Sector. Abu Dhabi; United Arab Emirates.

Eberhad Anton, Kolker Joel, Leigland James  (2014). South Africa’s Renewable Energy IPP Procurement Program: Success Factors and Lessons.


[1] This is a prepaid card loaded with credits of a given value that allows one to use electricity credits of the purchased value.

[2] Green Africa Foundation Research.

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Last modified on Sunday, 24 October 2021 17:00

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