Our farm produces energy, not crops

Francis Nyamaramba's solar farm in Miwani. [Courtesy]

For Francis Nyamaramba and his family, light was a precious and scarce commodity, provided only by a single, weak light. 

“I had only one lamp which was to serve the whole house from the kitchen to the sitting room. When the lamp is used in the kitchen, the sitting room becomes very dark, this negatively limited us,” he recalls, adding that one could easily get injured when moving from one room to another and reading at night was also difficult.

“My compound was dark from every corner, we only depended on kerosene lamps for lighting,” Nyaramba narrates.  

According to data from the World Bank, around 733 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity with the concern that by 2030, 91 per cent of them will still not be connected if governments do not substantively opt for alternatives in power provision.

In Kenya, the World Bank estimates that access to electricity was at 71.44 per cent by 2020. However, despite government efforts in rural areas electrification, at least 16 million people are still not connected to electricity.

For four years now, Nyamaramba has had more control over how much light he has in every room, thanks to a solar microgrid installed on his piece of land. The solar farm was installed on his land thanks to a visitor who saw their struggles and decided to help them.  

“I can read my Bible in the evening without facing challenges, and interact with the family in the evening before we go to sleep. I have a television here where I follow all that is happening around the world just because there is efficient power around that runs the device,” he notes.

Simon Omari, also a resident of Miwani village is equally elated about the project.

“We have been having the challenge of accessing power for domestic use, but because God works in his ways a ‘mzungu’ came here in our village and learned that we had difficulties in lighting our homesteads so he came up with a power project,” he says. He adds that before the project came about, he used to walk more than two kilometres to a centre where he could charge his phone.

“It was the only place that had electricity. I would take the phone early in the morning and bring it back in the evening. Imagine covering more than four kilometres a day and you have some chores waiting for you to perform. It was really hectic but with the power project in place, now my phone is full 24/7 and I don’t have to walk and charge somewhere else,” he says.

Additionally, Omari’s school-going children are now able to study well at night and even do early morning studies unlike four years ago when that used to be a struggle.

“At that time we were using ‘koroboi’. I had only one so it meant that we had to use it to prepare supper before we allowed the children to use it for homework. By the time they got to use it, their concentration was too low. All they could do was eat and sleep,” Omari narrates.

A home powered by the solar farm in Miwani. [Courtesy]

He explains that the villages the power grid is serving, are more secure now.

“We used to have cases of night attacks and robbery with violence, but because in every homestead security lights are available, it becomes harder for thieves or anyone to break the law by attacking someone at night or intruding someone’s home without consent,” Omari says. 

According to Job Machini, a posho mill owner, there was no posho mill in the village where the villagers could have their maize milled to produce flour for domestic use. They would walk long distances in search of the machine but with the solar farm in the village, they have electricity that runs the machine.

Machini who was previously jobless and now earns a living from the posho mill notes that he pays Sh150 per day for his electricity subscription depending on the number of customers.

“Also, using this form of energy to run the posho mill is a great deal because it is environmentally friendly, it does not pollute the environment as much as one that uses fuel does,” he observes. 

According to an engineer operating at Miwani village, Ezekiel Omwoyo, the microgrid project in Miwani village was started five years ago by PowerHive, a US-based technology venture. 

“Powerhive connectivity was achieved in partnership with mobile network operations and internet service providers, leveraging PowerHive’s microgrid infrastructure and deployment model,” Mr Omwoyo explains.

“The microgrid is installed at the centre of Miwani village, it’s operating at a radius of five kilometres from where it’s installed and more than 1500 homesteads are benefiting from the project,” Omwoyo says. 

He adds that, once they are operational, the microgrids can provide up to 1MW of generating capacity hence benefiting the large population.

The microgrids are using smart meters linked to a cloud-based server. This integrated system enables customers to pre-pay for electricity using M-Pesa, a mobile phone-based money transfer service while allowing PowerHive to remotely monitor performance, consumption and cash flows.  

For one to get connected to the solar grid, there is a registration fee of Sh3,000. After the payment, the installation of the equipment is done. Thus, you only have to do the subscriptions.

“The residents can do daily, fortnightly or monthly subscriptions depending on one’s pocket and preferences. For a day, a client is required to subscribe at Sh20, fortnightly at Sh250 and monthly at Sh499,” says Mr Omwoyo.

According to residents, this works the same way, one buys internet bundles from telecom companies. Once the power bundles are exhausted, the power goes off and you are forced to do another subscription.

According to Mr Nyamaramba, it is evident that the project has been impactful on residents but unfortunately, it’s inefficient during storms and cloudy days, since it depends on solar energy. Thus, the subscription which lasts 24 hours can expire before you use it.