(Yicai Global) June 26 -- "Do you know the "big three" in Africa, my friend?" A moment after I was picked up by my Tanzanian driver Bryceson at the border in Arusha, a seemingly obvious question, together with a signature African smile, was given away in front of me. In a daze in this heat, noise and jetlag, I mumbled "Lion, Zebra, hmmm, Rhino?" "No, dust, mud and bumpy road! Welcome to Africa, my friend!" I certainly had fully experienced the old big three, but soon, on this trip deep into the remotest places on earth, I found the new "big three" that have been transforming people's lives on this continent.
The rhythmic African music in the car synched perfectly with bounces on the rough road. We were heading toward Lake Natron, nestled between rolling volcanic hills and deep craters in the rift valley. I didn't really mind the rough ride because I soon focused on the increasingly dramatic landscape. So desolate was the scenery, so majestic was the Great Rift Valley rising up on my left-hand side, that in awe I couldn't help taking out my camera. The sound of the shutter brought me a peace of mind amidst the dust, bounces and burning dry air.
From afar, my lens captured solar panels installed in the scattered Maasai villages, blending harmoniously into the barren landscape. Even as a professional working at the World Bank on renewable energy development, I was pleasantly surprised to find that solar energy had penetrated even to the remote reaches of Lake Natron. Instantly I was curious about their impact on villagers' lives. I asked my guide, Bryceson to detour to a tiny village at the foothill of Mt. Lengai, the holy volcano for Maasai people for thousands of years.
It was helpful that Bryceson actually knew Sadaimo, the village chief, so I didn't appear to be an intruder but was kindly invited into the Chief's traditional dome-shaped boma. For thousands of years, Maasai people have battled with predators that ravage their livestock. Sadaimo told me, just in the past 5 years, the locals have hunted down some 50 lions. The perennial human-wildlife conflict still begs for effective solutions, and I found that solar energy provides a better alternative.
In 2014, a small developer from Dar es Salaam installed solar panels and trained the local Maasais how to use them to scare off lions without having to kill them. They discovered that lions are afraid of moving light. The solar panels are set to charge the light during the day so it constantly flashes at night. That has kept wild cats away from Maasai dwellings. Now the local government has officially requested the World Bank to fix Maasai bomas with simple solar-powered lights in almost every village, not only to end the deadly strife between Maasai people and predators, but also to electrify the most isolated regions where power grid will not soon extend. As I thanked Sadaimo and walked out of his boma, one of his children climbed up the roof and showed me the small solar panel that provides him light to read and finish his homework at night.
My discovery didn't cease there. The scenery along the road into Serengeti National Park speaks volumes of the literal meaning of "Serengeti" in Maasai language – an endless plain. Amazed by how good the roads were from Lake Natron into Serengeti National Park, I joked with Bryceson that he was wrong about Africa's old "big three". I told him I was also grateful for the hot shower every night. Probably based from my previous request, he asked if I wanted to visit a safari camp with solar water heaters under construction. "Absolutely!" I was excited about this offer as I used to help small islands design their solar water heater programs. It makes financial and environmental sense for islands or virtual islands like Serengeti to develop solar water heaters rather than burning dirty and expensive diesel.
Bryceson was able to get the chief engineer to speak with me. Tall and smiley, he had decided to come back to Tanzania after he finished his degree in London. He told me that nowadays installing solar water heaters in new constructions is a no brainer for the developers. "It simply makes sense. With Serengeti's fast growing tourism and the increasingly affordable systems from China, considerable savings from fuel spent could make the payback period as low as 2-3 years!"
My short safari trip into the wilderness witnessed prevalence of solar energy solutions, but this is just a snapshot of a profound energy transformation in Africa. With increased investment, declining cost and mobile payment systems, distributed solar is transforming the way the continent is powered, helping to bridge the still huge gap of energy access. In sub-Saharan Africa, nearly 700 million people still don't have access to electricity. The electrification rate is 60 percent in cities but only 14 percent in rural areas. Worse off, 51.4 million of 54.3 million people (94.7 percent) living in Liberia, South Sudan, Central African Republic, Chad, Sierra Leone and Malawi do not have electricity. The task is still daunting, but the opportunities are huge.
On-grid solar power in Africa is also on the horizon. In June 2016, Zambia set a new price record for utility-scale solar-generated energy in Africa with the support of the World Bank Group's Scaling Solar initiative. The auction for 100 MW (2x50 MW) resulted in a price as low as 6 cents/kWh. As explained in the World Bank analysis, Zambia's case provides confidence that on-grid solar electricity can also be bankable and cost-competitive, as long as a well-structured, transparent bidding process and guarantees to mitigate country risks are in place.
Before I knew it, my safari had come to an end. As Bryceson was dropping me off at the airport in Mwanza, the second largest city in Tanzania, we drove past a coal-fired power plant spewing carbon dioxide and particulates. I asked Bryceson if he was aware of the serious smog problem plaguing China and India these days. Pointing out of the window, I said, "China is painfully shutting down hundreds of those power plants. I really see an opportunity for Africa to skip fossil fuels and achieve a leapfrog to renewable power." As Bryceson turned around, I saw his bright smile again epitomize what he was about to say. "Yao, Medol ilala osina. Do you know what it means? It's a proverb in Maasai. Teeth do not see poverty. People still smile, still have fun in difficult situations. That's our African spirit. Hakuna Matata (don't worry)!" I am not worried. Quite the contrary, I am hopeful. What I see is the old "big three" in Africa disappearing. I told him I thought his version of "big three" was obsolete for I had witnessed the new "big three" in Africa – solar water heaters, solar panels and the accompanying applications. He just looked at me and smiled.
Yao Zhao is Renewable Energy Specialist at the World Bank.