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A simple vision: to light up Africa

A bicycle wheel, an assortment of mirrors and a ball of string seem unlikely components for a piece of cutting edge green technology. But this unwieldy-looking ‘solar concentrator' is the latest product of a renewable energy revolution spreading across Kenya.

Amateur inventor Peter Irungu Mwathi came up with the idea as a way of providing farmers with cheap heat without needing to burn wood from forests.

Consisting of square mirrors arranged on a curving metal frame measuring 4ft by 6ft, the solar concentrator reflects the sun's rays onto a container a couple of metres away, heating the contents. The heat enables farmers to sterilise the soil in preparation for planting seedlings – a job usually done by burning wood on top of the earth. Farmers can also heat water or roast their produce, such as nuts or coffee beans.

Mwathi, a 40-year-old agricultural economist by trade, was inspired by memories of his mother bent double collecting firewood in the bush in his home village of Gichira. "I made a mental note in my young years to do something about what we went through," he says.

The downside is that at KS20,000 (US$250) each solar concentrator costs around a third of the average income in Kenya. Although Mwathi allows the farmers to pay in installments of KS5,000 (US$62), it is still a prohibitively large outlay for many. In the last seven months since Mwathi started producing the solar concentrators, five farmers in and around Gichira village have bought one.

Prospective investor Ruth Gathii, a 50-year-old farmer from neighbouring Mukuru-ini district, plans to buy a concentrator to roast her macadamia nuts. Gathii, who has two grown up children, says the raw nuts from her two-acre farm fetch KS45 (56 cents) a kilogramme. Roasting them herself would allow her to charge more.

It is questionable how far eco-consciousness is driving Gathii's desire for a solar concentrator but the mother of two is worried about the increasing shortage of wood.

"There are no forests to collect firewood from anymore," she says. "Firewood vendors overcharge because of the scarcity of the commodity."

Mwathi hopes to expand his project, and lower the costs, by training young people to make the devices. He has approached Kenya's Ministry of Youth Affairs to see if they will support the project.

There is demand for home-grown solar inventions as Kenya currently imports solar gadgets, which incur high levels of duty and VAT.

Harnessing the wind

While Mwathi is busy harnessing the sun's energy, Simon Mwacharo, a fellow inventor, is focusing on another natural energy source: the wind. The 45-year-old designs and installs wind turbines at Craftskills Enterprises on the outskirts of Nairobi using locally available raw materials such as scrap metal.

With the help of his employees, Mwacharo is putting the final touches to a 10 kilowatt wind turbine, destined for Nigeria's Delta State at a cost of KS3.8 million (US$47,500). 

Mwacharo sums up his vision, simply: "To light up Africa."

"I made my first wind turbine at the age of 12," recalls Mwacharo, a father of four.

He used tin sheeting, twigs and an 8-volt motor from a broken-down radio; the turbine lit the bulb of a hand-held torch for weeks.

Mwacharo grew up in a village in the Taita Hills, in Kenya's Coast Province, buffeted by strong winds from the Nyika Plateau. "One day I witnessed a gust of wind yank away the iron sheet roofing of three classrooms as well as the trusses and rafters, all made of blue gum tree," he recalls, clearly transfixed.

He believes wind-generated power is the best and cheapest option for many households in Kenya, especially for villages not on the electricity grid. A World Bank study found that households in slums and villages without electricity spend up to KS8,000 (US$100) a year on kerosene, batteries and candles to light their homes.

In Chifiri, near Bura in eastern Kenya, a Craftskills turbine powers a water pump which filters 422 litres of water an hour from a brackish pond. It is the only source of water for 500 villagers.

According to Daniel Macharia, regional project manager of the Global Village Energy Partnership (GVEP), an international organisation that supports small enterprises in the energy sector, Kenyans are increasingly willing to invest in clean energy technology.

A revolution gathering pace

The pace of Kenya's green revolution is gathering. In recognition of the government's commitment to green energy the World Bank approved a US$330 million loan (KS2.64 billion) on Monday [May 31] to help the country invest in renewable energy.

Meanwhile, small scale projects springing up in different corners of the country are testament to a growing recognition among rural communities that the best way to get energy is through renewable sources.

Philip Musyoki, a 49-year-old subsistence farmer from Tala district, 63km east of Nairobi, joined forces with his two brothers to install a 1.8 kilowatt Craftskills wind turbine to power their homes in Kyakatulu village.

The brothers spent KS60,000 (US$750 US dollars) buying the turbine.

"The wind turbine now caters for the electricity needs of a combined 22 rooms from the three houses," he smiles delightedly, revealing an incomplete set of brown teeth. He believes it has saved them more than KS3,200 (US$40) each a month compared with what they would have spent on paraffin and radio batteries.

Raveen Mbithi, a teacher at a primary school near Oldoinyo Sabuk, is already getting a return on her investment in a 700 watt turbine installed in late 2008. She runs it as a so-called energy kiosk for the local community. She charges around 10 mobile phones and three solar or car batteries a day, bringing in around KS450 (US$5.60) every day in extra income.

"All renewable energy technologies require high upfront capital expenditures," says GVEP's Macharia. "But in the long run they provide cheap energy."

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Geoffrey Kamadi

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07/27/2010

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