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How solar energy is helping Cameroon tackle poverty

More than 80 per cent of Cameroon’s 22 million inhabitants live on less than US$1 a day and cannot afford access to reliable, affordable power. What will it take to bring clean energy to the masses?

CAMEROON

  • Population: 22.25 million people
  • Electrification rate: 53.00%
  • Renewable energy consumption: 78.11%
  • Access to non-solid fuel: 21.93%

Source: World Bank

IDENAU, CAMEROON — It’s 9 p.m. and fish trader Mammy Joan Dione, 58, is working hard with her two daughters to dry a day’s catch of fish.

Business in this renowned Central African fishing port is on the uptick thanks to the recent installation of solar-powered ovens to dry the fish, preventing what used to be massive spoilage from a lack of energy for preservation.

“We can now dry our fish even in the night with the use of solar ovens,” says Dione, whose business is driven by customers from big cities in Cameroon and neighbouring Nigeria and Gabon. “We now work day and night to meet the high demand and this has significantly increased our family income. We can also preserve fresh fish in refrigerators thanks to the availability of electricity,” she adds.

With the aid of fans installed inside the dryer, the heat is evenly circulated, making it possible to dry over 400 kilograms of fish in about six hours — a fraction of the time used in the past for smoking.

Some ten fishing groups in Idenau and nearby Batoke in this coastal region were offered two solar energy fish-drying ovens each in February 2015 by the Cameroon contingent of the African Resource Group (ARG-CAM) working in collaboration with the Limbe city council — part of a wider drive to expand renewables like solar across the country. What is happening here, legislators promise, is just the beginning.

 Children fech wood in Idenau for local cooking and no longer for fish drying Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

Children fetch wood in Idenau to use for cooking, as fish drying is now done in solar energy ovens.  Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

Joan Dione’s daughter Sharon Dione, 23, quickly switches on the lights in the store room where they have stocked over 25 baskets of dried fish ready for market. In the past, drying such a significant quantity of fish in a day was impossible. They instead relied on smoking the fish with wood from a nearby mangrove forest, which limited their production to less than five baskets a day.

“The process of using wood energy was so difficult, emitting smoke that was dangerous to our health,” says Sharon Dione. “The arrival of solar energy and solar drying ovens here has changed everything.”

The need to boost renewables in Cameroon

Cameroon is endowed with an abundance of oil, gas and hydropower, but, in 2013, only 18 per cent of the over 22 million population had access to a reliable energy source, a rate experts said is low for Africa. (See more here) Yet the country has abundant sunshine and a lot of wind in the northern and western regions, which holds great potential for solar energy and wind turbines.

More than 80 per cent of the country’s electricity comes from hydropower, but the government is also encouraging the use of other renewable sources, with solar energy gaining ground. Cameroon will increasingly rely on renewable energy as it moves toward its goal of “economic emergence” by 2035, the government announced in May 2015.

And the country will need the electricity. As with much of Africa (according to the International Energy Agency), a shift is well underway from a previously rural society to modern urban settlements. More people will be seeking to live middle-class lifestyles that require more electricity in their homes and workplaces. With this growing demand for home electricity and power for businesses, farms and manufacturing, the squeeze on resources will become unsustainable unless renewable resources become part of the mix.

But due to regular power outages, many industries have been forced to invest in diesel generators, while over 85 per cent of the population that cannot afford such generators pay the price of energy poverty, says Basil Atangana Kouna, Minister of Water and Energy Resources.

“Energy supply has been the main hurdle in Cameroon’s path towards economic growth,” said Kouna. Meanwhile the country uses less than one per cent of its renewable energy potential.

Darkness “crushed by light”

In the past, Idenau and the other coastal villages in the area had a supply of hydroelectricity that was regulated by the Cameroon Development Corporation (CDC), and limited to their worker’s residential areas only. In Limbe, just like Idenau, the population suffered from frequent power outages.

Council authorities say regular power outages were affecting more than just the fishing industry. “Even in the CDC camps where the corporation provided hydroelectricity, supply was strictly regulated and limited only to the households of senior staff. Lights went out after 10 p.m. daily. There is persistent blackout from hydro power which is a big threat to the role of the entire Limbe coastal area as a tourist attraction,” said Tonde Lifanje Gabriel, mayor of Idenau’s rural council. (“Councils” are the basic unit of governance in the country: there are 376 local governments in Cameroon, including 14 city councils, and 42 sub-divisional councils.)

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“Access to energy has made our business transaction using cell phones now easy. I can easily charge my phone and make calls all day long with my business partners. We are glad that energy has come and only hope it has come to stay. When there is no power sometimes we use our [battery-powered] torch lights … but this can only light the house and our surroundings for two to three days. For cooking, wood fire is my alternative.”

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The mayor recalled with a sense of happiness the first day solar panels arrived in Idenau.

“It was like darkness has been crushed by light. I could not imagine the sun [would] be our saviour,” Mayor Gabriel said.

The same feeling was shared by the government delegate to the Limbe City council, Motanga Andrew Monjimba.

“The coming of alternative and cheaper energy to our council area is a welcome relief. The project was born out of the need to improve the livelihoods of the people, alleviate poverty and fight against climate change. We are moving to a new world now,” Monjimba said.

The Limbe City Council district is a coastal area beset with numerous challenges related to climate change and environmental degradation. “Given the fragile nature of its ecosystem, it is imperative that all our activities, economic or otherwise, are carried out in a sustainable manner,” Monjimba explained.

Clean energy: a “triple win”

Solar energy is a boon to business for people in Indenau and Limbe, but the effects of climate change are still grounding development in their communities.

Reporter Elias Ngalame at the beach in Limbe Elias Ntungwe Ngalame Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

According to John Ewang, 44, a farmer in Limbe, prolonged droughts and heavy floods when rains eventually fall remain a big problem that affects food production. “We are told these are problems of climate change and we wonder when the government and our local councils will provide a lasting solution to these problems.”

Ewang’s worries are not new; in many countries across Africa, droughts and floods due to erratic rainfall are responsible for high rates of malnutrition.

It is against this backdrop that the United Nations and partners launched a US$5 billion initiative to expand renewable energy capacity in Africa at the UN Climate Change Conference (COP21) in Paris last December. At the event, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon called sustainable energy a “triple win” in the battle against global warming and ending poverty.

“The production and use of energy [including fuels used by vehicles] is responsible for more than half of the world’s total greenhouse gas emissions, which means that energy is more than half of the solution,” Ki-Moon said, stressing that clean energy is equally important for ending extreme poverty.

"Cameroon needs to embrace renewable energy to fight climate change and breach the energy deficiency gap."

For a country like Cameroon, where more than 80 per cent of the population live on less than 500 Central African CFA Francs (US$1) a day and cannot afford to pay for hydro bills from the lone electricity provider (American/Cameroon electricity company, AES-SONEL), the need to source renewable, clean, safe and affordable energy is urgent.

“Cameroon needs to embrace renewable energy to fight climate change and breach the energy deficiency gap,” said Forghab Patrick, a consultant with Global Village Cameroon, a nongovernmental organization that works to promote sustainable development and environmental protection. “But then to do this, they need to put in place an adequate policy and a legal framework that will guide the promotion of this kind of activity.”

Support from partners

Cameroon’s energy sector is presently undergoing important institutional changes, led by the government’s long-term Energy Sector Development Plan (PDSE 2030), which aims for a 75 per cent electrification rate by 2030 with the support of a variety of Independent Power Producer (IPP) investments.

The African Development Bank (AfDB) is working with the government of Cameroon on its drive to alleviate energy poverty, including the Dec. 17, 2015 bank approval of 24 million euros (US$27 million) to fund electricity projects in Cameroon. This is in addition to a grant from the Sustainable Energy Fund for Africa (SEFA) to help launch a 72-megawatt solar power plant.

The AfDB statistics show that electricity demand in Cameroon far exceeds supply, especially during the dry season. The current generation deficit has been assessed at approximately 100 MW during the dry season with a projected increase in demand of eight per cent per year until 2035.

The government of Cameroon hopes its economic vision will transform Cameroon into an emerging economy by 2035, with specific objectives for poverty eradication. Attaining this vision will not be possible without an adequate electricity supply.

With SEFA’s US$777,000 grant and support from the AfDB, a Canadian company is commencing the development of a 72 MW solar photovoltaic plant. Though the Cameroon government has infrastructure development plans to introduce larger hydropower facilities, solar projects like this have many advantages according to the AfDB: they can deliver power on a much shorter timeline than hydro, with a lead-time of less than two years, compared to four to six years for hydro.

Flickr by Phil Hilfiker / CC BY

AFRICA’S ENERGY SHORTFALL

Today, over 53 per cent of Africans — 645 million people — do not have access to electricity, and 700 million go without access to clean energy sources for cooking. Six hundred thousand Africans die each year from indoor pollution due to reliance on biomass for cooking, according to the African Development Bank.

Africa is known for the darkness of its towns and cities. Children go to school but cannot learn well because there is no electricity. Lives are at great risk in hospitals because there is no electricity. Small and medium businesses, which account for over 90 per cent of the private sector in sub-Saharan Africa, cannot operate optimally. Africa loses about four per cent of its GDP to lack of electricity.

“The project will additionally help diversify the energy mix in the country using a renewable source, drive savings in fuel imports by reducing the need for emergency thermal units, which are currently operating at maximum capacity, while at the same time lowering Cameroon’s overall carbon energy footprint,” the AfDB said.

“Its success will have significant effects on the country’s power sector and the continent at large,” predicted Alex Rugamba, Director of the Energy, Environment and Climate Change Department at the AfDB.

Meanwhile, the South African company GSC Energy has entered into a 27-year partnership agreement with the Cameroon government to construct 10 solar parks. At its peak, the US$2.2 billion project will create up to 4,000 direct and indirect jobs and produce enough energy to power more than 50,000 homes, the government says.

GSC Holdings founder and Chairperson, Steven Moti told Engineering News that the project will be rolled out in the northern region. Each solar park will have a capacity of 50 MW, which will increase Cameroon’s generation capacity by more than 50 per cent.

“We recognize the need for alternative sources of energy in West Africa because of the strained energy demand and supply, owing to low production capacity,” said Moti. This private-sector-led project is a major step in cementing relations between Cameroon and South Africa,” says Moti.

 Fish Market in Limbe Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

Fish Market in Limbe Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

Additionally, in 2011, the Ministry of Finance exempted solar panels from the 19.25 per cent value-added tax. This has contributed to the expansion of solar; since then, over 12 per cent of Cameroon homes, especially in urban areas, run on solar energy, according to the Ministry of Mines, Water and Energy.

Training local engineers

The fish drying ovens that changed Mammy Joan Dione’s family fortunes were designed by locally-trained solar engineers like Limbe’s Eric Yuah, transforming sunlight into electrical energy, generating heat up to 150 C.

Recently decentralized local councils in Cameroon are not only turning to renewable energy, but they are training engineers like Yuah to expand sustainable energy, which also fights unemployment in the country.

At least 40 local councils (including Limbe and Idenau) have already invested in solar energy as part of a joint effort with the government. Council officials are also collaborating with higher education institutions to train students to develop entrepreneurial skills and businesses using solar power and other renewable energy technologies.

 

Solar engineering students at the University of Buea-Cameroon campusElias Ntungwe Ngalame

Solar engineering students at the University of Buea-Cameroon campusElias Ntungwe Ngalame

The renewable sector in Cameroon lacks human resources to plan, design, install, monitor and maintain energy systems — but demand for this expertise is growing, said University of Yaounde Rector Maurice Aurelien Soso, whose university is offering this training. For this reason, the Ministry of Higher Education, in collaboration with local councils, has introduced a training program — “Solar Technicians Made in Cameroon’’ — with several universities running related courses.

Cameroon’s Minister of Water and Energy Basil Atangana Kouna said these specialized training opportunities are needed as a sustainable solution to the economic development deficit in the country, especially in the area of energy supply, calling on the initiative to be replicated in other countries in Africa.

“The training of local engineers is a laudable initiative that should be replicated in Africa,” Kouna said.

Legislation and more financing needed

Development stakeholders say it is time to change the energy supply narrative in Africa. The President of the AfDB, Akinwumi Adesina, spoke at a reception on the New Deal on Energy for Africa and the launch of the Transformative Partnership on Energy for Africa, in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 20, 2016. His message: working together with a strong resolve for change by the different stakeholders will do the trick.

Solar engineer training center at the University of Buea- Cameroon Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

Solar engineer training centre at the University of Buea-Cameroon Elias Ntungwe Ngalame

 

“Africa is simply tired of being in the dark,” Adesina said. “It is time to take decisive action and turn around this narrative to light up and power Africa — and accelerate the pace of economic transformation, unlock the potential of business, and drive much-needed industrialization to create jobs.”

To this end, Cameroon is, as of this writing, creating a legal framework for the promotion of renewable energy. It is an institutional and regulatory framework for the promotional, legal and financial operation of renewable energy in Cameroon.

David Payang of the Ministry of Environment has confirmed that a committee is now in place to write a draft law to regulate the “exploitation of renewable energy and other environmental issues in the country.”

A big challenge moving forward will be money. Hele Pierre, Cameroon’s Minister of Environment, Nature Protection and Sustainable Development, has pointed out that Cameroon is poised to move toward renewable energy (together with plans to expand fossil fuel plants), but will need financial help.

“The government needs to harness its energy potential: solar, wind, biomass, fossil fuel,” he told a University of Yaounde meeting in January 2016. “But the government also needs the financial resources to invest and achieve these goals.”