Business & Finance INDUSTRY

The Road to Solar Power in Ghana

Perhaps, more than anyone else, we have the sun. Yet, even so, more than anyone else, we ignore its power. Ghana is geographically closest to the centre of the Earth, where the Greenwich Meridian and The Equator intersect, in a region characterized by heat from the sun all year round—the Tropical Zone. Given this regionally unique and hot situation, you would think our tropical affinity with the sun would necessarily mean a more concentrated effort to tap into the sun’s energetic resources, especially in light of (no pun intended) Ghana’s infamous power outage (light-off) crisis.

Well, you would, sadly, be wrong.

It has been comically called, dumsor—a local language term to denote the light-off and light-on (dum sor, off on) disco show of fluctuating electric lights due to unstable power that has plagued the country in all too recent memory. And speaking of comical, the dumsor phenomenon is reminiscent of the off and on (0s and 1s) binary code in the machine language that makes up programmes of digital computers. So, this makes me wonder: Proverbially speaking, if Ghana is the computer motherboard and our electric grid system supplying power throughout the land is the computer circuit, then we can only imagine whatever programme the dumsor dumsor situation has been brewing.

Apparently, the term dumsor in successive repetitions as dumsor dumsor was not sufficient to characterize the situation as it intensified to unbearable levels. One woman was reported as saying: “It’s dum dum dum dum.”

Still, as much as we may laugh at the situation, we should proportionately turn a serious eye to it. Sincerely, if the crisis could be ascribed to myriad factors, it should, primarily, be attributed to an overreliance on the electric grid system.

Blackout in Ghana popularly called dumsor via Equal Times

Going Off the Grid

The retired head of hydropower generation at the Akosombo dam, Kwesi Amoako, seems to agree and offers the one logical solution in the abundant dynamic energy of our tropical sun. In an illuminating report by Bill McKibben on “The Race to Solar-Power Africa” published in The New Yorker, Kwesi Amoako spoke on the power supply outages and said, “I’ve always had the feeling that one of the main thrusts should be domestic solar. And I think we should put the off-grid stuff first because the consumer wants it so badly.”

If the power outages in Ghana are any indication, McKibben, unsurprisingly, admits that powering Africa is one of the greatest development challenges on the planet. Speaking to Mckibben, the American co-founder and C.E.O. of Off-Grid Electric, Xavier Helgesen, attributes this challenge to copper for wires, timber for poles, coal, and capital not being so “cheap anymore, at least not over here [in Africa].”

Alternatively, however, solar power is reported to have become inexpensive. This development has attracted many western entrepreneurs to ignite a solar power revolution in Africa, even though this is as yet a nascent industry.

One such entrepreneur was Poindexter, an African-American who begun Black Star Energy to serve rural communities like Daban and Kofihuikrom in Ghana with solar electricity. As a result of their efforts, the rural clinic in Kofihuikrom, for instance, “no longer has to deliver babies by flashlight.” Apparently, the town chief, Nana Kwaku Appiah was so thrilled about the entire venture that he intentionally left his interior lights on throughout the night in celebration.

This was no free lunch, however. The westerners “didn’t think that the drive to help was incompatible with the desire to make money.”

With Solar Electricity Comes Electric Tension

Mckibben couldn’t help but note how the desire to make money off the solar electrification of Africa and “the rush of Westerners and Western money into Africa” suggested “more than a whiff of colonialism.” Alloysius Attah, the young Ghanaian entrepreneur who helped found the Farmerline service, expressed his concern this way to Mckibben: “There are a lot of Ivy Leaguers coming to Africa to say, ‘I can solve this problem, snap, snap, snap.’ They’re doing good work, but little investment goes to community leaders who are doing the same work on the ground.”

Solar Panels by Black Star Energy via Energicity

The electric gold mine of Africa is prime for exploitation, and with this comes tension on how western entrepreneurs should draw the line between dominance and assistance. Poindexter, for instance, acknowledged that “there is a level of responsibility. . . that. . . any appropriate investor needs to have, about extraction versus contribution,” yet even though she was “not willing to be an extractive capitalist [in Ghana],” she maintained that “capitalism has an extremely important role to play” nonetheless.

Even given noble intentions, another investor, Peter Bladin, was worried that the drive for rapid returns on investment could pose a serious temptation for companies to drift away from their mission as they “squeeze more out of poor households” by “trying to make money off the backs of the poor in a dubious way.” In a similar view, Ceniarth, an impact-investment firm, expressed concern on how the absence of government supervision “puts consumers at risk and places a great deal of responsibility on vendors to self-police.” More so, the influx of money, “may be too much, too fast for a sector that still has not fully solved core business model issues and may struggle under the high growth expectations and misaligned incentives of many venture capitalists.”

All’s Well That Ends Well

So, would the African transition from the grid system to the sun by foreign aid, indeed be a case of leaping from the frying pan to fire?

It is, therefore, little wonder Clare Sierawski, the West Africa Manager for Power Africa at U.S. Trade and Development Agency in Accra, said that “African leaders used to think solar was being pushed on them.” Even Mckibben admits that “when aid agencies are well funded, they haven’t always delivered.” The scepticism seems to have abated somewhat, especially since solar energy has gotten cheaper. Sierawski says that “now they all want solar.”

Solar electricity certainly makes excellent sense for tropical zoners like Ghana. Still, it would make even more sense if Ghanaians themselves would take a very good dig into their solar electric gold mine.

Ananth Chikkatur, an overseer of a U.S.A.I.D. project in Accra, apparently agrees and has sent “thirteen high-ranking Ghanaians on a trip to study solar power in California.” As this translates to local startups and initiatives on Solar energy, it could potentially ease the tension between the foreign invaders and the locals on the costs and benefits of investments in solar-powering Africa.

Yet we can all agree with Chikkatur when he says that “renewable energy should not be considered an alternative technology. It’s becoming a conventional technology now.”

Interestingly, Mckibben mentions that Africa “today has more off-the-grid solar homes than the U.S.” Still, he notes how “already, a few dozen American cities have pledged to become one-hundred-per-cent renewable.”

Who better to make this pledge than us? More than anyone else we have the sun. So, more than anyone else we must drive efforts into tapping its power.

. . .

See the original exposition on “The Race to Solar Power Africa” here.

WRITER: Richard Yaw Baafi

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