From the June 2002 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 49, No. 6)

Science and Technology

Green Energy

Les Echos (conservative), Paris, France, April 3, 2002

Solar Energy Mali
Tradition Meets Technology A Fulani man in Mali uses his head scarf to clean a solar panel (Panos Pictures/Giacomo Pirozzi).
Ourikela, Mali, is a village of 6,000 inhabitants in the heart of a farming region. If its infrastructure weren’t tragically deficient, it could be rich, thanks to crops like cotton, corn, millet, and vegetables. In the maternity clinic’s delivery room, a midwife turns on the light. Powered by two batteries that are charged by a solar panel, a 10-watt fluorescent tube lights up. It is equivalent to a 60-watt incandescent bulb.

Besides a second tube outside the building, it is the only source of lighting. But for the midwife, it represents something truly revolutionary. “Before,” she explains, “women who were about to give birth would come here with an oil lamp. Now, the electric light makes the work much easier.” Women who are to give birth still bring their own lighting source, because the room where they will stay for an average of three days has no lighting.

The maternity clinic in Ourikela, the mayor’s office, a few farms, and most recently the mosque are some of the first solar energy customers of La Société de Services Décentralisés (SSD), based in neighboring Koutiala. This Malian company is held in equal parts by Electricité de France (EDF) and Nuon, a private Dutch operator. It does not compete with state-owned Electricité du Mali (EDM), which, barely capable of supplying 5 percent of the population, finds it very difficult to serve most of the rural areas. Hence, SSD, by using photovoltaic batteries that enable delivery of power to a house in the bush, is a perfect complement to EDM; it invests only in areas that are not a priority for EDM.

This small company began to canvass its customers in May 2001. Six months later, it was already serving 250 families in some 20 villages. It plans within two years to have 6,000 customers. What is its economic model? Vincent Denby-Wilkes is the head of Accès, an EDF program intended to facilitate access to electricity for people in developing countries. He offers a succinct explanation: “We definitely do not subscribe to a public-assistance model, but rather to one of sustainable development.”

Very few Malians can afford the CFA 400,000 francs (US$540) it costs to purchase a photovoltaic panel, its regulator, batteries, and the inside equipment needed for the basic lighting of a house. EDF and its partner Nuon, therefore, adopted a service-provider model. On a technical level, preference was given to sturdiness and ease of maintenance. “Thus, we opted for a solar panel with silicon polycrystalline cells,” explained Jan Lam, the chief executive officer of SSD, who is from the Netherlands. “It is less efficient, but it is cheaper than monocrystalline.”

S1 is the cheapest service option (5,900 francs, plus 21,240 francs for the connection fee and 11,800 francs as a security deposit). It corresponds to two light fixtures powered for five hours a day. With S2A, a subscriber can move up to three lamps. S2B includes two lamps and an outlet for a portable black-and-white television. This is the most popular service because in the bush, farmers do not have electricity, but they do own portable TV sets.

For investments, the SSD of Koutiala largely relies on outside aid. The firm will use the small anticipated profit to expand its customer base and maintain existing installations—dusting off the solar panels, particularly in January and February when the harmattan [dry wind off the Sahara] blows, and changing the batteries every three years. This presupposes that customers will pay for their fees. “We experienced failure with another solar development project, in the region of Kayes, in the western part of Mali, along the Sénégal River,” people at EDF acknowledge. So far, the  company has not been the victim of unpaid bills, thanks to its local roots and preliminary market research. The company calculated its rates so as to be cheaper than other sources of lighting, such as kerosene, shea oil, or candles.

Beyond these first efforts at developing solar energy in rural areas, the SSD of Koutiala plans to create micro-networks in certain villages in response to the needs of craftsmen’s groups. Solar energy does not provide enough power to run their motors. What’s the solution? “We give priority to renewable energy sources in our approach to electrification in developing countries, but we have no qualms whenever diesel fuel is the necessary choice,” says Anne-Marie Goussard of EDF’s Accès program.

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