Solar Energy Lights Up Zambia

Photo by Rachel Couch for Power Africa

Photo by Rachel Couch for Power Africa

In Zambia, solar energy opens new possibilities for off-grid communities

After a World Bank power auction made Zambia the home of the most affordable grid-scale solar power in Africa, financiers are moving in to invest in the next hot spot of solar energy.

Zambia is attracting large-scale investment and financing, such as solar farms and solar-powered distribution plants. And thanks to a Power Africa partnership that leverages public resources and private capital, the Zambian Government is attracting solar power developers through low tariffs, an enabling regulatory framework, and flexible payment models.

But one of the biggest transformations in solar power is happening at the grassroots level. In Zambia, just 3 percent of the population in rural areas has access to energy. To reach these communities that are far from the national grid, local enterprises in the country are selling off-grid renewable energy technology to rural households, which is spurring economic growth.

The U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF), a Power Africa partner, funds African-owned enterprises, cooperatives and community-based organizations to build capacity and expand economic opportunities. In 2015, USADF expanded the Off-Grid Energy Challenge, a Power Africa Beyond the Grid partnership, to Zambia to invest in innovative energy enterprises working to provide energy access in rural communities.

Buntungwa Ventures Limited, a small solar enterprise in Luapula Province in northern Zambia, is one of those Challenge winners. Zambian-owned Buntunga Ventures is selling solar home systems to more than 400 households. Each system has a 15-50 watt capacity, enough for households to charge a cell phone, power a fan and turn on a lightbulb. After charging a low upfront cost, the company uses a pay-as-you-go model, allowing customers to gradually pay for their system over a period of time with mobile payments.

Many of the surrounding communities in Mansa district of northern Zambia live far from the national grid with few options for lighting their homes with national power. With a $100,000 grant, Buntungwa Ventures is leveraging its seed capital to boost operations, train female entrepreneurs, and sign agreements with mobile network operators to allow for the flexible pay-as-you-go model.

As solar energy becomes more affordable, more opportunities are arising to connect underserved communities to micro-grids.

Muhanya Solar Limited, another Off-Grid Energy Challenge winner, was awarded a $100,000 grant to build a solar-powered micro-grid to connect 60 families, many for the first time, to a consistent, renewable energy source powered by the sun. The 20 kW solar micro-grid in Sinda village in eastern Zambia will also power a school and local businesses, providing an economic spark for the rural community and proving a model for replication in other regions.

But perhaps most important are the ways in which entrepreneurs are using environmentally friendly innovations to power off-grid communities. SuperRich Energies Limited in southern Zambia is harnessing the power of both the Zambezi River and the sun. With its $100,000 Power Africa grant, SuperRich Energies, a Zambian-owned enterprise, is installing three innovative hybrid hydro-solar systems on the Zambezi, the first of twelve units that will ultimately generate up to 60 kilowatts of electricity for the surrounding villages. The systems utilize a unique floating turbine technology which floats on the surface of the river, minimizing both cost and environmental impact. With a solar-powered back-up system, this hybrid hydro-solar project demonstrates that there is a combination of ways that businesses like SuperRich Energies can turn on the lights for grassroots communities.

Energy access builds economic growth and activity, and these entrepreneurs are demonstrating that with affordable solar energy, local enterprises can run a business selling energy to low-income, rural households in Zambia. With solar innovations across the country, USADF is supporting Zambian enterprises both big and small to expand the solar market to communities living beyond the grid.