Jere Ikongio

Power-less to Empowered

Initiatives to enable eco-friendly and renewable means of powering businesses and homes in Nigeria as means of coping with a sporadic and unstable electric infrastructure.
Story commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative. Text and images by Jere Ikongio.
Aerial view of Kadabo, Nigeria, 12 December 2020. 
Kadabo is a small border town in the Makarfi Local Government Area of Kaduna State, Nigeria. At the last available census in 2006, Makarfi was home to 146,259 people. There are a few small towns in Nigeria, which is a densely populated country, and the communal feeling in Kadabo is strong. Not long ago, Kadabo had a serious challenge of not being connected to Nigeria's National electricity grid. According to 2018 data from the World Bank, only 56.5% of the Nigerian population has access to electricity. However, World Data estimates that from 1990 to 2015, renewable energies accounted for above 83% of the total energy consumption in Nigeria.

In remote communities like Kadabo which are partially or completely disconnected from the national electricity grid, residents have traditionally had to rely on alternative sources like diesel generators.

As a solution for this issue, the residents of Kadabo have partnered with SOSAI Renewable Energies, a private organization run by women in Kaduna, who provided renewable solar systems to their community. SOSAI has successfully installed solar panels, inverters, charging stations and solar-powered dryers for farm produce, designed specifically for several communities. In addition to solar-powered dryers constructed in this town, there are plans for additional standalone solar products like lamps provided by SOSAI.
Aerial view of Kadabo, Nigeria, 12 December 2020.
SOSAI is the Nigerian chapter of the international organization Solar Sisters, which is dedicated to powering communities and women through solar energy and entrepreneurship programs. Following a visit to a meeting of ‘Sisters’ (retailers of off-grid electricity systems hosted by Solar Sisters) in Ikotun Egbe, a suburb west of Lagos, the remarks and position of these active individuals and small business owners as regards the future of off-grid energy posits a favorable course for its usage in Nigeria.

In 2020, several months into the COVID-19 pandemic, Deborah, resident and business owner, says standing beside a solar-powered dryer designed and constructed by SOSAI: “Today is a market day so most women have gone to the weekly market. Otherwise you would find a lot of people, especially women using this dryer. Before SOSAI constructed the huge solar system we had to use generators and others. In addition to power in the houses and electronics, there is a solar dryer we can use for free in this community.” A few weeks later, three additional solar dryers were installed by SOSAI for the residents of Kadabo, bringing the total to four. 
Top: Kadabo has one of the first solar grids in its region.The 10kw mini-grid can power about 40 large households’ appliances such as TVs, radios, lights, refrigerators, and phone chargers (of the under 2,000 who live in Kadabo, only a few can afford any of these appliances). It also powers a kiosk with a refrigerator and phone charging station, a cold storage room, pharmacy and other businesses. The community and Sosai set a rate for the electricity. The per-hour charge is higher for the appliance-owning households than for people who go to the phone kiosk to plug in their phones. It’s considerably cheaper and more reliable than electricity from Nigeria’s national grid but some residents still complain of the high cost. December 2020. Bottom: In 2017, Sosai helped Kadabo construct two dryers. Now there are four and plans for more. The dryers, which are affordable for villagers to use, are quicker than the goatskin-on-a-roof method. With the dryer, produce comes out clean, with a longer shelf life, and its natural colors and nutritional value intact. The dryers draw their energy from small solar panels separate from the village’s grid. The women managing the drying hubs in their communities now have a good source of income. 12 December 2020.
It has become apparent to Nigerians that the ageing and hazardous installations, the sometimes unregulated and extremely high electric current distribution, and an often faulty national grid, cannot serve the population of over 200 million people with less than 5,000 megawatts generation and an even smaller distribution. Additionally, turning to off-grid systems can avoid fire disasters from burning fuel, common in the off rain season across the country, or incessant outages and electrocution from damaged electrical systems during the rain season.

Complemented by increasing tariffs, the national electricity grid has become even more unstable, leading Nigerians living in cities and rural areas to search for alternatives to their power needs. By turning to off-grid and solar energies, Nigerians now find a safe way to run their business and homes. Against the country’s poor power sector, private organizations and individuals have taken the charge of providing off-grid electricity, positioning them closer to Nigerians whose search for reliable energy cannot be supplied by the national grid.

End-users of off-grid electricity have not only grown in number in the last years but the production capacity of the active organizations in the off-grid industry has also increased immensely. However, this increase has been met by challenges ensued by state policies, agents and a generally worsening business environment. Pioneers in the off-grid energy industry in Nigeria, organizations such as SOSAI Renewable Energy, Solar Sisters, and many more have taken on the challenge of bridging the broadening gap between the energy required and energy available for several communities and businesses.

During the EndSARS movement against police brutality in Nigeria, Sygnite Energy, a Lagos-based energy company, installed and provided a mobile pop-up charging station powered by solar energy for protesters at the Lekki Toll Gate to ensure the online visibility of what was happening at the venue. In a phone conversation, the company said that the idea was an in-house objective of engaging as creatively as possible to attend to specifically Nigerian energy needs.
Left: Safiya Aliyu has been with Sosai Renewable Energies, a woman-led company that helps rural, off-grid communities build renewable power sources, since its inception in 2010. She first came to Kadabo in 2014 to do research for Sosai. Safiya is currently the Programs Manager and was part of the team to select Kadabo as needing support. 12 December 2020. Center: Adamu Sulaiman runs the Solar Kiosk, which has a charging station and a refrigerator. “It can get quite humid in Kadabo,” he said. “But in the solar kiosk, there is always electricity to power the fridge—which means there are always cold drinks for sale.” The charging station is also a regular hangout for some young people from the community. Before the solar kiosk, people went to small businesses with generators to get their phones charged. The price was between 50 and 100 Naira (0,10 to 0,20 Euros) for a full charge, and sometimes they had to go to another town to do it. The solar kiosk charges 20 Naira (about 0,04 Euros) and it’s right in town. 12 December 2020. Right: Deborah Yakubu grows peppers, onions and okra. The solar dryer has made her farming more profitable. She does not only use the drying hub, she and other women manage it. They allocate dryers to community members on a weekly basis so more people can use them. She and the other women make money by drying other farmers’ products for them. One advantage to having a village drying hub, she said, is that people can sell the fresh products at a good price and dry whatever is left. The dryers have become a social hub for women. Her husband helps at the drying hub as well. For the first time, she said, they can support the family reasonably well. 14 October 2020.
Through the course of this project, it has become obvious that Nigerians are open to off-grid energy and are willing to invest funds in it. Although the procurement is relatively expensive, accounts from green energy users makes it clear that the use of off-grid energy is more effective in terms of cost and management in the long run. To balance the situation, off-grid power providers have also devised monthly billing conditions for communities running off-grid systems, ensuring inclusiveness as the bill is cheaper than for the national grid, which is not well served.

The high cost of off-grid systems is affected by the flaunting tariffs and port duties. From the clearance of shipments to the transportation, active organizations face many challenges posed by the Nigerian state and its agents. The cost of logistics and shipping clearance appears to be a major factor in the high cost of procurement. Although people are embracing the possibilities of off-grid energy, either totally like in remote towns, or as a backup to the national grid which is common in many city households, policies and tariffs remain a heavy burden which spirals down to the end-user.

Yet, end-users say that compared to the national grid, the cost of running off-grid energy is better and more efficient, as each individual and household can decide what they want to power, the estimated power required per household or business decreases to the most essential.

In Lagos, the economic capital of the country, off-grid power and solar-powered gadgets such as small solar lamps, cooking stoves, rooftop panels and charging stations reveal the Nigerians' approach. The COVID-19 pandemic limited Nigerians’ reach as many organizations were not available. The experience in the North made it concrete that the development that was noticed in the usage of off-grid energy is not particular to Lagos alone but reflects a national development.

The role played by marketers and wholesalers must not be underestimated. Aside from bridging the companies and end-users or retailers, this part of the off-grid energy in the country serves a rather complex purpose, ranging from customer service to feasibility studies, education, re-orientation and feedback. Users are very protective of these solar installations and the security of the equipment is a communal objective. In Kadabo, the community provides the properties for construction of solar panels, battery houses and solar dryers at no charge. The proactiveness of these communities strengthens the will of more organizations to carry out more projects in such communities. 

At the onset of this project our aim was to, through the active organizations in the renewable energy sector, understand the situation and progress of off-grid energy. To capture more how the communities and individuals respond to off-grid energy it was decided that users and communities would reveal more of Nigerians’ approach and position to off-grid and green energy. We have reached out to state-owned power transmission companies as well as private power generation and distribution companies which have either failed to reply or stopped after a little progress was recorded. In the past, the state has pledged to invest more in renewable energy going forward, however, we are forced to assume that perhaps, they are not willing to share any information with us for official reasons or otherwise.

Although in some communities more education is still needed, most Nigerians are actively seeking and using alternative and renewable energy. Democratizing renewable energy and becoming less reliant on the national grid is the goal for many in Nigeria and off-grid energy systems are the means, newer capabilities to harvest renewable energy being developed daily in Nigeria and around the world.

Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative

This project is one of the stories commissioned by the Solutions Visual Journalism Initiative, supporting visual storytellers to produce stories reporting on a response to a problem. The initiative is a joint project by the World Press Photo Foundation, the Message in a Photo Foundation (MIAP) and the Solutions Journalism Network.