> Powering Africa: The Hope and the Promise

By Robert Freling, Executive Director

July 19, 2013

“Access to electricity is fundamental to opportunity in this age. It’s the light that children study by; the energy that allows an idea to be transformed into a real business. It’s the lifeline for families to meet their most basic needs. And it’s the connection that’s needed to plug Africa into the grid of the global economy. You’ve got to have power. And yet two-thirds of the population in sub-Saharan Africa lacks access to power — and the percentage is much higher for those who don’t live in cities.” — President Barack Obama, Remarks at the University of Cape Town, June 30, 2013

The satellite image of earth at night says it all: except for a few urban areas scattered here and there, essentially the entire continent of Africa is shrouded in darkness. In many sub-Saharan African nations, as much as 90 percent of the rural population lacks access to electricity. No lights. No refrigerators. No computers. Nada, Zippo, Zilch.


When President Obama announced his administration’s Power Africa initiative, I was excited at the prospect of more lights being turned on in Africa, more children being able to go to school and access online resources, more patients being treated and vaccinated at rural health clinics, more farmers finding ways to ensure their own food security, and more small entrepreneurs launching new businesses.

For those of us in the international development community who have been fighting energy poverty, this initiative is a big deal. Combined with the U.N.’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative — whose primary goal is to ensure universal access to modern energy services for the world’s poor by 2030 — Power Africa can help make a significant contribution to the challenge of providing electricity to those who have none.

The bulk of the Power Africa initiative seems to be focused on developing electricity services for urban or peri-urban areas; however, it is important to note that the vast majority of people who suffer from energy poverty live beyond the reach of a traditional power grid.

These folks are not likely to have access to grid electricity anytime soon due to the exorbitant cost and logistical difficulty of extending power lines to remote parts of the world. Greater emphasis should therefore be placed on finding ways to power communities in remote regions and allocating appropriate funding to meet those needs. Solar and other renewable energy‐based power systems offer the best solution for meeting the energy needs of off-grid communities as they can be installed in very remote locations, do not have to be tied to a utility grid, are cost-effective, and can last 20‐30 years with proper maintenance and servicing.


Solar electricity may be used in very remote locations to power stand-alone applications such as household lighting systems and appliances, or alternatively, to power larger facilities such as schools and health centers. It can also be used to pump and purify water, irrigate crops, run computers, and power small businesses. When combined with wireless communications, solar energy can also put the world’s ever-expanding database of knowledge at the fingertips of every child on the planet, no matter how remote or isolated he or she may happen to be. And now, thanks to recent advances in inverter and smart metering technology, solar micro-grids are quickly becoming a cost-effective solution for powering entire villages or even clusters of villages in the developing world.


I believe that energy is a human right. Without it, there is no way to light homes, pump water, store vaccines, run computers, operate machinery, or communicate with the rest of the world. For many communities that lie beyond the reach of a conventional power grid, solar energy offers the greatest hope to provide the power they need to secure a brighter future for themselves and their children.

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> Hurricane Sandy Hits Haiti: Dispatch from the Field

November 12, 2012

Two weeks ago, Hurricane Sandy hit Haiti with some of the worst rains the country has seen in recent years, and took the lives of over 50 Haitians. Our team was in the midst of the turmoil, and Jean-Baptiste Certain, our project manager, gave us a first-hand account of the hurricane’s impact:

By Jean-Baptiste Certain, SELF Project Manager, Haiti

Before the hurricane hit, about 10 of our team members were in the mountains of Haiti’s Central Plateau where we recently installed solar systems at some very isolated schools for the NRG project, and it rained way more than expected. For those guys, it’s been a “mud hell”… Our tank of a truck got stuck well over 10 times on the way down – they literally had to shovel the truck out with a group of farmers several times, the mud was well above the axles. This trip from Boucan Carré to Sivol usually takes 2-3 hours, but this time it took an entire day.

In the south, where we recently installed 12 solar systems for health centers, the destruction and flooding have been massive. In Randèl, a village located at the top of a fast-growing, very dangerous river, about 550 mm (21.6 inches) of water fell in two-and-a-half days, and about 700 mm (27.5 inches) of rain fell near Chantal in three days; our installations in both of those villages are top-pole mounts. The Prince of Norway’s visit to our site in Chantal was cancelled because of the rain – he would have to cross a river that normally has no bridge, but it swelled so much it’s now impassable.

One of my usual hotels in Port Salut in the south was half destroyed – rooms fell, the ocean entered the others – the Haitian owner said, “Good, it needed renovations!” – a true story!

We’re preparing to install the last two solar systems at Partners In Health clinics, but won’t be able to actually get there for days… We have to take over 50 kW of solar panels and over 50 large and heavy batteries that took three shipping containers to bring to Haiti.

Elsewhere, bridges fell, roads disappeared, and there was flooding everywhere. The river next to our house in Port-au-Prince was so high that it almost took out the only two bridges to Croix-des-Bouquets, and got real close to our house – that’s a rise of about 20 feet in three days!

But, our team is safe, and we didn’t break or lose anything. Makes you wonder though – what would have happened if the hurricane had actually passed right over us? And it was a category one, increasing to a category two – what would it have been like if it was a category four or five?! What would have happened to the tent camps that are still everywhere?

Haiti isn’t going to get out of the bush any time soon…

> Our New Website

September 12, 2012

We’re very excited to debut this new website! As we continue to grow and expand our projects around the world, we thought it was important to refresh our site to provide better access to new content like updates from the field and profiles of people benefiting from our solar solutions, in addition to highlighting our Whole Village Development Model. We’ve added a lot of extras, too, like photo galleries, blogs, and numerous ways to support our work.

Bob, our executive director, wants everyone to know that, “Our Whole Village Development Model is the culmination of our twenty-plus years of experience in the field. Through it, we’re transforming lives. Many adults for the first time have access to quality health care services, clean drinking water, and sustainable sources of food. And the children born into the communities where we work can now look forward to a lifetime of opportunities their parents may have never dreamed about.”

We hope that you find the new site both informational and inspiring – thanks for stopping by!

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