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Solar is the solution to Zambia’s energy shortage

Severe drought in Zambia has left the country grappling with electricity shortages as hydropower accounts for over 90% of the nation’s grid supply. In the midst of energy-saving blackouts, SunnyMoney’s sales have soared – as savvy Zambians choose to invest in reliable solar power.

More than 90% of Zambia’s electricity is hydro-powered by three major dams, harnessing the spectacular power of the Victoria Falls and the Kafue and Kariba Gorges. For over 30 years Zambia produced enough energy to act as a regional power exporter, whilst also fuelling the phenomenal growth of the nation’s copper sector – the bedrock of the nation’s economy.

But in May of this year, a severe drought across Southern Africa led to Zambia’s national power company, ZESCO, starting a programme of rolling blackouts – known as “load shedding” – in an effort to preserve dwindling water supplies until the rainy season which is due around late November.

Since May much of the country has been left in the dark, often for up to eight hours at a time. But for many Zambians, living without access to electricity is nothing new. Just 27% of the population are connected to the grid, leaving 10 million people without electricity.

     Impact Report 2015: Read about our progress in Zambia

Lack of clean, safe energy locks many rural families into a cycle of fuel poverty and limits their potential to earn and learn with the productive day cut short when darkness falls. A rural Zambian family living without electricity access can see 7% of their income burn away on toxic kerosene, lit in dangerous homemade lanterns which put families at risk of poisoning, fires and burns.

Across rural Africa, electricity grids struggle to reach the most remote and sparsely populated rural communities. And in Zambia, as in the rest of the world, the poorest are always the worst hit by lack of energy access and rocketing fuel prices because as hydro-power fails, millions are forced to turn to kerosene or charcoal for their basic energy needs.

That’s why, our social enterprise SunnyMoney focusses on providing access to affordable, portable solar lights in rural areas without major energy infrastructure. To date we’ve sold 170,000 lights in Zambia – that’s over 1.2 million Zambians choosing to invest their hard-earned money in a brighter future.

Whilst hydro-power plays a huge role in energising Africa, Zambia’s current energy crisis shows the dangers of over-reliance on one form of energy. As rainfall patterns become more unpredictable due to the effects of climate change, it will become increasingly important to ensure that investment is channelled into reliable, clean energy alternatives so that large-scale industry can continue to benefit from hydro power. One such option – especially beneficial for homes and small businesses – is solar.

With the hottest months of October and November just around the corner, it looks like severe water shortages will continue to affect energy access. Many people searching for alternative sources of light for their homes are purchasing solar lights from SunnyMoney. In Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, SunnyMoney Operations Director Alex Burrough tells us that between the start of power shortages in May and July of this year, when blackouts were peaking at 12 hours at a time, the number of walk-in customers to SunnyMoney’s Luksaka office more than doubled.

The SunnyMoney shop in Zambia is seeing a surge in demand

First-time customers Grace and Jason told the team why they decided to buy solar light when the blackouts started:

“You can’t even find gas in the country to use a gas stove. Petrol is also in a shortage right now, so even if you have a generator, it is so expensive as prices have also just gone up, but now you have to wait in long queues to get it. They say it will continue to get worse if something is not done. I hope people have started to realize that solar lights are a much more efficient way to brighten your house, as well as safer and healthier.”

Yet while blackouts have meant demand in Zambia is at an all time high, with SunnyMoney sales in July and August far outstripping expectations, all this great work is in danger of being undone. The situation in Tanzania, as touched upon in yesterday’s blog, is having far reaching consequences. SunnyMoney’s sudden loss of revenue in its main market has meant that it is struggling to provide enough lights right across East Africa.

But we can assure you we are working harder than ever to ensure we have enough lights to meet demand. Whether it’s a rural family or city slicker – with solar, nobody needs to be left in the dark.