Youth Bring Low-Cost Solar Panels to Kenyan Slum

The World Clean Energy Awards, announced in Basel, Switzerland, on June 15, recognize innovative, practical projects that move renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions into the mainstream. Developed by the independent transatlantic21 Association, the awards are intended to create benchmarks for clean energy in seven categories: construction; transport and mobility; products; services, trade, and marketing; finance and investment; policy and lawmaking; and NGOs and initiatives. The Worldwatch Institute was one of eight organizations invited to participate in the nomination and jury process. Eye on Earth will run a weekly feature on each of the nine winners.

KCYP project members cutting panels
KCYP project members cutting panels.

Nairobi’s Kibera slum, one of the largest informal settlements in sub-Saharan Africa, is home to an innovative new solar panel assembly program. The Kibera Community Youth Program (KCYP) trains local youth to construct simple, low-cost photovoltaic panels and to sell them to other residents for use in charging radios and mobile phones. The initiative, which recently won a World Clean Energy Award (WCEA) in the “product” category, has brought low-cost, environmentally sound energy to people around Kenya as well as beyond the country’s borders.

Low-income residents, especially in rural areas of Kenya, most frequently access their news and information via the radio, according to Fredrick Ouko, director of KCYP. The radios typically run on battery power, but the batteries contain toxics that can contaminate the soil and water after they are discarded, often in the open air. The solar panels, which can run radios of up to 12 volts, either replace the batteries altogether or power rechargeable batteries that would normally pull energy from the grid, displacing some fossil energy use.

Still in its pilot phase, the program has trained some 20 youth in solar panel assembly. They receive a small amount of income, and a portion of the profits made from selling the units goes to fund community programs. Groups in Uganda and other countries have asked the KCYP to share knowledge and training so the initiative can spread. “We’re definitely going to have an impact,” Ouko says, noting the benefits for the environment, economy, and people served.

Clients have been pleased with the savings and results of the solar panels and are now asking for units that can charge larger appliances, such as televisions. “We can’t meet that need [right now], given the costs involved,” Ouko observes, noting that a local university’s recent interest in the project may help. The university would like to work to improve the technology of the panels and to help the program grow.

Ouko especially hopes to scale up and introduce the panels to places where they are well suited and much needed, such as rural areas where there is an abundance of sunshine. “They really don’t have electricity outreach in those areas,” he explains. “We want to go to rural areas where people need energy even more than here.” Receipt of the recent WCEA should help the project come closer to this goal. “It gives the project a prominence, a sort of recognition that makes it more visible,” which might attract more support, Ouko says.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.