The article below was originally published in the March-April edition of Princeton in Africa’s Fellows Flyer.
I live in Kisumu, Kenya, a city that despite being the third largest city in the country has a definite small, lakeside town feel to it. Although I sometimes find myself missing the comforts of life in a more developed city, I am extremely lucky to be a part of the less than 16% of the country’s population who have access to electricity. I work at access:energy, a startup renewable energy company dedicated to bringing renewable energy resources to the people of Kenya.
In December, I had the opportunity to travel to Rusinga Island, a sizable island in Lake Victoria, to spend a week learning about permaculture alongside thirty local farmers and a handful of expats. Prior to the start of the course, access:energy had installed a small solar energy system at the eco-village where the course was taking place to provide lighting, phone charging, and electrical outlets for the center. It was a simple installation, consisting of a few solar panels, batteries, and cables, but remains one of the very few reliable sources of electricity in the community.
During the course, I stayed with a local family at their home on a hill overlooking the eco-village and the lake. The community is not connected to the national grid and at night people rely on lanterns and flashlights for light. The first night I was on the island I sat watching the light change over the lake as the sun set. As it got darker, you could see tiny lights from fishing boats beginning to dot the lake. Soon, the lake seemed to be filled with these lights, slowly moving past each other and occasionally breaking apart to reveal two lights where there once was one.
These fishermen use kerosene lanterns to catch Omena, a tiny protein-rich fish found in Lake Victoria. One of the larger projects we have been working on over the past year is a micro-grid installation on Rusinga where fishermen can rent and recharge LED solar lanterns to replace the kerosene lanterns that are traditionally used. Not only are the LED lanterns more efficient and cost effective, they also eliminate the harmful health and environmental effects that come from the kerosene fumes.
While sitting on the hillside, I realized that this was the perfect image to capture the work we do at access:energy. Besides the lights from the fishermen, the only other lights on that side of the island came from the gate of the eco-village, powered by solar panels. The potential for renewable energy in Kenya is enormous and it is often most apparent in the most rural parts of the country, where grid power just isn’t an option. On Rusinga, we have the potential to completely change the way in which energy is used and to improve the livelihoods of the local communities. I’m looking forward to returning to Rusinga in a few months time, looking out over the lake, and knowing that all of the lights you can see are powered by renewable energy.
You can find the article in its original form here.
Last Thursday, access:energy had our Kenyan newspaper debut in the Daily Nation. The article featured Dr. Sam Doby of Access Kenya Ltd., who bears a very strong resemblance to our very own Dr. Sam Duby of Access Energy Ltd. Despite a few other discrepancies in the article (we are in fact a company of fifteen people and one of our turbines is powering a radio station sponsored by the Ekiola Kiona center), the overall message of the article is in line with out goal of bringing electricity to and improving the livelihoods of the people of Kenya.
Thanks Nation Daily for what was clearly a great effort.
You can find the article here, check it out!
And so it is done…
Last week the access:energy powered OHR radio station went ‘on air’.
This has been some time in coming and quite frankly is an awesome achievement.
If someone had casually told you they were planning to install an entirely renewable energy powered community owned radio station on the top of a wooded mountain on an island in the middle of Lake Victoria accessible only by foot and fishing boat you surely would have thought them a few blades short of a wind turbine. If they added that they were scheming a direct line-of-sight blazingly fast internet pipe from the tallest building in Kisumu to the island to boot you probably would have chuckled and politely got unwaveringly intere
However, despite all the odds the extraordinary collaboration of an international consortium consisting of OHR on Mfangano, Inveneo in San Fransisco, Pawan from Nepal and of course access:energy has achieved the seemingly impossible. sted in your ugali.
It has certainly not been easy. I am one of many that have scaled that mountain more times than I care to remember, in darkness, blazingsun and rain burdened with turbines, inverters, tools and all manner of technical things which are a great deal heavier than you might first imagine.
I am deeply proud of everyone involved in this project and feel that if access:energy can successfully install power in a context like this, there are very few places where we could not install power. I’m not sure when again we’ll be involved in an install this challenging, but bring it on I say!
We’ve been tending to a few things other than wind turbines here at the workshop lately. Two of our resident green thumbs, Mzee Caleb of access:energy and Elin Lindhagen of the Permaculture Research Institute of Kenya, have planted for us a medicinal herb garden so extensive that it could have us mistaken for an apothecary. We’ve got all kinds of herbal goodies–moringa, roselle, aloe vera, mint, echinacea, rue, lavender, rosemary, amaranth–but our bounty crop at the moment is artemisia. The leafy green plant is a natural alternative to malaria prophylactics, and most everyone at the access:energy workshop uses it as such. We recently took cuttings of artemisia for each of our team members to bring home and plant for themselves; see below for photos of the process.
Despite today’s lengthy bout of midday heat, we spent a good part of the morning using our new Rutuba Kiln from re:char. re:char is a Kenyan-based company that works with subsistence farmers to improve soil quality and enhance crop yields, and we’ve gotten to know them a good bit over the past few weeks. They’re positively lovely chaps, but their kiln–which creates biochar from biomass–works absolute wonders. The biochar generated gets mixed into soil, reintroducing various nutrients and reversing the damages caused by fertilizers. It’s fantastic.
So how do we fit in? Apart from being our new favorite toy, the kiln has become yet another way for access:energy to improve upon our workshop practices and lighten our environmental impact. As it turns out, our blade-making department generates a hefty amount of wood shavings and organic scrap that had previously been going to waste. Now, though, we can convert the same byproduct into a carbon-capturing soil amendment. We couldn’t be happier about it, and neither could our garden!
As you may or may not know, last weekend marked the international NASA Space Apps Challenge. In 24 cities around the world, teams were competing to create/hack/fudge and invent ground-breaking hard/software solutions that might be applicable to NASA’s terrestrial and interplanetary activities. Whether a result of budget cuts or a savvy appreciation of the emerging international maker/hacker movement this event marked an interesting turning point for collaboration and appreciation of the substantial creative prowess of young technologists around the world, north and south.
access:energy were invited along to mentor and suggest a suitable challenge. This we duly did, presenting the yet-to-be-nailed problem of affordable remote data-harvesting for rural, renewable energy installations, a challenge with obvious bearing on access’ activities, but also with much broader potential application.
Armed with nothing other than a slightly dodgy old mobile phone, some hints from Joe our Yale researcher and various developer boards, Telewa, Percila, Boniface and Peter (from the excellent UoN FabLab) set their considerable talents to bear on the challenge. 24 hours later they had developed a device that not only accurately recorded the voltage and current and hence power output of a wind turbine, but was able to automatically communicate this information via SMS to my telephone. This was no theoretical exercise; the device was fully operational. I cannot over emphasise the significance and incredible ingenuity of this achievement.
This did not go unrecognised and the team won second prize in the national competition meaning they are going on to pitch their skills against the World’s best in the international finals.
It is with humble awe that I offer my sincerest congratulations to the four of you; you smashed it.
Last night, gale force winds tore through Kiboswa felling trees, ripping roofs off, and knocking down two of the huge radio masts next door to us.
Our outside workshop space was completely flattened, but the turbine on the roof? Absolutely fine. Ate it up. I’d be lying if I said I was not worried as I watched trees being bent almost in half and corrugated iron sheets flying past horizontally, but sure enough she survived. A sound victory.
We did it. Grand total: $25,250 and 146 comments from 251 people! Witness people power.
During the two days of our crowdsourcing campaign, we were featured front row centre in IndieGoGo’s global spotlight, written up on Fast Company’s Co.Exist page, and reblogged and retweeted by the likes of NextBillion, Cleantechnica and Alternative Energy Africa. What a rush!
For those who are interested we put together a little infographic of the most important points during the campaign (click to see full scale).
We now have a crowd of over 200 supporters on our IndieGoGo campaign! And we’re hours away from the finish line.
Help us through the final push! Our fundraising campaign ends tomorrow, 16th February (8am UK time, 3am USA and 11am Kenya time). Check out the video and find us here on IndieGoGo.
Lots of love from the workshop in Kenya.
Interesting Jua Kali innovation from the Kiandutu slums in Thika. Wooden extension cables! We aren’t sure about the safety of these products, but admire the inventive spirit and creativity.
Many thanks to the AfriGadget blog for putting us onto this.