Dutch firm opens first solar panel factory in Kenya

Oct 26, 2011 12:00 AM

Solar power is becoming a viable energy source throughout many parts of Africa due to the continent's adundant sunlight and the expense saved in developing new grid networks. In Kenya, a Dutch firm is leading the way in this lucrative market with the opening of the first solar panel factory in East and Central Africa.
"It's about time!" shouts gardener John Wambua. He can't wait for more affordable solar technology. "I have no electricity in my room in Nairobi but a solar lamp helps brighten up the nights. I am saving for a solar panel to go on the roof of my house. It should provide enough power for lights and the radio."

Targeting the rural population
The new solar panel factory, based in Naivasha, is a joint venture between the Dutch company Ubbink B.V. and the Kenyan firm, Chloride Exide. The latter produces batteries and has an established distributing network not only in Kenya but also across East Africa.
More than thirty young people are busy at work inside the factory and half of them are female. The factory buys broken solar cells from the Dutch company Solland Solar which are cut into smaller cells to be used in panels. The cutting is done either by laser or by hand. The solar panels are between 13 and 120 Watts.

"We target the rural population which comprises two thirds of our customer base. The remainder is bought by NGO's and holiday lodges", explains Haijo Kuper, the managing director of Ubbink East Africa.
Some 98 % of the rural population in Africa does not have access to the grid electric power supply. Most households rely on paraffin lamps.
"Paraffin is getting more and more expensive. The sun is free and we have plenty of it. If only the price of solar panels would come down", complains John Wambua.

In the past ten years the price per watt of solar power has reduced by 75 %. But despite the reduction it is still expensive for Africans -- 50 % of which live on less than $ 2 (EUR 1.4) a day.
"It is not yet cheap", agrees Haijo Kuper. "It is a long term investment. But the greater the demand for solar panels, the more the price will reduce."

Solar power is not only used for lighting in Africa but also for charging mobile phones and water pumps. In many parts of Kenya people have a small patch of land near their homes to grow food such as maize and beans.
But water is scarce. With solar power water can be pumped from a nearby river for irrigation.

Economic development
The lack of electricity in rural areas prevents economic development. Expanding the national grid is a painstakingly slow process so solar power is a viable alternative for small enterprises.
A grinding mill can be found in every village, often running on diesel which is expensive and polluting. But mills running on solar power are also currently available on the market.

The young managing director of Ubbink EA has plenty of ideas for the future.
"We hope of course to expand beyond East Africa. And in the short term I want to cover our factory roof with our own panels so that some of our machines can at least run on solar power."

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