It’s a moment guaranteed to give anyone goose bumps: suddenly, late in the evening, the lights come on in Sirakoro. The inhabitants of this Malian village clap, cheer and celebrate. For the first time in Sirakoro’s history they have large and reliable sources of light that are not powered by diesel generators. The energy for the street lamps is produced with the aid of solar power in mobile solar containers.
Modern power supply infrastructure
These installations, which can be set up in just 48 hours, supply entire villages with clean electricity and make a huge difference to their inhabitants, are known as “Solartainers”. For the people in Sirakoro, being connected to a power grid means not only reliable light sources, but also things like clean drinking water, field irrigation systems, cooling facilities and internet access. A modern power supply infrastructure has also been established in the village: a digital system featuring smart meters is used to distribute the electricity throughout the village, controlling and monitoring the supply and allowing people to be charged for what they consume.
Torsten Schreiber from Germany and his wife Aida Schreiber, who was born in Mali, came up with the idea in 2016. The couple then founded Africa GreenTec (AGT), a solar company that aimed to supply electricity to more than three million people in Africa, thereby creating new opportunities for them and the local economy.
“Just imagine trying to set up in business as a craftsperson in an African village but without reliable access to electricity. Your only option is a diesel generator. The lack of infrastructure in your country means that diesel is difficult to get hold of and expensive. The generator is loud and smelly, and it pollutes the environment and your immediate neighbours. This means that young people in particular have no job prospects whatsoever. We are changing this and creating new opportunities for thousands of people and an entire generation”, says Aida Schreiber.
In practice, the idea involves Africa GreenTec selling its Solartainers, which cost around 150,000 euros each, and the electricity they produce, to a village community. If the villagers lack the necessary purchasing power, AGT sets up a local operating company that pays for the unit up front and sells on the electricity. AGT uses crowdfunding to generate some of the money it needs – so anyone can get involved. The product is installed by employees of the company, most of whom live in the countries in which Africa GreenTec is currently active. Besides Mali, it has operations in Niger, Chad, Madagascar and Senegal. And in the electrified villages, new jobs are created for people who maintain the installations of this German-African social enterprise.
The next step for Torsten and Aida Schreiber is to relocate production and administration to Africa. To this end, AGT is building new climate-neutral headquarters in the Senegalese capital Dakar over the next three years. In the past six years, the company has electrified over 20 villages and provided more than 100,000 people with access to clean, reliable and comparatively cheap power.
Irrigating fields, cooling harvested crops
The Solartainers each have a capacity of 50 kWp and can supply solar power for up to 400 households, 40 small and medium sized businesses, and ten communal facilities. Besides its Solartainers, AGT sells and rents water treatment plants, water pumps and cold storage units, among other things. This allows farmers to irrigate their fields more easily and cool the crops they have harvested. Because lithium batteries are used to store the electricity, villagers can even benefit from power during the evening. In future, second life batteries from electric cars are also to be used because they last longer.
This gives many people in remote villages in the Sahel region the chance to establish their own livelihoods. A few years ago, Nassou Oumar from the Malian village of Djioliba for example believed he had no prospects in his home country and wanted to migrate to Europe. Then he heard about the power supply in his village, decided to stay, and started up several businesses employing around 50 people. “Everything begins with electricity”, he writes on AGT’s website.