62 year old Alice Kiwanuka lives with her four grandchildren in Uganda’s Namuzzi parish in Ssisa Wakiso district central. While Namuzzi is fast transforming from rural to urban neighborhood, some parts, like Kiwanuka’s home is in the off-grid area, referring to a locality which is not connected to a publicly managed electricity system.
In an attempt to change this, the residents of Namuzzi have been working since 2019 to bring in a new solar house system (SHS), one household at a time. They have been able to do this due to community level savings and loans facilitated by Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA). These SHS make available lighting, phone charging, TV, and radio through affordable installments over mobile money.
Such renewable energy is extremely important for Uganda’s population. A GIZ Report suggests that around 50% of the country’s population still does not have access to any form of electricity. Instead, over 70% of the population continues to rely on biomass or fossil-powered technologies, using batteries, torches, and candles to meet household energy needs. In fact, biomass for cooking continues to account for a large 94% of the total energy consumption in the country.
Until 2021, Kiwanuka and her grandchildren used to fall under this category of biomass users. Uptil then, they used the locally fabricated metallic kerosene candle—locally known as the ‘tadooba’ —as their sole source of lighting.
“It was difficult for us with the tadooba. It was not giving us enough light and my grandchildren would often fall sick because of inhaling the soot from it,” Kiwanuka says. “We needed enough light for the children to study beyond school hours, that is why we switched to solar,” added Kiwanuka, who visibly appeared happy and relieved.
As Kiwaunka hinted, kerosene lamps are polluting and expensive—running a kerosene lamp for as little as four hours per day can cost a family close to 10% of their income on average, while also emitting indoor pollutants and greenhouse gasses like the poisonous carbon monoxide.
However, Uganda has great geographical advantage for electrical and climate solutions like the SHS. Being located along the equator provides a high solar insolation, which refers to the measurement of average daily solar radiation. With sun’s rays almost directly overhead, Uganda benefits from 5.1kW/m2 /day of solar energy—which is described as a ‘very high’ solar insolation.
An analysis of solar radiation in Uganda reveals that the high level of solar insolation, coupled with average daily sunshine of about eight hours throughout the year, provides an excellent potential for solar energy use and development of solar energy conversion systems in the country. Solutions like SHS can help maximize this solar potential.
Powering One Household at a Time
In 2019, Andrew Mugisha, now the group chairman, formed a Village Savings and Loans Association (VSLA). “The idea was introduced to us by a sales agent in one of the solar companies and we embraced it as a community,” Mugisha says.
The group meets on a weekly basis to save money in a pool. Each household contributes $5, represented by one member of their family. At its turn, a household acquires a SHS bought from the pooled funds through Kezaala Solar Company. Every month, a different participating household acquires the Solar House System. Even after the SHS acquisition, a household continues to contribute its weekly quota to the pool until all participating households have acquired one.
These affordable installments then help the household to access the SHS. The group supports every participating household to acquire the solar house system with the same components and sizing for all participating households, from the same supplier in Kampala. The system comes with a 200 wp solar panel system, battery, 10 lights, a 32 inch TV, dish and TV decoder, inverter and all installation materials. The system also includes cables, lampholders and switches inclusive with load cable. Each SHS costs 330 USD at the current exchange rate.
“We have so far bought SHSs for over 20 out of 31 households, which is benefiting over 200 community members,” adds Mugisha.
For Namuzzi’s VSLA, the group pays full amount to the SHS supplier—330 USD— to avoid members defaulting. This is helping to build social cohesion in the community. Community members are now working together on other fronts including addressing safety and security of lives and property, drug and child abuse,and organizing community clean-ups.
“At the point of establishing our VSLA, we have an agreed schedule set out so that every participating household is aware about when they will get their SHS,” Mugisha says.
To bring everyone on the same page, the VSLA leaders first spread awareness to the community members about the benefits of solar and helped them understand how to use the solar house systems.
“We invited the same solar sales agent who introduced the idea to us to demonstrate how the system works. Our members got a chance to experiment with all the features and components of the SHS,” says Mugisha.
The VSLA ensured no compromise in quality of the solar products. Uganda faces a challenge of high influx of unreliable low-quality products, which in some instances has led to customer aversion to renewable energy products such as solar panels and batteries. This has contributed to slowing down of solar uptake in Uganda.
To avoid this, the Namuzzi VSLA took their preferred SHS to the Center for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC), a state-of-the-art solar laboratory in Makerere University, Uganda. CREEC offers quality testing for a range of solar products.
“When the product was certified by CREEC, we decided to invest in that as a group. We had to make sure that our members were getting a durable and genuine product,” says Mugisha. The supplier of the kits, Kezaala Solar Company, also runs a hotline where the members are able to get on-time support in case of technical problems arising. The group members were trained in simple steps to operate and fix errors on the systems.
“Our goal was to get light but we got more than light, we got access to modern information and technology in the same kit,” says Alice Kiwanuka. “I used to spend a lot of money and time on kerosene and charging the phone. Now, I have witnessed better learning outcomes and possibilities amongst my children. Our solar is able to provide us with almost eight hours of light a single night,” adds Alice Kiwanuka
The Namuzzi VSLA approach emphasizes that there is a huge potential for increasing uptake of alternative technologies to provide light and cooking energy such as solar PV systems by using a simple neighborhood approach and method.
“Not only can these strategies increase opportunities to purchase a clean energy product, they can also boost individual and community aspirations,” says Francis Daniel Ejuku, Solar Markets Consultant in Uganda.
But, the efforts of this informal savings group is not without challenges. Users have reported that the solar home systems are prone to technical failures due to misuse and mishandling amongst other reasons.
“Sometimes the solar experiences a technical failure and the help from the hotline can’t solve it. It requires a technician to fix it. It costs money to repair and maintain it or buy a new part like a battery,” says Kiwanuka. Some users have also reported total system blackouts and batteries failing to charge especially on colder days.
The implication is that maintenance and repair of the solar home system is more likely to become an additional cost for the households, not allowing them to save on the household energy cost.
“Our members are involved in different income generating activities. Some are farmers and others are traders, and they have different incomes and their ‘wealthier periods’ differ,” adds Mugisha. “This has also led to incidents where households do not pay their quota on time, which sometimes causes delays to deliver a system to the next household,” says Mugisha.
Nevertheless, scaling such initiatives up can tap the solar potential of Uganda and help communities in accessing electricity. Solar Markets Consultant Ejuku adds that informal savings groups, such as VSLAs offer an alternative to microfinance loans. These community-based groups help members organize savings and group loans for productive uses at low interest rates, like 5%.
Some of these solar technologies also include Pay-As-You-Go (PAY Go) services that enable low-income earners to afford solar systems through digital finance with lower installments than traditional loans or paying the full cost of the system upfront in cash. To move beyond their lower scale of operation, VSLAs need to be integrated into similar models for higher scale-up. Interest from the government or private players can help to increase the reach and scale of such groups, and would be beneficial for families who have not been connected to the national electricity network.