Powering Business in Tanzania: How Solar Power Is Lighting Up Business in Rural East Africa

The rural town of Oldonyo-Sambu in Tanzania does not have electric power. But with outside help and a self-run local energy center, that is changing a bit.

Tanzania 2013

By Tom Murphy

October 08, 2013

Also published at Humanosphere and the Christian Science Monitor

It takes only an hour’s drive from the major Tanzanian city of Arusha to arrive in Oldonyo-Sambu. While the distance connecting the small village famous for its giant market and a national hub, electricity has yet to arrive for the villagers.

Lumanyaki Simion

The Italian conservation organization Oikos helped establish a solar energy program for the village in 2009. Technicians were trained, a building was built next to the market, residents led the business and sales begun. With its work done, Oikos stepped aside to allow the established business to run itself.

Now there are 300 customers for the solar panels, including five primary schools, two health centers and one secondary school. Bringing electricity to the schools provides light for the students and in one case allowed for the introduction of a computer.

“We haven’t used the information age enough to solve our problems,” said Ramadhani Kupaza, Director of Oikos East Africa, speaking of Tanzania.

Accomplishing that takes electricity. The Community Energy Center sells varying sized solar cells to community members and businesses ranging from twenty watts to one-hundred and forty watts. Options also exist for batteries to story the power captured by the cells.

Oikos staff stay in touch with the program, but have nothing to do with it at this point. With the proper set up, available materials and a technician who can repair broken parts, the project is running as its own business.

SImion enters his home that is powered by solar cells.

“I want to buy two more,” said Lumanyaki Simion, a local business owner.

The music from his bar and restaurant blares out the door. ‘Wakulima Bar” reads the blue writing set against a light orange exterior paint above the entrance.

Before he bought the 140 watt solar cell from the center, the Wakulima Bar was not so loud. Now it is like many other East African bars. The ‘bartender’ stands inside a cage with the television playing local music videos way too loud and the booze on shelves.

A small bar counter sits in-front of the cage with one intoxicated customer. The back opens up to a series of tables and a basic kitchen on the side that offers a handful of meal options.

Simion is a businessman. He bought the solar cells for his bar with cash and went on to buy two smaller ones for his own home, located a few hundred yards behind the bar.

As we arrived, he pointed out the two twenty watt cells on his roof. An LED light was illuminated out the front door, staying on all day long. Controls were located inside the house for charging the the batteries.

He turned on his television and lights to show that they work. Even through the rainy season the power stays on at the bar twenty-four hours a day. More cells will provide even better power at his home and new batteries will hopefully store more energy.

A boastful air fills his voice as he talks about the energy. As the United States, World Bank and others commit to universal access to energy, people like Simion are seeking out other solutions to their power problems and are managing to thrive.

Simion stands in front of his bar.

Tom Murphy reported this story in Tanzania as a fellow with the International Reporting Project (IRP).