Solar Solutions in Rural Tanzania

A blog post by Graduate Research Assistant Han Su.

Imagine meeting someone from rural Tanzania — what could you have in common? One answer could be use of Facebook. But in a country where only 40% of people have access to grid electricity,1 how do users charge their mobile phones, access the Internet, or watch TV?

In January 2019, the GMTaC lab Social IT Solutions (SITS) workshop members and Professor Joseph Matiko paid a visit to a rural area near Dar es Salaam called Mwasonga to learn more about rural energy solutions and attempt to answer these questions. After driving about 20 miles southeast of the capital, we found ourselves on an arc-shaped red dirt path leading in the opposite direction of gentrification. Along the road we saw coconut trees and sparse clusters of houses in the distance, some dilapidated and some newer. We stopped at a house amid the trees to see if the homeowner would speak with us about their energy system and needs.

Well used by a Mwasonga family for drinking water, cooking, and watering plants in the yard. Photo by Han Su

 

Father of family in Mwasonga explains how his solar panel works. Photo by Han Su

After Professor Matiko greeted the homeowner and explained our project in Swahili, we were able to ask a few questions. Professor Parks asked the residents how they get access to electricity, and we were shown a solar panel on the roof of the house. The panel allows them to watch TV, charge their mobile phones, and run lights from a battery. However, not all phones could be charged using this system; the homeowner told us that he tried to charge his smartphone using the solar-connected battery, but it was detrimental to the phone’s battery because of the unstable output. We had portable power banks with us and offered one as a gift.

Mwasonga farmer with his great grandson. Photo by Han Su

 

New houses in Mwasonga built by a private company. Photo by Han Su

Nearby, we met with an elderly man living with his sons and grandson in a house they built themselves with mud and coconut tree leaves. Though he does not use a mobile phone nor have access to electricity, his sons have mobile phones. To charge the phones or watch TV, his sons must go to a neighbor’s house.

Our last stop was a village with newly-built houses sitting neatly next to each other. We talked to a woman living there, and she told us the houses were built by a private company. They rent the house for a monthly rate of 15,000 Tanzanian shillings (6.46 USD). They don’t have electricity in their home, but she has mobile phone that she uses to connect to Facebook. To charge her phone she visits her neighbors who have solar panels and she pays them a small fee to charge her phone.

The next day, back in Dar es Salaam, we visited two solar panel retailers and spoke with the staff there. We learned that a big portion of the solar panels in Tanzania are imported from Shenzen, the “Silicon Valley of China”, and people with different needs can buy solar panels in different sizes. People who cannot afford the whole panel immediately can pay in installments. Most importantly, we learned that solar panels are much cheaper than grid electricity in the long run.

When thinking about solar power, people may relate it to futuristic scenes of renewable energy and cutting-edge technology, yet solar energy in Tanzania is more ubiquitous than in most countries I’ve visited, especially in rural areas that government infrastructure cannot reach. The ever-bright sun and solar technologies have provided Tanzania with a late-bloomer advantage in renewable energy. We are continuing our Solar Media research in Tanzania as a collaboration with faculty and students at the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology.

1 “How Tanzania plans to light up a million homes with solar power”. The Guardian. October 29, 2015. Accessed February 02, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/oct/29/how-tanzania-plans-to-light-up-a-million-homes-with-solar-power