Community Charging Stations - Improving Connectivity
Imagine a project that uses solar electricity to generate rural employment, provide an affordable alternative to kerosene, transfer technical and business skills and is completely self sustained!
Energy is vital for the development process of any community, region or country. As the United Nations Development Programme has stated, "providing the poor with access to clean, modern, affordable energy services has multiple, synergistic impacts on productivity, education, health, and gender equality... for the poorest people and countries, small, incremental increases in access to modern energy have led to dramatic gains in HDI [human development]."
This idea utilises a centralised charging station, powered by solar electricity, to provide energy to underserviced, rural communities. Charging stations will be owned and operated by the community with technical support from Energy For Opportunity (EFO). Contrary to previous solar interventions that focussed on small, individual home systems, this model allows for unique products and solutions to be developed that meet the full spectrum of community needs. A for-profit model will be utilised that creates livelihoods opportunities and a revenue stream that can be used by the community for system expansion and maintenance or other community projects.
According to the 2005 Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) for Sierra Leone, only 8.5% of households listed electricity as the main source of light, with the majority of these households located in the major urban centres. Current government plans to expand grid access are dedicated to increasing supply for the capital, Freetown, and rural electrification efforts are focussed on district headquarter towns and not the outlying rural areas. This lack of short or even medium term access to electricity will continue to hinder rural development opportunities.
Modern forms of electricity can go a long way in alleviating financial and physical burdens in Sierra Leone's rural areas, while offering a wealth of new opportunities. The presence of solar power in households reduces the need for kerosene and disposable batteries, which represent a financial burden on families, supply inferior lighting and can prove to be hazardous. Mobile phones can be regularly recharged, offering small-scale farmers broader connections for the selling of their produce and information about prices. While funds can also be raised at the village level thus offering opportunities for the widespread community growth and development.
The required resources for this project can be split into two categories; financial and human.
1) Financial resources - The exact requirements will be determined by the initial sizing of the system which is determined by both overall village size and initial 'connection' rates. A typical initial installation will be roughly 175-350W of installed capacity, 50 rechargeable solar lights, an inventory of solar home systems and all necessary administrative documents. Training is also provided in solar electricity, electrical wiring and basic bookkeeping and business management. A typical installation will cost between $2500 - 4000 including all solar equipment and the initial inventory.
2) Human resources - Community members will be active in every aspect of the system development and operations. It is critical to the long term viability of the charging station that community members are involved and understand the design, development, installation and maintenance of the system.
Target communities will typically be smaller than two-hundred (200) households and marketing campaigns are not required to develop product interest. The largest challenge for this type of venture is introducing the new technology of solar power, as it requires a different way of using energy compared to generators or kerosene lanterns, which are the most familiar technologies in these communities. This is achieved through ongoing interactions between EFO and the community throughout the system development process and examples learned from initial implementers.
A critical aspect of this idea's development and implementation relies of the ability of the charging station to generate revenue for the community, which allows for the system to be maintained and expanded. The exact make-up of the revenue stream depends on the products required by the community. These revenues will generally come from the following sources:
- Phone charging --- Le1000 ($0.25)
- Rechargeable light rentals --- Le400 ($0.10)
- Product sales --- lanterns, home systems, etc (~Le10000-20000/sale)
- Product maintenance
Plan and Execution
This is an ongoing project for EFO and includes all the best practices learned during our initial pilot phase. Initial installations were done at the Paramount Chiefdom headquarter town level. This phase will expand the programme into four smaller villages in the Chiefdom. Much of the technical and administration direction for these sites will be handled by the Chiefdom site, with EFO taking a secondary support role.
- Establishment of community operating group or identification of existing community business: This group or individual will be active throughout the process and will ultimately be responsible for the system maintenance and operation.
- Community needs assessment: Critical data includes current expenditure on lighting (kerosene), phone ownership rates, battery and generator ownership rates and initial product requirement surveys. This not only directs the initial system sizing but provides baseline data for later comparison when evaluating the efficacy of the idea.
- System design: Based on the needs assessment and includes the solar electricity system and any necessary distribution work. The solar electricity system will be installed at an existing community building such as a school or community centre. This ensures that immediate benefit is provided to the entire community. This activity will be lead by EFO in conjunction with the responsible community group.
- System installation: Lead by EFO and supported by the community.
- Training and ongoing support: EFO will provide initial training and support to the system operators.
The ultimate goal of the operating philosophy is to create a sustainable enterprise that is managed, maintained and expanded by the community. However, experience also has shown that this cannot be achieved instantly due to the technical nature of the concept. Due to this, EFO will be an active stakeholder in the project operations for an extended period of time after the initial implementation has been completed. Any costs for this support will be drawn from the revenue stream but must be minimised to ensure benefits remain within the community.
Real World Impact
The following information illustrate the impacts that the Community Charging Stations are having in their communities:
- Average community profit of ~$200/month per site,
- Two full time employees at each site,
- Over 6000 individual light rentals,
- Sales of twelve home systems, providing an alternative to generator power
 United Nations Development Programme. The Sustainable Difference: Energy and Environment to Achieve the MGDs. (New York: UNDP, 2005) http://www.undp.org/energyandenvironment/sustainabledifference/PDFs/SustainableDifference.pdf page 16,17
 Government of Sierra Leone. Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper-2005. (Freetown: Government of Sierra Leone, 2005)
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