Akinruntan Banjo was 12 when his father told him of a future where the government would supply electricity to their coastal village. That day never came, he says with disappointment.
Electricity is a recipe for development and sustainable growth, but for those in rural communities in Niger Delta, access to it has been a major challenge. So for 41 years, Banjo and his relatives looked forward to a lighted future in which Gbagira, a remote coastal community in the Ilaje area of Ondo State, Southwest Nigeria, would come alive when connected to the national power grid.
They looked and waited in vain until 2019, when one of the 54 settlements that make up the oil-rich Ilaje area, Gbagira, was connected to a 15-kilowatt solar power plant.
Within those years, many failed solar-powered interventions such as street lights and water pumps, based on Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and government social projects, dotted the community.
They had remained in darkness and were often described as off-grid coastal communities with poor socio-economic lifestyles.
But those days are now a distant memory, thanks to the solar power plant. “This has made a big difference to our lives,” says Banjo, whose house is now connected to the plant.
In the past, he and other villagers relied on electricity from generating sets, which he usually put on for three to four hours daily.
“That was quite expensive to run and sustain,” he says. “But with this solar-powered electricity, we have been enjoying uninterrupted electricity supply. Now, there is no more generator noise. So you are not disturbing your neighbour, and they are not disturbing you either with any noise from their generator.”
Banjo, now 53 and the tribal chief of his community, is one of the thousands of previously unserved residents of last mile communities whose lives have been transformed by the solar intervention facilitated through a collaborative effort between the community and A4&T Power Solutions, a renewable energy company.
“We are delighted that through A4&T, we have electricity today because we have been in total darkness for the past three years. So now, we use electricity every day,” he says delightedly.
The Foundation for Partnership Initiatives in the Niger Delta (PIND) facilitated the initiative to promote private sector investment in powering the community under its Access to Energy (A2E) project.
PIND’s renewable energy intervention
Since 2018, PIND’s Access to Energy (A2E) project has addressed United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 7 (affordable and clean energy), 8 (decent work and economic growth), 11 (sustainable cities and communities), and 13 (climate action). A2E’s affordable and clean solutions have facilitated jobs and given communities a sustainable way to benefit financially and utilise climate-friendly solutions.
“First, we devised a commercial energy model that relies on private sector investments. We also partnered with renewable energy providers to develop solar energy solutions specific to the communities’ needs: energy cabins, mini-grids, and solar refrigeration hubs,” says Teslim Giwa, the Access to Energy Manager at PIND Foundation.
“Then, we carried out demonstrations in these communities to get their buy-in. By the end of 2020, six energy cabins were installed in communities across Bayelsa State, Delta State, and Ondo State.”
In 2021, PIND Foundation collaborated with the Niger Delta Partnership Initiative (NDPI) and Bechtel to design an Energy Access to Prosperity (EA2P) initiative. The goal was to offer grants and capital to private renewable energy providers to encourage more investment in renewable energy projects in the Niger Delta.
Powering businesses, households, and healthcare
Life has returned to the fishing community since April 5, 2019, when the project was unveiled.
Balogun Deborah, who owns a daily needs shop in the community, recalls how she and others relied on generator sets to power their homes and businesses. “Sometimes, the generator can be faulty and, for two days, we would struggle to fix it. But that is no longer our experience because we rarely use generators now.”
According to her, she can refrigerate beverages and water in her shop. Her sales have improved since customers can now get cold drinks.
Ojoetemi Akinruntan, a women leader, says their expenses on generators have reduced from the day the power plant started working.
“Before, we would buy ₦2,000 ($5) worth of petrol, and by 8 p.m., the fuel has finished. But now, we sleep and wake up with electricity. I’m so happy with this experience.”
Christopher Francis, the owner of a single pump gas station in the community, says he has stopped relying on diesel generating sets to power the station.
“I have connected my station to the solar power grid since late last year,” he tells this reporter. “It’s much cheaper to run the station on solar-powered electricity than when I spent about ₦50,000 ($120) in just one week to operate my business.”
The first phase of the 15kW solar power plant is deployed to a total of 26 entities comprising 16 Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs) such as refrigeration services, business centres, retail kiosks, fish smoking kitchens, and a petrol station; one private health care centre; and nine households around the cluster.
Anthony Gideon, who runs a business centre, has recorded more patronage and works longer with solar power.
He says many who have to travel by boat to the local government headquarters at Igbokoda to make photocopies, scan, and type documents now patronise his business because the power supply is constant, unlike when he depended on generators.
Gideon had considered abandoning the business because of the cost of fuelling and servicing the generating set.
“Now, I only subscribe to the power from the solar panel and enjoy constant power supply, unlike when I almost got bankrupt because of the cost of maintaining my generator,” he says.
This testimony is also true for the only healthcare centre in the community. It now operates throughout the day.
“Before now, we used a generator, but now we are no longer using the generator based on the fact that A4&T Company has given this solar power plant,” Mogbeju Nelson, a resident doctor at the facility, says.
“Due to power challenges, sick children and women in labour are taken to Akure, which is over 160km from here, and it’s a journey by boat. In the process, many die on the road because it takes at least an hour to travel on the river,” he adds. Now that the clinic is connected to the power plant, residents are visiting for treatment.
“In the laboratory, you need electricity, and all the equipment in the hospital needs light 100 per cent, 24/7. For example, you want to use an oxygen machine and need electricity. But here in Gbagira, we are no longer using generators. Let me put it that way.”
Inside the energy cabin
An energy cabin assembles photovoltaic (PV) panels, batteries, and control systems on an enclosure that quickly becomes an off-grid electricity plant, with access points for electricity purchase and distribution. The generated electricity is supplied to clients in a cluster, eliminating the extensive costs of establishing a distribution network.
The energy cabin becomes an enabling technology through energy storage, flexibility and modularity, explains Giwa, PIND’s ATED Manager.
“Because electricity sources and loads can be grouped and function as economic demands dictate, they are an efficient and resilient energy option that uses a localised energy carrier to supply and serve the local market.”
According to him, the energy project is based on a business model that sells electricity services and products through a community hub designed to fit the rural communities’ socio-cultural dynamics and energy demands.
In its 2021 annual report, PIND Foundation said its access to energy project beneficiaries accrued ₦466.7 million ($1.13 million) in financial benefits and leveraged ₦83.6 million ($203,901) in private sector investments for A2E solutions.
Altogether, 2,070 persons, including 285 households and 360 businesses, gained energy access.
By the end of 2021, the number of coastal community energy cabins grew from six to 15. Some communities – like Opia in the Warri North Local Government Area of Delta – enjoyed electricity for the first time, while others, like Ogheye, had the capacity of their mini-grid increase from 20kWp (kilowatts peak) to 43kWp as more households and businesses subscribed.
For fish farmers in Sangana and Fishtown communities in Bayelsa, solar refrigeration hubs helped to reduce their post-harvest losses due to inefficient preservation methods such as smoking. They reported that the refrigeration system was more environmentally friendly than firewood and found the process less tedious than standing over a fire.
Households and businesses also reported saving time and money, as they no longer had to rely heavily on generating sets. Residents were equally grateful for the absence of the noise caused by the generators, and they felt more secure at night, thanks to outdoor lighting.
For someone like Banjo, life is turning around for the good in Gbagira community after the installation of the solar power plant. “It has been a long time since we have seen something like this. We don’t see such often here, so we are happy and grateful to A4&T,” he enthuses.
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