Local renewable energy solutions can transform people’s lives and livelihoods in rural Africa


Altaf Makhiawala


Imagine working hard throughout the year to grow and harvest precious crops, only to have to throw nearly half of them away because they have spoiled before you can sell them.

That’s the situation for many farmers in parts of the African continent today, where up to 40 per cent of fruit and vegetables spoil before they are sold[1]. For farmers, the waste of time, physical labour and income must be hard to bear. And wasting valuable food – when growing populations mean that more people than ever need to be fed—makes no sense at all.

Christine Kalekye Mavuti, a cabbage farmer who lives in a village in Machakos county in Kenya, says: ‘If we cannot sell [the crop] we give it to the cows or throw it away. When I’ve worked so hard and it spoils, I feel so bad. You can’t earn money, so it is a waste.’

Farmers can significantly reduce crop waste by keeping their produce cool. But that’s almost impossible if you live in a community without reliable access to electricity. This is still the case for around 800 million people in 2018, of whom an estimated 620 million will still lack access in 2030.

In Kenya, for example, only 46 per cent people have access to their national grid[2] and many of those who are connected still don’t have a reliable supply. Imagine how disastrous this is when you’re trying to refrigerate food produce in a hot climate.

Local renewable energy companies have the potential to bring access to off-grid electricity to ‘last mile’ customers like Christine. But it can be difficult for these companies to attract the finance they need to grow as many mainstream investors consider them too risky.

SunFunder is a solar energy finance company that invests in solar companies in Africa. These are earlier-stage companies working on innovative renewable energy solutions for low-income communities. Among them is InspiraFarms, which has developed a solar-powered cold room called InspiraCool. As well as making it possible for farmers to refrigerate their produce, the system also powers processing machines that help them add commercial value to it.

Thanks to SunFunder’s investment, Machakos now has an InspiraCool cold room, enabling Christine and farmers like her to keep their produce fresh. Less waste means more income, so hard-working farmers can afford a better life for themselves and their families and the whole community benefits.

Another investor providing early-stage capital to renewable energy entrepreneurs is Acumen. This non-profit fund drives social change through strategic and long-term investment, by investing in companies that serve the least affluent communities.

Among the social enterprises Acumen invests in is RVE.SOL, which is also based in Kenya. RVE.SOL installs mini-grids in rural communities, providing the people who live there with the energy they need to power their livelihoods. In the village of Sidonge, families with a predictable income have increased by 500 per cent since RVE.SOL installed a mini-grid in 2011. In the same period, average grades at Sidonge Primary School have increased by almost half because children can study into the night. 

The IKEA Foundation partners with SunFunder and Acumen to helps communities living in poverty to develop their income and assets in a green and inclusive way, while avoiding harmful carbon emissions. We accelerate this change through collaboration and scale.

Like with communities in Machakos and Sidonge in Kenya, we believe philanthropy needs to throw its weight behind investors specialising in local renewable energy enterprises who can provide communities with high-impact solutions they need. We can offer the risk capital needed for innovation that will provide a reliable energy supply to people who are hardest to reach. Together we can make life for people in rural communities as productive and enjoyable as it is for many urban societies today that do not have to think about energy for everything they do because it is always there for them!

It’s something we should not take for granted today.

Altaf Makhiawala is a strategic communicator at IKEA Foundation.

Comments (1)

Liz McKeon

Thank you for bringing this story alive. Cold storage solutions are so important for millions, and it's great to see investment in the field yield real results.

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