COVID-19: Time to Give Off-grid Solar Energy a Chance

Uganda received its first COVID-19 case in March this year setting off a series of weekly government directives that led to the redefinition of life, work and social interaction as we know it.

As the government urged people to stay home and stay safe, non-essential businesses had to shut down while essential ones were reduced to operating with a thin human resource under stringent standard operating procedures.

Public and private transport was banned, shopping centers were closed and international borders closed for all passenger travel. This chain reaction has created fear in the community and curtailed movement, thus lowering public spending. Many are crying foul due to the looming economic situation.

Renewable energy companies especially those dealing in solar products and services have not been left out. With unclear government directives on whether solar service providers were an essential service, solar companies and their clients were left stranded. During the lockdown many were forced to work remotely or completely close which affected their operations and cash flows.

Suddenly, technicians could not reach clients to provide maintenance and servicing support while many clients remained unable to buy new solar products or even remit their monthly installments on existing ones. These challenges were part of the findings from a member needs assessment survey conducted by the Uganda Solar Energy Association (USEA) between April to May 2020, to gauge the impact of the corona virus pandemic on the solar sector.

The above trend of events prompted solar companies to rethink the way they do business innovating new solutions such as use of call services, online outreach like email and social media and site visits to support customer service requests and make new sales. These measures were however limiting since most clients are not active on social media and solar was not listed among the essential services.

With most solar products being sold on credit to the informal sector, companies had to further improvise by offering grace periods to clients and revising payment plans to better manage debt collection. Through such solutions, many rural Ugandans have over time been able to meet their energy access needs and engage in business for longer hours hence contributing to Uganda’s economic growth.

For the health sector, off-grid solar has become a breath of fresh air given its ability to power operations in last mile rural communities that are nowhere close to accessing on-grid electricity due to the poor infrastructure and cost of getting it there. With schools closed and many communities having no access to print media, school children can learn through affordable solar powered televisions and radios.

Access to energy for many rural Ugandans is estimated at only 8% according to the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) which hampers enterprise development and improvement of livelihoods. The situation has further been compounded by recent media reports that 200,000 Ugandans would remain without power due to failure by REA to pay power distributor UMEME $25m for earlier completed connections under the Electricity Connections Policy.

Development partner support has also been affected by the corona virus which brought many planned projects to a standstill and reduced demand for on-grid electricity. With governments recognition of energy as critical for the realization of Uganda’s Vision 2040 and the attainment of middle-income status (NDPII), off-grid solar becomes essential now more than ever.

Simple activities such as phone charging, household lighting (this allows children longer reading hours), lighting remote health centers (eases births for pregnant women hence reducing maternal and infant mortality), as well as powering small business like kiosks have been made possible thanks to reliable solar which is not limited by physical barriers. Agriculture, which is the back bone of Uganda’s economy is also increasingly being supported by solar which transcends climatic changes such as drought.

In a bid to return Uganda’s economy to pre-COVID-19 status and propel it further, government needs to make its commitment towards renewable energy transition a reality by facilitating the sector’s growth alongside on-grid power plans. Solar power will reduce the country’s reliance on hydro-power which is highly costly to set up and maintain, not to mention leaves out many vulnerable Ugandans.

The resilience of the off-grid solar sector in these turbulent economic times has shown its values therefore government should increase investment, access to financial incentives and budgetary allocations towards renewable energy.

Now is the time to give off-grid solar a chance!

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