Jeff Lahl is project manager for the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), a nonprofit that works to bring solar electricity to developing countries.

Monday, 2 Jun 2003

KANO, Nigeria

As of last night, I’ve been in Kano, Nigeria, for a solid month now, but it seems like much, much longer. I thought I’d be here in the city for a week or so helping our Nigerian partners prepare for the installation of solar-electric (photovoltaic, or PV) systems in three northern Nigerian villages. But a lot of things haven’t happened, and those that have, have happened very slowly.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

I’m here as project manager for the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) on a mission to install a comprehensive set of PV systems in these villages including systems for homes, streetlights, mosques, schools, clinics, micro-enterprise, and farmers, plus a central solar water pump for each village. SELF’s role is to lead in project design and management and to supply the PV systems.

This village water hole in Nigeria could benefit from a solar pump.

Our Nigerian partner, the Jigawa Alternative Energy Fund (JAEF), was supposed to have local materials ready, the well boreholes prepared, and some other structures built, but upon arrival I discovered that due to understaffing and having to do some other projects mandated by local politics, very little of this work had been done. So, much of the last month has been spent helping them prepare — with a daily routine of getting up early and then waiting as my JAEF counterpart shows up anywhere from one to four hours “late.” “Late” isn’t even a useful concept here because its defining opposite, “on time,” doesn’t exist. From my Peace Corps years and from other experiences, I know to expect this different treatment of time, and yet it is still a daily source of frustration because I am a typical time-obsessed American with lots to do and I’ve been given a finite amount of time in which to do it.

Grist thanks its sponsors. Become one.

Eventually, once the coolest part of the day is long past, we venture out into the heat, which ranges from 105 to 115 degrees every day. As we drive along in our un-air-conditioned car, we demonstrate the principles of solar cooking as the temperature inside rises well above ambient. The worst heat is experienced when we get on the highway where the choice is rolling up the windows and suffocating or leaving them open to allow in blowtorch winds that upgrade our rolling solar cooker into a convection oven. I wonder how hot it needs to be before exposed flesh such as my ears begin to actually cook?

At first glance, or even at 100th glance, Kano hasn’t much to say for itself. Rank trash and open sewers everywhere, people defecating virtually anywhere, maimed and deformed beggars on many street corners, absolutely lawless homicidal traffic with horns used constantly for warning and intimidation (I witnessed a young boy being run over; he lived), and, worst of all, tens of thousands of two-cycle motorbikes that spew an oil-rich haze of smoke everywhere. I’ve spent so much time riding around this city in the last month that I’ve learned to automatically suspend breathing through my nose when passing certain extra-ripe areas, I no longer flinch when we miss hitting motorcycles by inches, and I know from sad experience that if I get out of the car or leave my window open while at the post office, I’ll literally be mugged by the resident beggars who one day wouldn’t quit grabbing at me until they saw that I had given away all of my pocket money.

But as I get used to this assault on my senses, I begin to really notice people and how they are all busily hustling to make a living, most well and colorfully dressed, cheerfully going about their business with dignity, and not letting their environment get them down. As I get to know more people here, I’m coming to see these northern Nigerians as tough, industrious survivors who are at the same time mild-mannered, polite, and fun to be around. Now I can’t see Kano without seeing the people and the city is looking better and much more interesting. I realize that I have a choice to focus on the ugliness, filth, and crushing poverty, or I can focus on the humanity and spirit that seems to thrive in spite of it all.

The object of being out in this city is to visit markets scattered throughout the city so that we can collect all the local materials we need for the village installations. The markets are interesting places with hundreds of little stands or cubbyholes packed to the rafters with both new and used goods. At first I thought we would never be able to get what we needed in these seemingly limited places, but I soon found that if one shop didn’t have what we needed, they’d send a boy with us across town to take us to another little shop that did, or, alternatively, someone would run off and have what we needed made at some other shop. Micro-enterprise thrives here — the market seems like some kind of large organic network that is much more than the sum of its individual shops.

The other challenge and delay we’re experiencing is getting our hands on our PV equipment, purchased from Kyocera Solar, that arrived from the U.S. two and a half weeks ago and is sitting, untouchable, in the customs shed. But that’s a story for another day.

Tuesday, 3 Jun 2003

KANO, Nigeria

Yesterday, the rains finally came.

Northern Nigeria has definite dry and wet seasons and the people here have not had rain now for many months. The fields lie bare, brown, and sun-baked in the heat, which often reaches 105 to 115 degrees. Unable to grow anything, most villages have been living off stored grains and food imported from the tropical south.

With the rains, the dry, sandy expanses of open ground will soon be transformed to lush green fields of millet, groundnuts, beans, and other crops. I’ve seen this land in both seasons, and it’s hard to believe it’s even the same country.

The first village we are working in, Wawan-Rafi (translated loosely as “crazy water”), is one of the fortunate villages that has a year-round source of surface water: a lake that enables the growing of crops such as tomatoes and onions, which are in high demand in the village and in the markets of larger neighboring towns.

Irrigation is done either by pumps powered by small gas engines for those who can afford to keep them running, or by hand, one gourd-full at a time, for those who can’t. In the dry season, the ability to irrigate means precious food for your family as well as a valuable source of income.

A water pump that could soon be replaced with a solar pump.

To increase the amount of irrigation possible and to make it affordable and more reliable for more farmers, SELF has developed two mobile solar irrigation pumping systems — local cattle-drawn carts modified to hold four unbreakable solar modules and a very efficient pump. These lightweight carts can be pulled around the shores of the lake to be shared by as many as 10 to 15 farmers per cart.

With the rains having arrived, I admit to myself a little disappointment that I won’t get to see the irrigation pumps in action — they won’t be needed now until it is dry again in October or November. However, we have confidence that they’ll work well and we will at least be able to test them in the fields. The farmers themselves have organized a cooperative to regulate the sharing of the pumps and to collect funds for operation and maintenance costs.

Meanwhile, we are still stuck in Kano trying to get our PV equipment out of customs — a process that has been going on for two and a half weeks now. It’s hard to give a simple explanation for why this has stretched on so long, but it includes such things as not being able to pay the duty because no one could tell us how much to pay, etc. Suffice it to say that the Nigerian customs service does not make it easy for organizations to donate and import equipment that Nigeria badly needs. By contrast, I’ve learned to appreciate most bureaucracies in the U.S. (yes, really!). When people complain back home, I think about Nigeria and experiences I’ve had working in other developing countries and I just smile.

I am profoundly grateful that the rain has begun to cool things off. The humidity is now off the charts, and I still sweat my way through the day, but the temperature has dropped a good 10 to 15 degrees and the daytime heat is becoming bearable.

So things are looking up! Now if we can only get our equipment and get out of Kano and into the villages. Tomorrow, we’ll try again.

Wednesday, 4 Jun 2003

KANO, Nigeria

We’ve finally done it — gotten our photovoltaic equipment out of customs! At the same time, we’ve about finished our pre-installation construction and gathering of local materials, so we will now be able to start our PV installations in the village of Wawan-Rafi within a day or so.

Its been a long four-and-a-half weeks in Nigeria getting to this point — grinding through extreme heat, stunningly inefficient bureaucracy, and days of waiting and frustration in a squalid, polluted city. Unfortunately, this is part of the reality of working on solar electrification projects in developing countries. It’s great work, but it always challenges me and takes me to the limits of my patience and endurance.

This project actually started over two years ago, with conversations between SELF Director Robert Freling and Governor Turaki of Nigeria’s Jigawa State, who met at a technology conference. Funding from the U.S. side (about 60 percent of total) comes from the United States Agency for International Development and the United States Department of Energy. The funding on the Nigerian side came from the Jigawa State government through our partner organization, the Jigawa Alternative Energy Fund, a nonprofit formed to further solar and other local sources of energy.

A project that could have taken a few months to put together in the U.S. has taken over a year and a half due to delays in funding on the Nigerian side and the realities of working with and in a country where almost nothing works very well. For example, on a previous trip, it took me an entire day to send an email from a state government office. Either the power would go off, causing the computers to crash, or the phone grid would go down. You gotta be lucky to catch them both working at the same time. Because of this lack of reliable infrastructure, communications with our partners has been shaky at best, with frequent gaps between our communications — gaps that could last for weeks.

Nigeria’s electric grid is notoriously bad, with daily outages that impede development of all kinds within the country. I was able to witness an example of this firsthand, as my JAEF counterpart took his four-year-old son to a new teaching hospital affiliated with a university in Kano. Young Mohammed has trouble with his blood not clotting and needs transfusions every few months. His father had rounded up four friends as potential donors and the next step was to take blood from each for typing. While this was going on, Mohammed was bleeding, and would continue to bleed until he received a blood donation. But the national electric grid was down, and although the hospital had a huge new backup generator, there was no fuel to run it, so electricity was not available to do the blood-typing. Fortunately, Mohammed’s bleeding was slight and the hospital was able to do the procedure before he was in serious danger.

Because of this unreliability, just about all major businesses and hotels have backup generators that are used daily. Although the environment is usually given as the reason for using renewable energy, the dependability of renewable-based distributed generation systems is another good reason to use renewables in developing countries. One of the great things about bringing solar electricity to these villages is that we will be bringing a source of energy more dependable than the national utility grid!

In spite of all the challenges, I’m happy to be doing this work. After having worked in solar architecture for a number of years, I got involved with photovoltaics as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1993. During my two-year tour in the South Pacific, I was in charge of renewable-energy projects for the Kingdom of Tonga’s Energy Planning Office. Although we did some work with other renewables, our main thrust was the solar electrification of small outer islands. The government wisely chose to bring renewable energy to these islands as opposed to diesel generators with their noise, pollution, expensive upkeep, and the risk fuel spills pose to the fragile reef ecosystems that are the basis of life for island people.

After the Peace Corps, I broadened my knowledge of photovoltaics by working in the industry, designing and selling PV systems. I then went on to be director of a nonprofit that provided education on renewable energy issues. Throughout those years, though, I never forgot the experience of being on a small island village when the solar lights were all turned on for the first time. It was then that I fully realized what a magical, life-changing thing electricity can be for people who have never had it — how it opens up opportunities for better education, health, communications, commerce, and other aspects of development.

Since those days in the islands, I have been looking for a way to do similar work and was thrilled to find my chance a couple of years ago with Robert Freling and SELF. SELF has worked in many places around the globe and is currently setting up several new projects. In fact, to make a plug here, check out the SELF website to learn about our activities and to find out how you can win a trip to Bhutan in a raffle that supports a SELF project in that country.

Thursday, 5 Jun 2003


Today, we finally began installing our PV systems at Wawan-Rafi. The day began by walking around with the village chief to find out where people wanted the 10 solar street lights that we are providing. After a water pump and power for the clinic, street lights were the most requested item during our pre-installation meetings. Nigerians are night people, and are pedestrian people. The market stalls stay open late, and everyone ambles around in the cooler night air, trading and socializing. But the only light at the market, and in peoples’ homes, comes from kerosene lamps which, in addition to being both a health and a fire hazard, do not produce much light.

In other developments, the builders are almost done with Wawan-Rafi’s micro-enterprise building — one of two systems intended to assist commerce in the village. Wawan-Rafi, like most villages in northern Nigeria, has numerous very small businesses such as barbers, tailors, radio repair, and small shops selling food and staples such as matches and kerosene. Most of these businesses use small amounts of electricity for lights, sewing machines, etc., and this electricity is provided by small but expensive fuel-burning generators, which drone on like oversized smoking insects, disturbing the otherwise peaceful village.

After extensive talks with village businesses, we decided to create a small central power platform with the flexibility to provide solar-generated electricity for six to ten businesses. By sharing the facilities grouped under one roof, we save the cost of installing individual PV systems for each business, thus allowing us to provide service to more people and electricity to even the smallest shop owner, who normally could not afford either a PV system or a generator.

Besides the electrical benefits for its users, the micro-enterprise system creates a commercial and social center for the village. Unlike our other systems, which are small, individual PV systems, the larger micro-enterprise solar array makes a strong statement about the value of solar energy for the village.

The Wawan-Rafi micro-enterprise system will be unique among the three village projects in that it is oversized to power a small peanut oil expeller, which we are also providing as part of this project. Groundnut (peanut) oil is the main cooking oil used in this part of the world, and its production is often a women’s industry. Oil production is an extremely labor-intensive process in which nuts are shelled, dried in the sun, and then taken to the village diesel-powered grinder where they are reduced to small particles for a fee. Then the real work begins, as women mix the groundnuts with water in a large tub where they are stirred by hand for hours until the oil separates from the water and can be skimmed off the top, bottled, and taken to the market for sale.

With the new PV-powered expeller, the nuts just need to be shelled and dried before being put whole into the expeller — eliminating both the grinding and the hand-stirring operations.

We expect that the expeller will save labor and free up the women’s time for other activities. The amount of increase in both production and income will be determined over time.

Many of the community service aspects of this project (clinics, schools, etc.) will benefit all residents of the village. However, the oil expeller is the one application designed specifically to empower women, so we have high hopes for its success.

Friday, 6 Jun 2003


The end of the week finds the Wawan-Rafi installation gaining momentum, as more and more of our crew show up. We have four staff members from JAEF (our Nigerian partner organization) acting as crew leaders for the village technicians, of whom there are four from each of the three project villages. They’ve all had a week of training at a local university energy-research center, and they seem eager to apply what they’ve learned.

We have a mixture of people: early 20s to late 40s, experienced and inexperienced, even male and female. That latter mix was specifically requested by SELF and is truly paradigm-stretching in this traditional Islamic culture, where gender roles are still deeply entrenched. As I’m getting to know all of the people involved, I’m sensing a mixture of high interest and good humor that tells me this is going to be a fun group to work with.

With preparations largely done and our photovoltaic equipment liberated from the evil customs agents, we are getting to the good parts — the parts of this work that are so rewarding and that speak to so many of my values. No question about it, this is environmental work. If the 2 billion people in the world without electricity turn to fossil fuels, the prospects for human life as we know it are collectively and positively screwed.

With regards to Nigeria, my extended stay in Kano, with its filth and pollution, showed me what cheap and careless development looks like. By contrast, the villages we are working in now are beautiful places sculpted largely of thatch and earth. As these villages develop — and they clearly want to develop — it is important to offer choices that will not degrade their environment and turn them into mini-Kanos. We hope this project will offer a model of comprehensive and sustainable energy development for Africa and elsewhere.

And of course, in addition to being environmental work, this is fundamentally development work. It’s about sharing with others and helping them gain tools with which to improve their own lives in the ways they see fit. Preserving the environment without offering a compatible vision of development is of little interest to those living with poor prospects for health, education, or even feeding themselves. Supporting sustainable development in whatever way we can as individuals or as a nation is not only the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do in a world where the gap between rich and poor widens and peace and justice remain elusive.

Speaking strictly for myself, I also like the political nature of this work. I like the idea of empowering individual families and villages with their own energy source, especially in countries where governments and institutions are either unwilling or unable to help — or as in too many cases, are actually an obstacle to individuals improving their own lot. Independence and empowerment in one area can catalyze empowerment in others. I also like the idea of reaching out in a positive way to an Islamic society at a time where distrust and tension are growing between Western and Islamic worlds.

Probably the best part of this work, though, is sharing with others the experience of doing something meaningful and positive, no matter how small. Given the sheer scale of global environmental and development challenges, our little project may seem like lighting a birthday candle in a hurricane. Certainly it won’t make a dent in global warming, and nor will a hundred similar projects. But today — when the villagers came running up to greet us, excited to help unload a truckload of our photovoltaic equipment; when people who at first seemed so different from me came up to joke or share a thought; when they looked at this solar equipment with such hope in their eyes for their village where nothing much has changed for the last few centuries — it seems like a candle worth lighting.

Reader support helps sustain our work. Donate today to keep our climate news free.