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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Low-Cost Solar Invades Kenya

Meredith watching the Brunton 52 Solar panels - a boring jobReliable electricity in Kenya is an oxymoron. Last year’s rationing was up to 4 days per week in some parts of Nairobi, and with the low levels of water in the dam, it’s looking like 2010 won’t be such a bright year (pun intended…).

This is why I’m writing a post about solar power, which incidentally isn’t something I’m overly-well versed in, I usually leave this up to people like Afromusing. I did take the FLAP bags around Ghana, Kenya and Uganda earlier, but hadn’t started to truly delve into this arena until now. Before moving back, I picked up a Brunton Solaris 52solar power kit for my laptop needs. It has already proved indispensable.


Joseph Nganga, a Kenyan businessman who I’ve known for a couple of years, has come back to Kenya and is taking the clean energy position firmly. He’s working with the World Bank on a plan for a “Cleantech Innovation Centre” in East Africa, and knows his way around both small- and large-scale renewable energy systems.

Right now he’s marketing and finding distributors for his Solantern product. It’s a Green Planet Lantern that is sold locally for 2000 Ksh ($25). His goal is to replace the unclean, and sometimes hazardous, kerosene lanterns that everyone uses in Kenya.

[Note: the electricity is off right now, and my wife is using one of Joseph’s Solanterns below]

My wife with a Solantern tonight

An average Kenyan family spends 20 Ksh ($.25) on Kerosene every night, a total of $91 per year. There’s a real value buying a Solantern, and the light lasts for much longer than that 20 Ksh of Kerosene would (and it’s cleaner).


Chance would have it, that on this power-challenged day, I would also meet up with Nick Sowden from ToughStuff. He’s here in Kenya to do for East Africa what they’ve already done for Madagascar: create an industry for entrepreneurs out of 1 watt solar panels.

ToughStuff ProductsToughStuff offers a large selection of accessories for their panel, with extensions like an LED lamp (530 Ksh/$7), phone connectors (75 Ksh/$1), a rechargeable powerpack (550 Ksh/$7.25) and fake D-cell batteries that take direct input from the panel – used to power radios. It’s a compelling mix, and you can tell why they’ve done so well in Madagascar, and which bodes well for them in East Africa as well.

They’ve already started selling them through Chloride Exide in Kenya, at two shops in the industrial area you can pick up the kits for yourself. One shop is on Dunga Road, the other is on Kampala Road.

ToughStuff has a focus on entrepreneurs, which is why they have the “Buy One: Fund One” program. To entrepreneurs they offer financing through local MFIs.

Final Thoughts

Besides Solantern and ToughStuff, there are other projects like Portable Light (and others) working on low-cost solar for East Africa. It’s like the stars have aligned and all the cleantech companies are starting to really look at Africa as a place to make money – which it is.

The AfriGadget-side of me is waiting for local fundis to get their hands on these and to start customizing them for local needs. I want to see 8 ToughStuff solar panels daisy-chained together and used to power something larger. I want to see the wall-of-panels that light up 10 lights across a large room for night classes. The sort of thing that takes local needs, local technical talent and local businessmen to make happen.

Another thought… People think that these low-cost solar light kits are only for the poor. They’re wrong. I use them, as do many middle-class Kenyans if they can get their hands on them. The market is bigger than just the “bottom of the pyramid”.

Finally, I’m greatly pleased to see legitimate businesses, not NGOs, leading this charge. The quickest way to ruin this fledgling industry is by false ceilings imposed by development/aid subsidies around these products.


  1. We want more!

    Have been trying to get some information on affordable solar based products in the Kenyan market and you wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get vendors who sell anything approaching affordable.

    Thanks for the post. Using it the starting point for a whole new search for this products.

  2. This is priceless! We have soo much sunshine which in theory should make us the center of solar energy production in the entire globe. Coincidentally a friend of mine were recently discussing how solar energy can become a real hit in Africa. Mind if I cite this article in my blog White African? http://sleeplesskenya.wordpress.com/

  3. This is great to read! Keep us posted about these positive developments!

  4. Sometime mid last year I bought one of those lanterns for Sh 1,800 from a colleague who had a handfull. The lantern has since come in handy many times with the constant KPLC fails. At some point I thought to myself – Does the ministry of energy have any plan for actively promoting such alternative energy sources? The invasion as you call it is real, because many people I meet want to buy or resell the ‘nifty gadgets’

    Again I think the Ministry of Energy needs to take the lead in fostering the adoption of such inexaustible nature given alternative energy sources – aside from coordinating the oil merchants.

  5. Spectacular! Exactly what Kenya needs!

  6. The Brunton Solaris 52 sells for US$ 650? Duuude! It looks very nice though and I bet it’s well worth the investment.

    I am with you – it’s about time that solar goes really big in EAK with fundis picking up on it for their own mods and no NGO-approach.

  7. YEAH BABY! The technology advances in just the last couple of years have completely changed the game. Other producers that are designing and selling to the BOP are D.Light Design and Barefoot Power. In Africa, solar light is not only one of the best lighting solutions, it is now also one of the most affordable. Like the cell phone technologies that have allowed Africa to leap over land line technology, solar technology will allow Africans a distributed power system that leaps over the need for fixed wire infrastructure.

  8. @gmeltdown – It really is useful to have one (or more) of these “gadgets” in the house. I believe it’ll be driven primarily by word-of-mouth though. To think that any government entity is competent enough to help in this is a long shot. The best that we can hope for is them to get out of the way, like they’ve done with having no duty charged on solar here in Kenya.

  9. @lema – of course, feel free anytime.

  10. quite right u r hash nice work ur doing

  11. gmeltdown…I have a feeling the “Ministry of Energy” helps sell more of these gadgets every time the power goes off. The Invisible Hand at work!

  12. That’s great. I have suspected the reason that solar is so expensive in the US is because it has been subsidized and regulated by goverment for 30 years.

  13. I am surprised we do not hear more about Gobar (or gober) gas units which use fermenting manure (animal or human) or other natural by-products to produce methane. This can be used for cooking, lighting and limited electrical production. Its use is growing rapidly in places like India and Nepal.

  14. You may have already seen this, but Gizmodo posted an interesting product: Egg Energy.

  15. I’m starting a “Farming & Technology” initiative in Madagascar and I tried this ToughStuff for my pilot farmers in a very remote area. They are happy with, it has costed me nuts but seems to be very helpful for these guys who have never got light and cell phones at home during their life time.
    In Mada, if you need more electricity, even for your laptop f.i, you’ll have to buy a solar kit which will cost min $200. Any cheaper solution somewhere ? I’m trying to give Internet permanent access to my guys using GPRS.

  16. This is very good.

  17. I am ready to sensitize the communities about this good news in Nyanza province Kenya.I am planning to partner up with interested companies and entrepreneurs to start holding community events to sensitize people about solar power any interested party contact me on :seeksm@yahoo.co.uk

  18. if i need one how do i go about getting it , where are you based … am in nairobi.. need one with 4 – 5 lamps , charger for phone and cameras

  19. Hi all – Barefoot Power has a warehouse in Nairobi, and regularly runs training programs to help micro/small business owners and NGOs/CBOs to diversify into selling solar. Email us directly in Kenya on nickg@barefootpower.com

    Supplies solar lamps from 1500 to communities in the rural Kenya. Its very exciting when mothers abandon the hurricane lamps for the solar lamps and further they abandon their kerosene stoves for biogas jikos. Trully we believe the solution to our energ problems lies in green energy

  21. I am interested in learning as much as possible about solar energy. I believe this is the future major source of energy, and like many other things, God given.

  22. I have already benefited from one tough stuff solar and I am so pleased to be using it in my home in Kisumu Kenya. In the county of Kisumu, we are so blessed with ambundant sunshine that we are only missing one thing: – a low cost solar to light every home in the county of Kisumu.

  23. The low cost solar could have come earlier than this. Please tell me how I can distribute this to the village and craete a healthy environment.

  24. Apollo,

    Could you tell me how much it cost for you to purchase one of the Tough Stuff panels in Kenya? I’m writing a research project on the positive effect that solar panels like these can have for a country such as Kenya and trying to gather all relevant facts for a presentation.

  25. If you are interested in low-cost solar power light kit, we offer a full kit at affordable price from 22 USD per kit package: contents Solar panel, battery & controller kit, 2 LED bulbs with 10 meter cables.

  26. Apollo Oganda

    July 26, 2011 at 5:01 am

    I am interested so much. The only problem is that I don’t have a website

  27. Brighter Light Int’l Ltd has the high quality solar lamps available at very competitive prices.(www.brighterlight.net)

  28. Solarlink will grateful to learn more from this new products. Thanks. john

  29. kennedy Njoroge

    November 9, 2011 at 8:24 am

    A good initiative.Explore to rural areas in great need of such panels.

  30. there are alternatives to solar!!!

    Our team have produced a very low cost <$40 units which can provide a stable electrical output which we already use for lighting, sanitation, health & water benefits Designed to be manufactured locally almost entirely from recycled materials Unit is scalable & relies on a more efficient use of any local fuel type further interest or information please contact me my e-mail address. regards

  31. How can West Africa sub region e.g. Nigeria, benefit from these solar technologies? I am interested in partnering or representing a responsible organization. Please, send me further details. Thank you.

  32. We are selling a solar system that can replace part of your Kenya Power bill. Selling though hire-purchase scheme, 5 years, means you don’t feel a thing and 30% of your electricity is ‘green’, after you finished paying your monthly bill will drop 30 to 40%, check out our website if you want to know more…

  33. Please get in touch with me if you are a supplier of low cost solar products for the bottom of the pyramid user meant to uplift the quality of slum livelihoods in Kenya

  34. i need your contacts i want to introduce that in my country rwanda so if in one have it plz send to my email mnimes.nimes318@gmail.com thx

  35. Where can i get the Solantern in Nairobi.

  36. George kimathi

    March 10, 2012 at 7:36 am

    I would like to be a dealer in those solar items in western kenya please get in touch

  37. pls keep me posted of updated solar market info.
    we hope to make real good contributions to imporve the need of solar lightings in afirca, with our best r/d efforts.

  38. hi
    I am looking to scale down my life and move to an area of Kitengela that’s not connected to the national power grid. My only concern is the fridge, do you have a solution for powering 180 w fridge? if possible more house hold items?

  39. Hi

    For 180W fridge you need to have 1 kW panels + 200 Ah battery. They will cost you about 100k Ksh

  40. i have solar LED lights that come with the charging panel which also has multiple mobile phone charger… going for 1500ksh a set…. 0722417447

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