Yaounde — The use of solar energy to power lighting in the home is fast gaining ground in Cameroon's two main cities, Yaounde and Douala, following persistent and sometimes deadly outages in the power supply provided by the country's sole hydroelectric company.
Many citizens who cannot easily afford to buy and run petrol-powered generators recognise that solar energy is cheaper, cleaner and safer - and more reliable than hydro-sourced electricity from the grid.
"I and my family prefer using solar powered lamps because electricity supply by AES-SONEL (the hydroelectric company) has become unreliable and dangerous," said Clarkson Agbor, a primary school teacher in Yaounde. Agbor and his family cannot afford a generator.
"My children can now read at night with good light from solar powered lamps that is affordable and safer," he said.
SHARED SOLAR PANELS
Like Agbor, many households in Yaounde and Douala are switching from hydro to solar energy. Solar panel installations on the rooftops of houses are now a common sight, either as part of collective grids or as individual household systems.
"We share a common mini-solar panel that supplies electricity to some 15 houses in our quarter," says Patricia Lum, who runs a restaurant in the Etouge-ebe neighbourhood in Yaounde. Lum and her neighbours chose this approach to minimise costs.
"We had to put our resources together to get energy at a cheaper cost and ensure a wider reach," she explains.
The cost of mini-solar panel systems, which are largely used in homes, ranges from $400 to $10,000 dollars, a price that has become more affordable since the government exempted the panels from 19.25 percent value-added tax in 2011.
Although there are no official figures on the growth in solar energy consumption in Cameroon, officials at the Ministry of Water, Mines and Energy say the number of registered companies selling and distributing solar panels has increased rapidly in the past few years, with many targeting the expanding market in Yaounde and Douala.
"We have over 25 registered companies now, up from just seven in 2008, which is indicative of a thriving market. Also over 15 NGOs are working with the support of the government to provide solar energy for free in rural communities, where hydroelectricity outreach is largely disfavoured," said the ministry's Moise Anselem.
Haman Sani, commercial director of Energie Cameroun, said that his company has installed some 270 panels in Yaounde since 2011. The company also does work in villages, but Sani said that rural supply of solar panels is mostly provided by local nongovernmental organisations.
The Society for Initiatives in Rural Development and Environmental Protection (SIRDEP) is one such group. With government support it launched its Cameroon Solar Energy Initiative in 2011 to provide solar electricity to around 20 villages, each with a population of fewer than 2,000, in the country's Northwest region. SIRDEP officials say they are half-way to their goal.
According to a 2011 report commissioned by the organisation, Cameroon has significant solar energy resources.
"Solar power can act as a catalyst to transform Cameroon's economy," the report's authors wrote, pointing out that in the capital of the Northwest region, Bamenda, a 4 kilowatt (kW) photovoltaic system could produce around 6,150 kW per year.
DANGERS OF POWER OUTAGES
Until recently, the more than 5 million residents of Cameroon's principal city, Douala, and its political capital, Yaounde, relied mainly on hydroelectricity from AES-SONEL, but the electricity supply has become unreliable, with persistent outages that have at times had devastating consequences.
Since 2012, there have been recurrent reports of markets and business premises destroyed, and in some cases entire families burned to death, by fires caused by short-circuits or other problems when electricity returned after a night-time outage, or by candles left burning in households that cannot afford other sources of light.
AES-SONEL blames the energy supply deficit on the swelling urban population and a prolonged drought that has reduced water flow.
"The population of Douala and Yaounde has more than doubled within the last decade leading to overuse of existing voltage and shortages in power supply," said Moses Nganou, an AES-SONEL engineer in Douala.
Environmental experts, on the other hand, see deforestation in the area where the company taps hydro energy as a direct cause of the crisis. Timber is harvested both legally and illegally by agribusiness and local residents.
FOREST LOSSES AND WATER
"Increasing deforestation around the River Sanaga has exposed the area to prolonged drought. The rapid disappearance of Cameroon's forest has rendered many parts of the country vulnerable to the effects of climate change," said Samuel Nguiffo of the Centre for Environment and Development, a local non-governmental organisation.
Ahead of legislative and parliamentary elections on September 30, opposition political parties are highlighting the country's energy deficit and calling for a clear renewable energy policy to bridge the gap.
"I think we are suffering from misdirected development priority in this country. The billions of francs CFA wasted on senatorial and the upcoming legislative and council elections should be invested in energy production, which is a key element in our objective to become an emerging economy by 2035," said Edith Kabang Wallah, president of Cameroon People's Party.
According to a 2011 World Bank report, one of the top five barriers for doing business in Cameroon is limited access to reliable electricity.
Only about 40 percent of homes in urban areas have access to hydroelectricity, according to the government. The situation is worse in rural areas, where 65 percent of Cameroon's population live. Only one-fifth of them have any access to electricity.
But the government says efforts are underway to exploit and increase the country's hydroelectricity supply while also encouraging the production of other sources of renewable energy.
President Paul Biya laid the foundation stones for the Memve'ele and Lom Pangar hydroelectric dam projects in 2011 and 2012. The dams will generate a combined 320 MW.
Though the move has been applauded by some civil society organisations, others think these long-term projects should be complemented by ones that are cheaper, environmentally friendly and will provide benefits in the short term.
"Solar power is a good opportunity for all in Africa," said Agustine Ngam Chia, coordinator of the Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme Cameroon. "Africa's position at the equator level makes this continent the sunniest in the world, thus our governments need to take advantage of these and invest in the (renewable energy) sector."
Elias Ntungwe Ngalame is an award-winning environmental writer with Cameroon's Eden Group of newspapers.