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DEVELOPMENT-CAMEROON: Solar Power Starts Muscling Out Kerosene

Sylvestre Tetchiada

YAOUNDE, Mar 6 2007 (IPS) - For Merline Momo Azeufac, a teacher at Balefock village in western Cameroon, the days of fearing nightfall while correcting pupils’ work are over. She’s no longer hostage to the poor light provided by kerosene lamps.

“I always had sore eyes, and also a headache because of the smoke,” Azeufac told IPS. “Imagine that I used to correct about a hundred exercise books in bad lighting conditions…But this hasn’t been a problem since we had solar power.”

At the end of 2006, Balefock received four solar panels to produce power, under a grant from the Rural Entrepreneurship Foundation (REF). This non-governmental organisation (NGO), based in the Cameroonian capital of Yaoundé, was responding to a request from the Balefock Public School Parents’ Association.

The advent of solar power made the village part of a trend towards alternative energy use in Cameroon that has gained momentum amidst difficulties with giving all homes access to the national electricity grid.

“It’s very expensive, and impractical, to connect remote and scattered households to the electricity grid,” Jacques Kamche, an engineer at the Ministry of Energy, told IPS. “This is why people are now searching for new ways of enabling those in rural areas to cook, obtain light, pump water and light clinics – using independent sources of energy, such as solar power…”

Of the 30,000 villages in Cameroon, only 2,000 are linked to the electricity grid of AES-SONEL, the sole national electricity provider in Cameroon. This firm was formerly the government-run National Electricity Company (Société nationale d’électricité, SONEL). It was privatised in 2001, after being bought out by AES, a U.S. company.

According to a 2006 study from the Ministry of Water and Energy, most inhabitants of rural areas of Cameroon – who account for 60 percent of the approximately 17 million residents of this Central African country – still make use of kerosene lamps for lighting.

The REF electrification project is funded with about 150,000 dollars from the United Nations Development Programme, under the auspices of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The donor-supported GEF assists developing countries with environmental protection.

“The project consists of installing solar power systems in villages of mountainous areas with the goal of improving living conditions for people, but also to reduce soil degradation and pollution,” Georges Akonteh, REF coordinator, told IPS.

Solar power is not without its own costs. “In our country, you need on average 500 to 1,000 dollars to equip a home (with solar electricity systems), and most do not have the money,” Yves Ngouala, an economist based in Yaoundé, told IPS.

But, this hasn’t stopped the Association for the Support and Assistance of Women (Association pour l’appui et le soutien à la femme, ASAFE), an NGO based in the economic hub of Douala, from sending four women to India for six months’ training in solar power technology.

The women were briefed at the Barefoot College, an organisation founded in 1972 to equip rural people with various skills, which has branched out across India.

“The women we sent to train in the technique of solar power…will return to electrify 100 houses each in their respective villages, where inhabitants made use of kerosene and wood for cooking and heating until now,” says ASAFE President Gisèle Ytamben.

Similar projects are planned for Bolivia, The Gambia, Malawi, Paraguay and South Africa, according to the NGO.

Residents of the women’s villages spend between three and four dollars monthly on kerosene, Ytamben adds. In future, they will spend approximately the same amount on salaries for those in charge of the project, who are to be tasked with replacing faulty components and replacing solar system batteries every five years.

“Our children will be able to study for a longer time, the rural exodus will be reduced, and health costs improve thanks to electrification,” says Victorine Nitcheu, a resident of Yaoundé who is from the western Batcheu community, one of the beneficiaries of the ASAFE project.

“Agricultural projects will start with the new system of lighting,” she notes further. Solar electricity will reportedly power a factory for processing palm oil at Batcheu, and a fish smokehouse on Manoka island (close to Douala, in the south) – another of the project’s beneficiaries.

The costs of solar installation will be reduced, notes Ytamben, if authorities eliminate import duties on solar panels. The government has yet to embark on solar power initiatives itself, however.

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