In 2016, Jinja City sat in the dark on the north bank of Lake Victoria. The city, the second largest in Uganda, had an overdue utility bill of 1.3 billion Ugandan shillings ($ 3.5 million) in circulation. Umeme, the country's largest energy distributor, turned off the city's streetlights.
Even before Umeme turned off the electricity, most of the streets in this town of 870,000 near the source of the White Nile were not lit: only the center of the colonial town had street lights, many of which began to stutter with age and poor ones Maintenance. Districts that had grown as unplanned areas on the outskirts before being incorporated into the city had not been lit at all. “The planned area in the city is quite small,” says Kennedy Kibedi, a social media marketing specialist who works in tourism in Jinja City. “On the outskirts of the city, in the suburbs, there's a lot of informal development.”
This pattern applies to many of Africa's largest cities. As places like Nairobi, Lagos, and Kampala have grown, they have taken in informal settlements that are not connected to national electricity grids. As a result, street lighting is scarce, dispersed and unreliable, and the cost of installing traditional network-based lighting is high.
Therefore, the city administrators of Jinja in neighboring Kampala, the capital of the country and its largest city, looked for an alternative solution: solar-powered street lights that are not powered by the electricity grid, but by photovoltaic modules and batteries that are either attached to or housed in each light pole a mini power plant to support a group of lights.
Vehicles drive on a road in Jinja, Uganda on Friday, July 10, 2020. The city's introduction of solar powered street lighting has helped increase road safety and save money.
Photographer: Esther Ruth Mbabazi / Bloomberg
The Kampala Capital City Authority began redesigning this city's street lighting with solar-powered devices in 2014 when just 115 kilometers of 1,200 kilometers of streets in Kampala had street lights and only a fraction of them were operational. By 2016, when Jinja City struggled with the blackout, the success of Kampala's program was already evident. Reports released earlier this year show that the new street lights have reduced energy consumption and costs, reduced road deaths and accidents, and contributed to a more dynamic night economy in the capital.
Following this, Jinja City began installing solar powered lighting in 2016, with more than 100 installed in three years. As in Kampala in Jinja City, the economic and social benefits were immediate. With just its first projects lighting a 2.5-kilometer section of Main Street and some priority streets near a hospital and market square, the city saved more than 55 million Ugandan shillings ($ 15,200) in installation costs compared to traditional ones Street lighting systems The cost savings have increased further. The new equipment reduced installation costs by at least 25% and maintenance costs by up to 60%, city officials say.
“The most important [thing] is the fact that we can now save a lot of money that would have been spent on paying electricity bills, “says Bernard Mbayo, councilor of Jinja. The city is also raising money from the sale of advertising space on the new lighting poles thanks to the increase in sales Jinja City's administrators are focusing on other priorities, such as garbage collection and upgrading public parks, Mbayo says.
Businesses on newly lit streets also saw revenue increases as they can work longer after sunset. In an email, a spokesman for the Anmol Restaurant and Bar on Main Street said that “street lighting has changed our business.” Locals and visitors will feel more secure visiting restaurants or shops after dark, and staff will feel more secure going home.
Kibedi believes the new street lighting has also boosted Jinja City's tourism sector. Uganda closed its borders at the beginning of the pandemic, but in the pre-Covid era, Jinja City attracted international visitors to the “Adventure Capital of East Africa” for outdoor activities such as boating on Lake Victoria or bungee jumping over the Nile. Other tourists come to explore the city's colonial architecture or attend annual music festivals such as the Nyege Nyege Festival, where East African electronica artists perform and attract thousands of fans to the region every year.
“We saw the numbers [of tourists] are growing tremendously, “says Kibedi,” and I think street lighting has something to do with it because you can now find tourists walking the streets at night. You don't feel threatened and I think that has a big impact on tourism. “
In a district of Agadez in northern Niger, people with solar panels sit under street lights.
Photographer: ISSOUF SANOGO / AFP via Getty Images
The rapid introduction of solar street lighting in cities that are poorly served by conventional power generation is an example of the technological “skipping” that sub-Saharan Africa is known for. Uganda's switch to solar-powered street lights, however, was not without its challenges. While the cost is lower than traditional lighting, the startup costs still weigh on difficult city budgets. The potential for wider adoption in Jinja City is also limited by the limited technical capabilities of the local planning department. Financial and technical support through a World Bank program called Uganda Support to Municipal Infrastructure Development (USMID) helps solve both problems: the program has allocated a total of $ 510 million to support infrastructure development in places like Jinja City through 2023. Thanks to technical support With the support of USMID, Jinja City now has a master plan that enables the further introduction of solar-powered street lights throughout the city.
According to Mbayo, the Ugandan central government has recognized the potential for further introduction in the city of Jinja and has recently provided funding for the lighting of an additional 54 kilometers of road – a significant part of the total of around 380 kilometers of road in the city. It is now up to the city council to determine which streets will be lit next. Mbayo hopes that the funding will allow the city to complete the lighting for the central business district.
“We are also working to ensure that our city is financially self-sufficient,” says Mbayo. The goal is for Jinja City to develop according to its new master plan in a few years after the withdrawal of USMID support.
According to Mbayo, the lesson for other cities is that solar-powered street lighting can be the first step on a longer road to sustainable urban development: he has shared Jinja City's success stories and lessons with administrators in other African cities, including Freetown. South Africa and Dakar, Senegal. The Senegalese government started its own project in 2019 to install 50,000 solar-powered street lights across the country. The work of the French company Fonroche Eclairage has been slowed down by the pandemic, but is now about halfway through.
The success of these efforts could have far-reaching implications for the region: Researchers suggest that installing solar-powered street lighting in sub-Saharan Africa could add tens of thousands of man hours a day by extending the working day after sunset while reducing street lighting electricity consumption by 40% . Solar lighting could generate between 96 and 160 gigawatts of renewable energy on the subcontinent – more than double the current rate of energy production. “We have no doubt that what we're doing here affects people's lives,” says Mbayo, “and we want it to go to other cities.”
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