17 February 2015

In Kenya's news: Maasai women are at the center of a solar revolution

Notice the solar panel strapped onto the donkey.

As the sun sets on sleepy Sijiloni village in dry and vast Kajiado County, Naisenya Lankenua has just finished rounding up her family’s livestock for the long night ahead when she receives a phone call. At the other end of the line is a woman whose solar-powered lights have refused to work.

Visibility is poor as darkness has already set in, but Naisenya enters her manyatta to retrieve a small tool bag and a solar-powered torch (flashlight) before leaving to attend to the call.

At the home of Sankau Tonkei, Naisenya asks basic questions like how long the panel was in the sun and if the battery indicated it was charging during the day. Naisenya then gets out a tester to check whether the battery has enough charge.

“I don’t think this battery got charged at all,” she says. “Unless it is faulty, it appears it doesn’t have enough charge; that is why it cannot light up.”

She then replaces the battery with a spare one she carried along. This is what Tonkei’s home will use temporarily for the night before the problem with the faulty one is sorted the next day.

In Maasai culture, women own nothing, inherit nothing and live under the authority of men.  
But in this village and others surrounding it, they now own solar panels.

Across Kajiado, women’s groups are fostering the development of a solar revolution. With the assistance of Green Energy Africa, the women acquire solar lamps and sell them to fellow women.

Because of the high cost of purchasing a lamp ($25), group members act as guarantors to anyone who wants to purchase one. By virtue of being in a group the women also receive some training on installation, troubleshooting, and how to repair the lamps. 

The women market the solar lights, install them, teach people how to use them and some like Naisenya even pair them when they develop mechanical problems.

During the day to ensure maximum charging, the panels and batteries are strapped to donkeys. As they graze, the panels charge the batteries as the donkeys graze alongside other animals. At night, the batteries are unplugged and reconnected in the manyattas.

“Walking around with the panels also reduces the chances of theft because not so many people own them around here,” says Tonkei.

The people here say solar power is not only making life easier but helping to preserve the environment.

Kajiado, like other areas where the Maasai live, is semi-arid. The people rely on trees for almost everything like building their manyattas (homes) and enkang (homestead barrier) as well as cooking and lighting. And because the people predominantly practices pastoralism, it means each time a family moves more trees are cut down to build a new manyatta.

By 2013, Kenya's National Environmental Management Authority estimated that the tree cover of Kajiado had shrunk to just one per cent, a situation that contributes to low rainfall.

“It hasn’t rained for months now, and when there is drought it is the women who suffer the most because it means we have to walk further to look for pasture and fetch water,” says Tonkei.

Another woman who identifies herself as Siantamei says: “Smoke makes our children have chest and eye problems. So it is not just about low rainfall, but cutting down trees brings other problems.”

A report last year by the World Health Organization entitled Household Energy and Health said household smoke was responsible for 1.6 million deaths and 2.7 per cent of the global burden of disease.

Edwin Kinyatti, the founder of Green Energy, says the rate at which trees are being cut in Kajiado is alarming. “The people have one big resource which is the sun, but they are still looking for energy sources elsewhere which is leading to the overall degradation of the environment which is already degraded.”

[article by Vincent Achuka, 15 Feb 2015, Sunday Nation]

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