How solar panels are changing lives for the better in Mali’s rural areas

In Mali’s Ségou region, only half of the residents have electricity in their homes. The amount of electricity produced by the National Energy Company, EDM, is not enough to keep up with demand. But private companies manufacture solar module systems that change living conditions in rural Ségou. The small village of Séminbougou is a good example of this growing trend.

The big streets, the public lighting and the beautiful houses in Ségou tell the story of a prosperous city. But things are different in Séminbougou, a small village only 10 minutes away from there. The village does not have access to the EDM powered electricity and no plans have been made to achieve this.

Séminbougou is not alone in this situation. Many small villages have the same problem – people regularly had to work in the dark. But in 2018 Séminbougou finally got a small solar system that helps the villagers with their daily chores.

“These solar panels have changed our village. It was difficult to charge our phones and watch TV. But now it’s better, ”says Baba Gambi, the villager who takes care of the solar power plant.

“We can plug in our fridges and get cool water. It protects our milk and other things, ”he adds.

Dusty but robust, the solar panels in the village of Séminbougou in Mali have changed the lives of the villagers who finally have access to electricity

Dusty but robust, the solar panels in the village of Séminbougou in Mali have changed the lives of the villagers who finally have access to electricity © RFI / Now O. Togola

Many in Séminbougou work as ranchers and the main activity is agriculture. Life was difficult before the solar power plant was installed. Many villagers lost their animals at night. Nobody knew who was stealing their cows, but ranchers were very active at the time.

The problem stopped when the village installed electricity and it changed for the better for everyone, says Mamadou Bah, director of the electricity center.

“Some people killed them – in the morning all you see is blood on the floor. This solar power plant is very important to us, ”he explains.

Running costs

More than 800 people live in Séminbougou, most of whom are poor. The economic situation is difficult and the purchasing power of the population is low.

Most residents grow food just to feed their families. The solar power plant needs to be serviced or repaired if it fails, but there is no budget for that. The villagers agreed to pay 500 CFA or 75 cents plus the price of the electricity unit of 150 CFA or 22 cents. This money will also be used to finance future projects.

Meter supervisor Bah ticks the boxes that show electricity consumption in each house per month, collects the money and has found a solution for meters that are not working properly.

“The problem is that some of our counters are not working. So we decided to pass the bill for a unit to those who have had their meters not working for two months so they can pay, ”he says.

Even if the price of the unit of electricity seems cheap, some people have problems cobbling together these small sums because, as subsistence farmers, they do not have a livelihood that generates income.

A mill for women in the village

The solar power plant supplies almost every house in the village with light. Few people don’t have it yet because the capacity of the electricity it generates is limited.

Women are probably the happiest in the community as they don’t have to hammer grain in the dark, strenuous and time-consuming work that is dangerous without lighting. Electricity enabled them to run an electric mill in the village.

“Now that we have the mill and the light, we feel good now. We are no longer afraid of snakes, ”says the villager Fatoumata Yara, who adds that the women can visit their neighbors even at night without being afraid.

Other women are happy too, but say the blackouts are difficult to deal with.

“We no longer sleep with our children in the dark. Now the problem is the blackout. And that happens early. We can’t always plug in our fridges, ”says Kadidiatou Daou.

She is not alone to complain about this problem. The villagers are calling on the local authorities to enlarge the solar power plant so that everyone can get light. They believe this will reduce the blackouts as well.

A renewable future on hold

In the Ségou region, many projects are focused on renewable energy, although some are still pending for many reasons, says Souleymane Coulibaly, the local director of the National Energy Company in Ségou.

“Many of our projects are geared towards renewable energies. The National Renewable Energy Agency had a project that was supposed to start in 2020 but things have slowed down due to Covid19, ”says Coulibaly.

Thanks to solar energy and a hybrid system, 70 villages in 12 different areas are supplied with electricity, ”he adds.

Ségou is at a turning point following its relative success in providing electricity to many villages through solar panels. The region is home to one of the most advanced renewable energy projects – a 33 megawatt solar photovoltaic system being built on 87 hectares.

The project is funded by the African Development Bank and the International Finance Corporation, a subsidiary of the World Bank.

For Nouhoum Diarra, the mayor of Ségou, this project is very important for the country, although it is still not operational.

“We had a land problem – I mean illegal occupation of the site. We will find a solution for this. We also had a financial problem so it couldn’t start. The project is still stalling while it carries five percent of energy consumption in Mali, ”Diarra told the Africa Calling podcast.

This € 50 million project is a semi-public proposal initiated by Scatec, a Norwegian company funded by various partners. The company itself holds 51 percent of the total financing and will build the solar power plant as well as provide technical and financial support for the project and be part of its management for the next 25 years.

National shift

Scatec signed a concession agreement with the Malian Energy Company so that Mali can take full control of the site after this time. With more than 100 solar panels, it will cover 90% of the region’s energy needs, according to the mayor.

In addition, the region has signed sub-regional agreements in the field of renewable energies.

“We signed the mayors’ agreement for sub-Saharan Africa on climate change and an agreement with Expertise France, a consortium of French experts helping cities on the continent to develop their plan,” says Diarra.

“We entrusted the project to the Ségou development agency, which is acting on our behalf so that we can develop our plan,” he adds.

At the national level, the country is trying to switch to renewable energy – it is financial support that continues to be an issue.

“We are working on the new plan. By 2030 we want 25 percent of our production to be powered by renewable energies, ”says NEC boss Berthé.

“We plan to electrify the whole country with solar energy. The country is huge and renewable energies give us that opportunity. We can just use small solar power plants anywhere, ”he adds.

According to Berthé, the national electrification rate is currently 49 percent, in rural areas 29 percent. He sees renewable energy as an efficient means of providing electricity to more areas, including remote locations.

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