Energy unplugged: Solar kiosk powers remote African communities


What use do solar panels have when there’s no grid to connect them to? A Flemish non-profit has come up with small kiosks that could provide the solution to Africa’s growing energy needs

Power to go

Ten years ago, Bert Bernolet travelled to a remote village in Togo, one of the poorest countries in Africa, to install a solar panel in a local hospital. The panel proved a great success; it was just what the community needed.

When the 25-year-old engineer from West Flanders realised what a difference such a small contribution could make, he launched the non-profit organisation Solar Zonder Grenzen (Solar Without Borders).

With the help of a supportive personal network and two local solar panel companies for which he used to work, the young engineer came up with a start-up budget and a few thousand solar cells.

Initially, Bernolet and his team of volunteers would just sent containers of solar panels, water boilers and other items to developing countries like Togo, Burkina Faso, Kenya, Guatemala, Tajikistan and Mongolia. 

“But things need repaired, and without spare parts or experts who can perform maintenance, these projects had no future,” he says. “So we had to work out a longer-term strategy, including a business model that ensured that the local population would also be actively involved in the projects.”

Power to the people

That’s when Solar Zonder Grenzen stopped merely shipping goods and started merging development aid with sustainability. The fruit of that marriage is the solar (or energy) kiosk.

Today the non-profit can boast of having built no less than 180 of these small, decentralised solar plants that deliver electricity to more than 40,000 people, mainly in Togo and Benin. A solar kiosk uses photovoltaic (PV) panels on its roof to turn sunlight into electricity.

Ideally, the kiosks are installed in rural areas that lack access to an electrical grid; villagers visit the kiosk to recharge their devices, such as lamps, phones and batteries.

“We gave away the first solar panels,” Bernolet says. “But that didn’t turn out to be a good strategy, because they didn’t earmark funds to maintain the system. So instead, we decided to train locals in running small businesses that manage the use and maintenance of the solar kiosks.”

Installing one solar panel on the roof of a school is certainly nice, but you contribute more if you teach the local people to produce solar lamps

- Bert Bernolet

The kiosk has met with a warm welcome and has become more popular than some other initiatives that aim to deliver reliable power and light to remote communities in Africa. So Bernolet’s organisation recently announced a new innovation.

Together with Ingenium, the engineering office in Bruges, he has recently developed the “smart kiosk”. Now, when local people want to buy electricity, they only have to send a text message; no need for cash.

To attract investors and co-ordinate the new project, Bernolet founded the company Energy Kiosks. In Togo – where the whole story began a decade ago – the co-operative works with a subsidiary company Solergie.

Solergie produces its own solar panels, rechargeable lamps and electrical controls, and sells them at cost price; it makes profit from recharging them. This makes the equipment affordable to most people in the village. 

Knowledge is power

“We want to transfer knowledge,” says Bernolet. “Installing one solar panel on the roof of a school is certainly nice, but you contribute more if you teach the local people to produce their own solar lamps. And it’s easier than it seems – you can learn all this in less than two weeks.”

The lack of reliable and easily-accessible electrical grids hinders growth in many African countries – especially in remote regions. So why not focus on building a “mini grid” around the solar kiosk?

“We’re working on this,” says Bernolet. “We have already seen that people in Togo and Benin are extending wires from the kiosk to their homes. So we know there’s a need for that.”

We have already seen that people in Togo and Benin are extending wires from the kiosk into their homes. So we know there’s a need for this

- Bert Bernolet

Bernolet’s work in Africa and elsewhere has caught the attention of fellow entrepreneurs in Flanders. This year alone, he became the recipient of the West Flemish Young Entrepreneur of the Year award and had received a substantial financial injection from a group of Flemish investors, the Business Angels Network (Ban Vlaanderen).

“Energy Kiosks is both a unique investment opportunity and a display of how risk capital and entrepreneurship can ensure employment, welfare and wealth in developing regions,” said Reginald Vossen, the general director of Ban Vlaanderen.

Not everything that Bernolet does is aimed at the impoverished communities of the developing South. In Flanders, Solar Zonder Grenzen rents mobile cocktail bars, called Bar Solar, which depend entirely on sun-powered batteries.

So while the kiosks bring basic comfort to rural communities in Africa, the bars can power up a party in even the most remote back gardens in Flanders. 

Photo courtesy Solar Zonder Grenzen