Making way for solar in Cameroon

Wednesday August 9th, 2017 - Smart Villages

Augustine Ndasi, Managing Director, Haute Energy Systems Ltd.

Location: Limbe, South West Region, Cameroon

“As we say in our dialect – no point waiting for someone, it’s better to get going!”

Augustine Ndasi did not count on lugging equipment, weighing 12 tonnes, through rough terrain on the border of Congo. One tubular battery, which had to be taken uphill, alone weighed 123 kg. He signed on the dotted line for his first contract with a company he had just launched in 2005. Haute Energy Systems (HES) was charged with building a 12 kW solar communications centre. The site was remote – in Mbalam, in the southern region of Cameroon. It belonged to MTN, the leading telecoms operator in Cameroon, a prestigious first project. A two week job 800 kilometres away ended up going on for two months. “It was going into the unknown,” he laughs. “We suffered.”

When it comes to the challenges of working in rural, off-grid areas of Cameroon, not much has changed for Ndasi and his team of 12. Over 50% of Cameroonians do not have regular access to electricity; 45% of people live in rural areas. Currently, HES is sending motorbikes laden with equipment through the thick forest of Korup National Park, in the south west region. The fear at the park is that poachers could get through, and threaten the endangered species. The open reserve is populated though, and this latest project aims to connect the villages of Erat and Eskutan. “We always joke that because we successfully did that first installation, we could comfortably build a house on the moon,” he laughs.

An electrical engineer by training, Ndasi previously worked on oil rigs and ships; Cameroon lies on the Gulf of Guinea in central Africa. “I had a dream to be on my own feet,” he says. “I wanted to be able to recruit other people, to give something back to other people’s lives. I got going from nothing.” HES designs it own systems, selling to individuals, homes and communities, whilst also working on a governmental level and with international partners. HES has impacted around 10 villages in both Cameroon and Nigeria. These communities comprise around 200 families each, with some five persons per household. “We would have long exceeded reaching 10,000 people in off-grid communities, had investment partners come our way,” says Ndasi.

Though the price of solar has fallen since the company started 12 years ago, solar panels are still relatively expensive, says Ndasi; a renewable energy law from 2015 has not eased business rates, he says. “Very little has changed, particularly when clearing renewable equipment and products from the ports of entry. That is why solar installation in Cameroon is still very high compared to say the East African countries.”

HES did not start making a profit until three years ago. For one, it was hard to track payments on a case-by-case basis from villagers in extremely rural areas, which HES had given higher quality systems to. Ndasi’s attitude is “can-do”; he is promoting solar technology to those who need it the most, and are the least able to afford it. “I’m happy people’s lives are improving; people are very gratified,” he says. One solution was to establish a pay-as-you-go business model. “A business case for incorporating some model of return on investment in solar equipment will help get the service to the underserved off-grid communities. We have learned to be creative.” A similar business model is in play for the phone charging-grocery kiosks designed by HES, in conjunction with a UK-based financial partner, Solarlinx . HES advises that locals use LED lamps, and to spot ‘energy star’ energy efficiency logos on fans, refrigerators and freezers, the latter of which they are also also installing for communities.”

PHoto: Haute Energy Systems

Photo: Haute Energy Systems

A successful project on three home system installations via the PSMNR-SWR development programme, a governmental initiative co-financed by the German Development Bank (KFW), has led to the current project in Korup National Park. 12 minigrid solar systems will connect the forest village communities. “We have to come up with a robust system which has to withstand difficult, adverse conditions, far off-grid. Maintenance can’t be a factor, due to logistic concerns.” The diligence took the company on a three-week trip to visit factories and manufacturers in China. In Shenzhen, Ghuangzu and Xiamen, the team sourced materials, assuring themselves of the quality of equipment. “The weakest link in any solar installation is the battery, and we were assured of 5 year warranties,” says Ndasi. The most surprising thing Ndasi learned, in contrast to the often negative way Chinese products are perceived, was the high quality of products on offer for local consumption. “I came back completely transformed in my thinking.”

Plans for the next two years include a move towards biomass as an alternative source of energy. In an alliance called Powercam EIG with three other companies, the plan is to build a 45 mW plant covering 19,000 hectares of land. Agreements have been signed with the American agro industry which is currently planting palm-oil plantation. “All the energy produced from biomass will be injected in the national grid of ENEO utility, which is owned and operated by British ACTIS group,” he says, with Siemens from Belgium designing and installing the biomass power plant.

“Environmental groups have their concerns about deforestation,” says Ndasi, “However we have an energy deficiency in Cameroon. That is our main problem. We are interested in development. This is about our basic needs, so the government has more of our development at heart.” The Cameroonian government can be limiting too; those closest to the “corridors of powers” might be more successful. Then, there are villages like Missaka near the Moungo River in the south west region which have have ended up connected to the grid.

Training and education is very meaningful for Ndasi. As the name of the company suggests – ‘haute’ means ‘top’ in French – the guiding principle is to always maintain high standards. Sponsored by the German region of Nordrhein Westphalia, HES trained young Cameroonian technicians in 2015, with another programme planned for September 2017. Ndasi is working on getting certification with solar training institutions, and has contacted professors in Italy, France and Germany. Rather than be put off by the lack of response for now, he will keep going forward: “As we say in our dialect, a meh wumeh wh’et, an’yeh yendeh! –  no point waiting for someone, get going!”

–Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee