Mali

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

Baba Gambi (l), the controller of the solar panel plant in Séminbougou, Mali, and his nephew Cheick Tidiane Bah
Baba Gambi (l), the controller of the solar panel plant in Séminbougou, Mali, and his nephew Cheick Tidiane Bah © RFI/Issa O. Togola

In Mali’s Ségou region, only half of the inhabitants have electricity in their houses. The amount of power produced by the National Energy Company, EDM, is not enough to keep up with the demand. But private companies are making solar panel plants that are changing living conditions in rural Ségou. The small village of Séminbougou is a good example of this growing trend.

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The big roads, public lighting, and nice houses in Ségou tell the story of a prosperous city. But in Séminbougou, a small village just 10 minutes from there, it's a different reality. The village does not have access to the electricity powered by EDM, and no plans have been made to make this happen.

Séminbougou is not alone in this situation. Many small villages have the same problem—people have had to regularly work in the dark. But in 2018, Séminbougou finally got a small solar panel plant, that helps villagers in their daily tasks.

“These solar panels brought changes in our village. It was difficult to charge our phones and watch TV. But now, it's better,” says Baba Gambi, the villager that takes care of the solar power plant.

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

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

Many living in Séminbougou work as livestock breeders, and the main activity is agriculture. Before the installation of the solar power plant, life was difficult. Many villagers lost their animals during the night. Nobody knew who was stealing their cows, but cattle rustlers were very active at that time.

The problem stopped when the village installed electricity, and it changed for the better for everyone, says electricity centre supervisor Mamadou Bah.

“Some people were killing them—you’d just see blood on the ground in the morning. This solar power plant is really important for us,” he explains.

Running costs

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

Most of the inhabitants grow food to nourish their families only. The solar power plant needs to be maintained or repaired if it breaks down, but there is no budget for this. Villagers agreed to pay 500CFA franc or 75 cents, plus the price of the unit of electricity that is 150CFA or 22 cents. That money will also be used to finance future projects.

Meter supervisor Bah checks the boxes that show the amount of power used in each house per month, and collects that money, and has come up with a solution for meters that are not working properly.

“The problem is that some of our meters don't work. So, we decided to give the bill of one unit to those whose meters don't work for two months so that they can pay something,” he says.

Even if the price of the unit of electricity seems inexpensive, some people have trouble cobbling these small sums together, because as subsistence farmers, they do not have livelihoods that bring in income.

 A mill for women in the village

The solar power plant provides light to almost every home in the village. Only a few people still don't have it because the capacity of the power produced is limited.

Women are probably the happiest in the community, as they do not have to pound grain in the dark, exhausting and time-consuming work that is dangerous without lighting. Electricity has enabled them to operate an electric mill in the village.

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

Other women are happy, too, but say that the electricity cuts are hard to deal with.

“We don't sleep in the dark with our children anymore. Now the problem is the power cut. And that happens early. We can't always plug in our refrigerators,” says Kadidiatou Daou.

She is not alone to complain about this issue. Villagers are asking local authorities to enlarge the solar power plant so that everyone can get light. They believe that will also reduce the power cuts.

A renewable future on hold

In Ségou region, many projects are directed towards renewable energies, although a number of them are still pending for many reasons, says Souleymane Coulibaly, the local director of the National Energy Company in Ségou.

“Many of our projects are directed towards renewable energy. The National Agency of Renewable Energy had a project that should start in 2020, but things have slowed because of Covid19,” says Coulibaly.

It will give electricity to 70 villages in 12 different areas thanks to solar energy and a hybrid system,” he adds.

Ségou is at a turning point after its relative success in bringing power to many villages through solar panels. The region houses one of the most progressive renewable energy projects-- a 33 megawatt solar photovoltaic plant that is being built on 87 hectares.

The project is financed 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's still not operational. 

“We had a land problem-- I mean illegal occupations of the site. We will find a solution to that. We had also a financial problem so it couldn't start. The project is still faltering while it carries five percent of Mali's energy consumption,Diarra told the Africa Calling podcast

This 50 million-euro project is a semi-public proposal initiated by Scatec, a Norwegian company that received funding from different partners. The company itself holds 51 percent of the entire funding and it is the one that will build the solar power plant, as well as bring technical and financial support to 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 the full control of the site after this given time. With more than 100 solar panels, it will meet 90% of the region's energy demand, according to the mayor.

Moreover, the region has signed sub-regional agreements in the field of renewable energy.

“We signed the mayors' agreement for Sub-Saharan Africa in the context of climate change, and an agreement with Expertise France, a consortium of French experts that supports cities on the continent to make their plan,” says Diarra.

“We have entrusted the project to the Development Agency of Ségou that acts on our behalf so that we can develop our plan,” he adds.

At the national level, the country is trying to shift to renewable energies— it is the financial support that remains a problem.

“We're working on the new plan. From now to 2030, we want 25 percent of our production to be powered by renewable energy,” says NEC head Berthé.

“We're planning to electrify the whole country through solar power. The country is huge, and renewable energy gives us that possibility. We can just use small solar power plants everywhere,” he adds.

Currently, the national rate of electrification is 49 percent, with 29 percent in the rural areas, according to Berthé. He sees renewable energy as an efficient means to provide electricity to more areas including remote places.

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