It’s hard to imagine life without electric light, so that the sun setting means an end to schoolwork because there’s no light switch to flick on. But until his school became solar-powered, this was normal for 15-year-old Kenyan schoolboy Abdul Aziz. With ambitions to become a pilot – “I want to see what the world looks like from above” – school is important to Abdul. Now, due to renewable energy, he’s got the opportunity to achieve his dream.
Abdul, who loves swimming in the sea and playing football when he’s not at school, lives with his parents and extended family on Wasini, a tiny island just off the Kenyan coast. It’s off-grid, so their home life is totally reliant on kerosene and firewood for fuel. Before the arrival of solar power, studying outside school hours was never an option, simply because there wasn’t enough light. Kerosene lamps are expensive to run as well as being dangerous and unhealthy.
The school recently set up a solar energy plant on its roof with the support of WWF and funding from players of People’s Postcode Lottery. Both teachers and pupils are involved in its upkeep – Abdul himself cleans the panels once a week to make sure they’re working at full capacity. The community is learning that sustainable energy is a viable option. If the only experience of electricity is from a sustainable source – like the sun – then relying on sustainable sources becomes the rule rather than the exception.
Most importantly, the solar lighting means the children can keep learning after dark. They’re more likely to finish the syllabus, take their exams, continue with their education – and pass that legacy on to future generations. WWF’s aim is to help young people understand how energy use contributes to climate change, because they’re the consumers of the future. Children who are interested in caring for their natural environment are among the most concerned about climate change. And children – like Abdul – who get involved with sustainability projects are more likely to form good environmental habits.
Sustainable energy can transform lives
Abdul’s story, and the impacts that projects like this are having in Kenyan communities have been highlighted in a new film by WWF, designed to show how sustainable energy can transform lives. WWF’s work in the region includes improving access to sustainable, clean and efficient energy by helping communities to set up solar lighting and adopt fuel-efficient stoves.
Greg Armfield, senior producer at WWF, spent several days with Abdul, both at home with his family and at school. He says Abdul’s life has been transformed – almost in the time it takes to switch on a light.
“Previously it was very hard for me to study when darkness fell,” says Abdul. “We had to use paraffin lamps, which produce a lot of smoke, which makes us sick. Now my school has electricity from solar power.”
Using clean energy from sustainable sources, such as the sun and wind, means we use less fossil fuels and this can help to reduce the effects of climate change.
The population in the coastal region of East Africa is set to double to 44 million by 2030, and with 90 per cent of Kenya’s rural households like Abdul’s depending on firewood for cooking, it’s not hard to see why over 80 per cent of some forests in coastal Kenya have been lost in the last 100 years.
Burning fuels such as wood and charcoal – used widely in urban areas in the developing world – also contributes to climate change through deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions. This, in turn, affects thousands of plant and animal species that rely on forested areas for their habitat and food source. Coastal Kenya, where Abdul lives, is home to an amazing array of wildlife, and it’s one of the most biodiverse parts of Africa. More than 550 plant and 50 animal species found in the forests here occur nowhere else on earth.
Cath Lawson, WWF’s regional manager for East Africa, explains that the region is being transformed by development, which brings fantastic opportunities to the people living there: “However, this can potentially cause negative impacts on nature and poor communities,” she says. “It can be exacerbated by poor planning and unsustainable practices. Responding to these growing pressures, we're scaling-up our efforts in the region to help ensure that there's a healthy natural environment supporting people and growth in coastal Kenya."
Just like Abdul and his peers, the world is ready for an increase in sustainably produced energy – whether it comes from the sun, tide, wind or water. Solar power contributed only a tiny fraction of the world’s electricity in 2015 – just 1 per cent. But last year saw a massive growth in the capacity to make it, with China – perhaps unsurprisingly – investing the most in solar infrastructure. Coupled with the drop in cost of supplying it, this means that the amount of energy supplied by the sun can only grow.
Other renewable sources of energy are surging in use, too. Hydropower plants supplied nearly a fifth of the world's electricity from all sources in 2016, and wind energy generated another 4 per cent of the world's power.
In fact, combined renewable energy sources made up almost two-thirds of all new power produced globally in 2016. The capacity of renewable energy is expected to expand by 43 per cent by 2020. It seems there is plenty of renewable power to go round – indeed, with the technologies available today, the current total energy demand from China or Europe could be supplied 2.5 times over, while Africa could supply 200 times its current demand with renewable energy. It’s reassuring news when you consider that the world’s overall energy demands are huge, increasing by 56 per cent from 1990 to 2014, and getting bigger every year.
For Abdul and his friends, the arrival of solar energy could be the catalyst for change in their community on Wasini. They’re making sustainable energy the norm, educating the next generation – and providing the current one with some of the tools they need to make a difference in the world.
These solar lights have brought big changes to our lives,” says Abdul. “We enjoy going to school, and can now study for long hours. I know if I work hard, I will achieve my dream.”
Camilla Palmer is a freelance writer and journalist
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