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Solar power companies promise to help light up the African continent. President Obama's signature Power Africa initiative buys into that promise in a big way. When the president visits Kenya tomorrow, he'll be promoting his program called Beyond the Grid. It leverages a billion dollars in private investment to market renewable energy products to rural Africans. But as NPR's Gregory Warner reports, Africa's answer to electrification may be a lot more familiar and a lot less high-tech.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: When Jackline Mumbua decided to go solar, she knew it was going to be a long haul. She's a 35-year-old housewife in Machakos, Kenya. Her husband drives a motorcycle taxi, and the have three school-age children. It would take her family nearly two years to pay, in monthly installments, the $55 for a small rooftop solar panel. And so when the thing arrived and the lights finally turned on, she couldn't help but sing.
JACKLINE MUMBUA: (Singing in foreign language).
WARNER: All her neighbors danced in the illuminated front yard to a song with these lyrics. We have light. We're very happy. We have light.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMEN: (Singing in foreign language).
WARNER: In this where the solar Africa story usually ends. It's the kind of story that President Obama will tell when he visits Kenya on Friday about low-cost solar with built-in financing bringing power to remote Africans. But the next day, Jackline Mumbua woke up to all the things that she could not do with her meager wattage. She can't power a refrigerator. She can't run water while the solution to all these needs is actually hanging 30 feet away over the acacia bushes on her front walkway, a solution that's become almost invisible to most Americans, and that is power lines. Connecting to those lines would cost her $350 with no installment plan available. But there's a word for the millions of families like Jackline's.
TED MIGUEL: Undergrid - yeah - undergrid households.
WARNER: Ted Miguel is a professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley. His research team coined the term undergrid to describe the many rural Kenyans who aren't on the grid, but neither are they what we think of as off the grid.
MIGUEL: The majority of households are undergrid they're within striking distance of the grid. They can see transformers.
WARNER: Transformers that already power schools and clinics and public buildings in Kenya's countryside. And it's not an environmental trade-off, he says, because most of Kenya's grid is powered by clean sources like hydro, wind, geothermal.
MIGUEL: So it isn't like the grid is dirty and offgrid or these solar solutions are sort of clean.
WARNER: Miguel faults President Obama's Power Africa initiative for putting too much emphasis on home solar and too little on helping Africans access their national grid.
MIGUEL: If you look at Africa's economic trajectory and say, look; over the next 10, 20 years, Africa's going to continue growing and eventually get into the ranks of, you know, middle-income countries, then you need access to electricity and to the grid. And a very weekly powered home solar system or solar lantern isn't going to get you there.
WARNER: The question, though, that Miguel is researching now is how African villagers will make use of that level of electricity. And it's a similar debate that America faced in the 1930s around the high cost of electrifying rural America. That question brought me to a little dry-goods store about a mile from Jackline Mumbua's house and its proprietor, 22-year-old Joel Kitele.
JOEL KITELE: You can have a seat.
His is a unique case. He's part of a pilot project of the Kenyan government financed, in part, by the world that will subsidize the connection fee for houses and businesses in selected areas. So what have Joel Kitele and his siblings done in last two months since the power came on? Well, they bought a welding machine, and they started repairing local farm equipment. Then they started making chairs and tables to sell to local hotels. They're building kiosks to rent them out to other would-be entrepreneurs. And they're installing running water in a pump they built from scrap metal to irrigate a future tree nursery.
KITELE: At least we can say that we are part of Kenya.
WARNER: Researchers who study this report a kind of psychological effect of bringing villagers on the grid, a feeling of being connected to the rest of the country. As for home solar - well, Kitele had bought a panel. It now sits unplugged on the roof. He's looking for a buyer, a buyer who might live 30 feet, but a world away, from power. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi.
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