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Solar water heaters growing in power-hungry Burkina Faso

by Romaric Ollo Hien*

A solar panel lies on the roof of Pierre Guissou's home in Burkina Faso, feeding power to his water heater and allowing his family to take precious hot showers in a country where most homes lack electricity.
The 42-year-old electrician is among a growing number of residents in this west African country turning to the sun to heat their water, helping them save money on utility bills and the environment along the way.
"Everyone washes with hot water at home, which was reserved for the children before," said Guissou, who lives in the capital Ouagadougou.
"It saves money, protects the environment and there's no more anxiety about electricity bills at the end of the month," he said.
With the country's electricity grid reaching only 12 percent of all households, the sun provides a powerful alternative source of energy.
But solar power remains scarce here like elsewhere in most of sub-Sahara Africa. While the sun-bathed continent has a huge potential for producing solar power, it accounts for a tiny percentage of the world's solar energy output.
Price is often a deterrent. Solar-powered water heaters cost 600 to 1,520 euros (860 to 2,190 dollars) in Burkina Faso, a country of 15.2 million residents where the minimum guaranteed income is a mere 46 euros (65 dollars) a month.
But headway — at least on the micro level — is being made slowly but surely thanks to a tenacious Swiss non-government organisation, the Albert Schweitzer Ecological Centre (CEAS) which arrived here in 1973 after a severe drought.
"Most of the NGOs that came here at the time resorted to reforestation and soil restoration," said Charles Didace Konseibo, a Burkinabe CEAS manager.
"Cutting fresh wood to make firewood or charcoal is very common here. There was a need for a solar alternative for those using wood to keep new trees from being destroyed years later," he said.
So in 1982, CEAS set up a facility in Ouagadougou to train residents in solar energy equipment. Since then, local workers have passed on their knowledge to other Burkinabes.
Saidou Porgo, the craftsman who delivered Guissou's 200-litre (44 gallons) water heater in 2002, owes his expertise to a three-week CEAS training course.

'Our only wealth here is the sun'

"Our only wealth here is the sun," said Porgo, a welder. "We have plenty of it and it never dies. It's in our interest to promote this source of energy, since life has become more expensive."
The centre taught him to build water heaters, dryers and pumps, among other things. Porgo said he sold about 50 dryers and water heaters, earning him about 22 million CFA francs (33,500 euros, 47,000 dollars) in 10 years.
And his clients are "less cranky" when bills come around at the end of the month thanks to the solar technology.
Boniface Willy, another CEAS trainee, has done even better. Since his course in 1993, he has sold hundreds of solar water heaters to hotels, health centers and private homes.
"My sales grew 30 percent since I began building this equipment," he said.
Willy and Porgo now provide free training to other craftsmen interested in the technologies promoted by CEAS, whose Burkina office also trains in Benin, Mali and Niger and which has opened branches in Madagascar and Senegal.
CEAS's technology department creates and builds equipment using simple technology that helps preserve the environment, Konseibo said.
"We then transfer the knowledge to local craftsmen for them to reproduce the equipment, allowing them to make money," he said.