Solar Energy Brings Food, Water, and Light to West Africa

15 March 2012

National Geographic - March 13, 2012

It's long been established doctrine in international development circles that diesel engines are the most cost-effective tools for pumping water and powering villages.

But Robert Freling has been turning that doctrine on its head. The executive director of the Washington-based Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), Freling has proven that solar power can be more economical than internal combustion engines, if the cost-benefit analysis looks beyond the short term. Exhibit A is SELF's development project in Benin, a small country in West Africa (map).

In 2007, the nongovernmental organization completed an ambitious plan to bring solar-powered drip irrigation systems to Dunkassa and Bessassi, two arid rural villages in Kalalé, a district in the northern part of the country. In an attempt to bring water to dry land for farming, the project melded two proven technologies—solar power and drip irrigation—that had rarely been used together..

The idea for the Benin project began two years earlier, when Freling received a call from Mamoudo Sétamou, an associate professor of agronomy at Texas A&M University-Kingsville. Sétamou, who grew up in Benin, had recently visited Kalalé and was frustrated with the lack of electricity in rural villages. Sétamou had heard about a successful solar power project by SELF in Nigerian villages. He decided to pitch Freling on Benin.

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Categories: Energy

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