When Kanono Thabane stayed in the Thaba-Tseka district of Lesotho back in 2014, he and his colleagues struggled to charge their phones and laptops because of a lack of electricity.
For two weeks, the businesspeople relied on a dilapidated solar panel to power their devices.
“We were charging our gadgets at this guy’s house, and we were not charging from the battery, but directly from the sun through his inverter,” Thabane told China Dialogue. “After that, the laptop developed battery problems and I decided to devise a long-term solution.”
For Thabane, an engineer, that solution was solar-charging booths. Through his company Arbitrage PTY he set up six such booths in Thaba-Tseka district and sold them to rural entrepreneurs.
The one in Mashai is owned by ‘Malimakatso Molatelle. She says her business makes a killing during the winter season from end of March to the beginning of September.
“We, the people of Mashai, used to struggle a lot with charging our phones because portable solar panels entirely depend on the sun rays for charging,” Molatelle said. She point to climate change as having “made things worse, because it can go up to a week without sunshine.”
Molatelle added: “Business is thriving in winter because owners of portable solar panels have no option but to come here and charge their phones for a fee of five Maloti (US$0.27).” The kiosk’s solar panels are more efficient, she explains.
Lesotho, a mountainous nation in southern Africa, is the coldest country in the continent. Thabane explains that cold temperatures are good for solar power because “solar panels generate electricity from sunlight not heat. A bright and cold day is more ideal than a bright and extremely hot day for generation.”
In addition to winter, Molatelle says business also thrives during December holidays because of inter-community football competitions that take place next to her kiosk. Spectators come from neighbouring communities and charge their phones while watching matches.
The power of solar
Whether it is derived from a specialist kiosk or a portable panel at home, solar power has changed many lives for the better in Lesotho.
Matholang Jane’s family relies on it. Her yard in Mashai bears a blue portable solar panel that feeds a battery covered in a silver cylinder, which functions as a phone charger, lamp, heater and stove.
Jane, aged 57, recalls how they used to struggle to access clean energy for lighting, and relied on nkuke, a hand-made paraffin lamp.
Recalling being a nursing mother, she says: “I remember very well that we used nkuke to light the house and we had to put out the light at every single sleep throughout the night.” The lamp used to discharge black smoke, she adds.
While Jane has transitioned from paraffin to a solar lamp, she remains one of the many people around the world who falls short of UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 – ensuring “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. With the 2030 deadline for meeting the SDGs looming, countries like Lesotho have only seven years to ensure that this goal is met.
At least 47% of Lesotho’s 2.2 million people had access to electricity in 2020, a huge jump from just 4.3% two decades previously, according to the World Bank.
While Lesotho is trying to increase access by connecting rural households to the national grid through a rural electrification programme first introduced in 2004, researchers argue that the high costs of electricity connections and tariff rates make it almost impossible for rural people to actually use the commodity.
“At the prevailing tariff rates, the majority of rural households struggle to afford a comparable electricity consumption with their urban counterparts, as can be seen by the continually declining average household consumption,” wrote the authors of the paper Electricity Use and Affordability Among Rural Households in Lesotho.
The authors found that between 2000 and 2016, connections in the nation increased tenfold, from around 25,000 to approaching 210,000, but average usage declined by 60%.
Meanwhile, Lesotho’s total electricity demand is approximately 150 megawatts (MW). It meets about 72 MW of this demand via the Lesotho Highlands Water Project – a network of tunnels and dams that generates electricity for Lesotho and diverts water for neighbouring South Africa. Still, Lesotho has a 73 MW deficit, which is offset by buying electricity from South Africa and Mozambique.
China Dialogue sought comment from Lesotho’s principal secretary of energy, ‘Masekhobe Moholobela, but received no reply.
Inside the kiosk
Malimakatso Molatelle’s charging kiosk in Mashai is about five kilometres away from Jane’s household. It looks quite different from the other buildings, with its green, white and blue colouring and its large solar panel, charging and storing power in a big white battery, day and night.
Thabane says he opted for solar panels made in Canada for use on all his charging booths. He says: “There are no reflective losses, and this is why ours work way better than those of villagers during cloudy days.”
Molatelle also sells solar battery-lamps which people can use to light their homes and charge their phones. Although durable, the lamps rely on sun rays for charging.
Two power banks and a cell phone are connected to the chargers. Molatelle charges her customers $0.27 per cell phone and doubles the price for the use of a power bank.
The soft-spoken Molatelle, 49, says she first met Thabane in 2019 during a public gathering in her village.
She says she struggled to pay off the initial loan she had taken out to buy the kiosk from Thabane’s company, after she was forced to close the shop during a series of hard Covid lockdowns. She has since settled the debt, she adds.
Apart from Thabane’s solar-charging booths, rural communities benefit from the off-grid electricity supplied by One Power, a Lesotho-based energy start-up. The company’s solar mini-grid system started operating at Ha Makebe in Berea district in March 2021, according to the Lesotho Bureau of Statistics’ 2021 Energy Report.
At the larger scale, the Lesotho government is implementing its first solar electricity plant at Ramarothole in Mafeteng district, which is expected to generate 70 MW once completed. The two-phase plant, financed by the Export-Import Bank of China, attracted controversy a few years ago when former ministers were accused of inflating its price to provide kickbacks for the politicians who pushed the deal through.
Fighting livestock theft with phones
Rural people in Lesotho rely on livestock farming and crops for their livelihoods. Wool and mohair are responsible for 58% of agricultural exports, according to Lesotho’s Wool and Mohair Promotion Project.
However, the sector is faced with challenges that include livestock theft, which mostly happens at night. One technique to fight theft, according to Mashai farmer Hope Tau, is raising an alarm by calling a popular community radio in Lesotho.
“As a farmer, it is a must to have your phone on during the night because you never know when theft will hit your kraal,” said Tau, referring to a livestock enclosure. His own portable solar panel does not produce enough energy to charge his smart phone, he added.
He said he usually turns to Molatelle’s solar-charging kiosk to have his phone fully charged. However, sometimes the 27 cents fee gets in the way, as “paying five Maloti seven days a week is quite hefty a price for us.”
Nonetheless, the kiosks are helping to support the fight against livestock theft. As organisations like One Power and booth-builders such as Thabane look to boost electricity access across the country, solar power may yet become an increasingly important tool for Lesotho’s farmers, and an ever more empowering energy source for its rural communities.