Nigeria Bets on Solar to Power Its Covid Recovery

Suleiman Babamanu is helping the Rural Electrification Agency of Nigeria implement the country’s largest investment in solar energy.

Suleiman Babamanu’s path to the heart of Nigeria’s biggest solar power program started in disappointment.

After university he worked as a trainee geoscientist for a unit of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp. A job in the industry—Nigeria is Africa’s biggest oil producer—would have been a traditional route, and a lucrative one. But he couldn’t find employment.

Suleiman Babamanu at a solar power installation site in Abuja, Nigeria. Photographer KC NwakalorBloomberg

This was about 2010, when the growth of clean energy around the world made it start to seem like a potential career path. The industry hadn’t gained much traction in Nigeria, and he set aside the idea, until a conversation with a relative persuaded him to reconsider.

“A cousin told me not to go where the money is but where the money is going,” he says. “I immediately changed my mind and applied for a master’s degree in renewable energy, and I got a scholarship.” That sent him to Newcastle University in the U.K. and then on to a range of public and private jobs in his home country’s renewables industry, including projects that had received World Bank funding.

Now, as technical project lead at the Rural Electrification Agency, he’s one of the officers helping implement Nigeria’s largest investment in solar power, part of the country’s Covid economic recovery plan. The project, Solar Power Naija, is also a step toward solving one of Nigeria’s biggest problems: a lack of reliable electricity.

Under the Paris Climate Agreement, Nigeria has pledged to cut carbon emissions 20% by 2030. To get there, it aims to generate 30% of its energy from renewables. To make progress, 10% of the government’s 2.3 trillion naira ($5.6 billion) of spending to spur recovery from the pandemic will be used to install 5 million solar home systems. The aim is to provide electricity to 25 million people in rural communities that now have no access to the grid

With Solar Power Naija, the government is aiming to fix the development problems that a lack of access to electricity has created, as well as the pollution that fuel-powered generators, one of the most popular power sources, cause.

“Rural communities, the companies, and people that are using generators or even candles would have access to a cleaner and more efficient power supply,” Babamanu says. “Emissions will be greatly reduced.”

The rollout will focus on building standalone connections, which use solar panels to charge batteries that can then be used at any time, and mini grids, which operate in a similar way but can service larger needs. Both will function separately from the national grid.

The project will also give bidders from across the industry low-interest government loans instead of contracts or grants to finance the equipment and construction—a departure from Nigeria’s normal approach to electrification. Companies will repay what they’ve borrowed with income from customers.

“It’s good that the government is trying to use renewables not just as a tool for solving the energy problem but also for poverty alleviation,” says Adedeji Adeniran, a senior fellow at the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa in Abuja. “This shows it’s taking the sustainable agenda seriously.”

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