SOROTI, UGANDA - In this electricity-starved rural part of Uganda, men ride bicycles several kilometers to the nearest market town simply to charge their phones.
That should change with the construction nearby of one of the largest solar plants in sub-Saharan Africa, where two-thirds of the population is without electricity and countries increasingly explore alternative sources of power.
Frustrated by the slow pace of rural electrification in this East African country of 36 million people, many Ugandans have been investing in their own solar panels to light their homes at night and keep small businesses running. But even the cheapest solar units can cost at least $100, a challenge when Uganda's per capita income is $703, according to U.N. figures.
Villagers near Soroti are watching with enthusiasm the construction of a solar photovoltaic plant in their neighborhood. In the blistering heat, workmen install tables into dry earth. Shiny solar panels will be fixed atop them across a 33-acre field.
When the plant is launched later this year it will have the capacity to generate 10 megawatts of power, which will be added to Uganda's national grid.
The solar plant is expected to supply electricity to 40,000 homes and businesses in the area, a big deal in a country that is still heavily dependent on hydroelectric power for its energy needs, said Philip Karumuna, an engineer managing the project. Hydroelectric plants depend on the flow of water, making them vulnerable to dry spells or droughts.
“We have a lot of sunshine, but then we are not utilizing it,” said Ambrose Kamukama, a maintenance engineer at the plant. “By all means, the government should do more of this.”
In Soroti, the sun shines almost daily, a key factor in choosing to locate the plant here. Surrounded by grasslands in which cattle graze and monkeys play, the town is located nearly 300 kilometers (186 miles) from the capital, Kampala. The town's small hotels and businesses need a constant supply of power to thrive, but they rarely get it.
When power fails, resident Stephen Okot just sits back and waits, often for hours, making it impossible to meet deadlines or win new customers for his business making metal doors and windows.
He hopes the new solar plant will end the power blackouts.
Soroti Hotel manager David Mugoda said the power cuts force him to run a gas-guzzling generator that eats into his profits, for instance when milk in the freezer goes bad.
“Power doesn't go often, but when it goes you can curse your life,” he said. “When you really need (power), that is when it goes off.”
The Soroti solar plant is financed under an arrangement called GET FiT, a renewable energy facility funded by the European Union and supported by the governments of Germany, Norway and the UK, according to Access Power, a Dubai-based firm that is jointly operating the plant with Eren RE of France.
The plant is hopefully “only just the beginning for many more to come,” Kristian Schmidt, head of the EU delegation to Uganda, said at the ground-breaking ceremony in March.
Energy experts say similar renewable energy projects will help diversify Africa's energy mix.
In 2014, a solar plant outside Rwanda's capital, Kigali, added 8.5 megawatts to that country's grid, boosting energy generation capacity by about 6 percent. That plant and the one under development in Uganda are the biggest solar plants in sub-Saharan Africa outside South Africa, according to Eren RE.
With better planning African governments can increase the continent's generation of renewable energy, said Dickens Kamugisha who runs the Uganda-based Africa Institute for Energy Governance.
“We should not be praising the government for building big dams,” he said, referring to Uganda's government, which has been spending heavily on new hydropower stations. “Our solution to most of the poor people should be solar.”