Bakulu Power

How Ugandans on Lake Victoria are leapfrogging into a green energy future

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The Buvuma district of Uganda is situated along Lake Victoria, the second largest freshwater lake in the world that straddles Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda. The district, made up of 50 smaller islands, remains the only one in Uganda where residents have no access to electricity. Their reliance on firewood has led to massive deforestation. Ugandan entrepreneur, Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala is trying to change that through Bakulu Power, a renewable energy company that brings solar and clean energy to isolated communities.

Born a refugee to Ugandan parents in neighbouring Kenya, Lucia later moved with her mother to Canada, where she grew up and still spends most of her time. She started Bakulu Power with her siblings with the aim of bringing clean energy to one of the country’s poorer regions by exploiting one of the country’s most readily available resources: the sun.

Bakulu Power founder Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala speaks about her experience with this organization, which bets for clean energy
A photo of Bakulu Power founder Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue 2018. Photo courtesy of Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala

From small-scale provision to larger-scale impact

On the islands of Lubya, Namite and Kirewe in Buvuma, the company is designing and building mini grids, or off-grid electricity distribution networks that supply electricity to a small, localized group of people. Because they can operate autonomously, these networks have proved to be economically viable and make a positive social impact by involving communities in decision-making processes with the local government.

Gerald Kyobe, sub-county chief in the Buvuma District says that climate change is an urgent reality for his residents: “It is a reality and an urgency because the weather is too hot and we have no rains at all. By providing them sustainable energy in the form of solar and energy-saving stoves, we will reduce on tree cutting and dangerous energy sources like paraffin and petrol.” The Bakulu Power team’s lead design architect, Ivan Kato Kayemba, is also exploring resilient construction technologies like rammed earth and hempcrete that stand up to extreme weather. Their high thermal mass also reduces the need for active cooling mechanisms.

Lucia, named one of Forbes’ 2017 Most Promising Young Entrepreneurs in Africa, explains that the choice to go solar will not only help to bring electricity to residents, but also bring leapfrog technology to a region significantly threatened by the effects of climate change. “Climate change is a reality in Uganda. Just even 10 to 20 years ago, Uganda had relatively predictable seasons. Now both have become more extreme. Island communities are even more vulnerable to increasingly extreme weather conditions, so for those communities dealing with climate change is urgent. Climate change causes changes in rainfall, runoff and evaporation which affects water availability. Lake Victoria is one of the main water sources for the Nile River and has been critical to life for those that live in its basin for centuries. While our work at its core is electrification, we do not believe in doing things is silos. Water, forestry and waste management all have direct links to electrification and climate change so we take all areas into consideration.”

Collaboration with the public and private sector

Bakulu Power has also been working very closely with the local government on the project because its founder believes in the power of collaboration not only between experts and the private sector, but also with local and international governments. “I believe in collaboration and communication. Governments and private sector should work together and communicate throughout the process. We’re very proud to be a local company and working with the government of Uganda on such an important project. We communicate regularly with local government and regulatory agencies. There is a level of patience that is required to avoid unethical behaviours and shoddy work.”

An example of this is how Bakulu Power carried out the necessary environmental and social assessments prior to its launch, a time-consuming and costly process often avoided by new ventures but that is essential in preventing negative impacts in the future.

Bakulu Power’s survey team on a visit to the proposed construction site for the solar mini grids and the production of clean energy
Bakulu Power’s survey team on a visit to the proposed construction site for the solar mini grids. Photo courtesy of Lucia Bakulumpagi-Wamala

Working between Uganda and Canada means Bakulu Power has access to knowledge and experiences from both the developed and developing world’s perspective.

“I believe that sharing knowledge is crucial. I have the honour of speaking with many high level organisations, executives and government officials around the world and I believe that our work can help them. No one person or organisation has all of the answers. We have to put aside our egos and focus on the work, on the people.”

Lucia says that building relationships with these high-level organisations has afforded her the opportunity to speak about solar energy in places like Yale and Cambridge University, and at the Berlin Energy Transition Dialogue last year.

She says speaking in Berlin was particularly affirming for her and her colleagues. “I’m a huge fan of Bertrand Piccard, founder of Solar Impulse. I closely followed his journey on a solar airplane around the world a few years ago. His trip showcased possibility. I’m a really big dreamer so his work speaks to my imagination and my belief that all things are possible.”

Beyond the connections across cultures, income levels and nationalities, Bakulu Power has an opportunity to leapfrog Buvuma into a solar-powered future. While many countries, including Africa’s biggest economies like South Africa and Nigeria, struggle with power cuts and the pollution resulting from our reliance on fossil fuels, it is projects like these that can steer them towards more sustainable practices.

As a small-scale initiative, these solar-powered mini grids can have a much broader impact, not only providing access to clean energy, but building autonomy, livelihoods and driving sustainable development across other industries as a result.

Main image: View of a solar mini grid in a village in Africa. Photo credit: unknown