The Meeting of Chinese Solar Lighting and Kenyan Elephant Conservation

Guan Ziyi & Hua Yanting

“Chinese are helping Africa’s wildlife conservation?” laughed some American tourists upon seeing a group of Chinese student volunteers wearing T-shirt printed with the words “Be Kind to Animals” while walking along the Diani coast near Mombasa, Kenya.

Because of long-existing, deeply entrenched stereotypes, it has become inevitable that when many people from the globe associate Chinese people with poaching, smuggling, and illegal trading of wildlife products. However, China is now gradually becoming a player of the global wildlife conservation movement. Not only there are many Chinese conservationists and volunteers, even profit-seeking enterprises are getting involved. Take for instance, the Chinese solar companies that may have part of the solution to help reduce human-elephant conflicts in eastern Kenya, near Tsavo National Park.

According to WWF and many other wildlife conservation NGOs, human-elephant conflicts have occurred in many places. When the habitats of elephants are reduced to small areas nearby fields of crops, the elephants tend to raid and destroy the harvests, inciting the anger of farmers.

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“One elephant can eat crops weighing up to 270 kilograms in two hours,” explained Joseph Mwangili, a farmer in his 60s, making a living and supporting his 10 family members by growing maize. With his massive field planted with mainly maize, a crop that elephants enjoy, Joseph has become embroiled in human-elephant conflicts. In order to safeguard his field, Joseph is compelled to light fires throughout the night to expel the coming elephants, or to use spotlights and whistles to scare the elephants away, while sleeping in a tree. Because of the elephants’ destruction and some unfavorable weather, he didn’t get any profit from his farms last year.

“People like Joseph become potential poachers because in response to both the direct and indirect causes of poaching: anger and money,” said Michael Mbithi, an engineer in Lion Elephants Deterrent Systems (LEDs) in Kenya. Because of human-elephant conflicts, farmers like Joseph tend to be hostile towards elephants, killing them and selling their tusks.

In order to prevent farmers from becoming ivory traffickers, Africa Network for Animal Welfare (ANAW), an NGO focuses on grass-root wildlife conservation, is adopting a lighting system, an innovation that draws inspiration from the work of a young Masai boy and support from a Chinese solar company to prevent further human-wildlife conflict.

Frequently suffering heavy loses when lions would attack his family’s cowshed, Richard Turere came up with a simply strategy several years ago that uses twinkling light to scare lions away, effectively solving the conflict between his family and lions. The idea is now implemented all over Kenya. ANAW began to apply similar method to scare the elephants. Given the ample solar energy in equatorial Kenya, and the limitations of existing electricity and power lines in remote regions, ANAW made up its mind to adopt solar lights.

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ANAW initially connected with Michael Mbithi, accompanying him to the fields to study the process of equipping solar lights. After visiting two villages with Michael, Kajiado and Kitengela, ANAW launched its first attempt at setting solar lights for farmers in Kapiti in December 2015. After raising money from University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work, ANAW gave the funds to Michael and asked him to bring necessary materials from Kitengela, where Richard Turere comes from. This was the beginning of ANAW journey setting up solar lights in communities to prevent human-elephant conflicts.

Today, China has world-class solar technology. According to The Washington Post, firms like Suntech, Trina, and Yingli have already captured 80 percent of the global solar-manufacturing market. ANAW naturally began thinking of how to cooperate with Chinese solar companies.

In late 2015, Kate Chumo, a representative of ANAW, met with Hang Ren, founder of Jua Energy, a Chinese solar company looking to have long term sustainable development in Africa. At that time, Jua Energy was trying hard to work with many NGOs in order to penetrate into rural African market. The two sides almost reached an agreement; both Kate and Ren were really optimistic about this engagement. Kate saw the opportunity to build public-private partnership. Ren found the way bring his products to more diverse African communities. However because the company did not offer flashing lights, the plan fell through.

In February 2016 when ANAW launched its second experiment, using its past model of setting solar lights. Michael was again brought on as chief engineer of ANAW’s second attempt. He put a solar panel on a nearby roof and led the power lines all the way to the fields. By redesigning the circuit of existing light bulbs, he made the solar lights twinkle in the fields. After the sunset of February 17, 2016, Joseph watched with excitement as the edge of his fields lit up.

There are, however, still shortcomings with the solar light strategy. According to Michael, although it’s a better solution than sleeping on the tree for whole nights, the wires that connected solar panels and the light bulbs are now vulnerable. Although the problem can be partly solved by putting wires on the ground or underground, as long as there is something outside, there are risks. So Michael wishes to have a kind of cheap but effective wireless equipment instead. “The individual lights could contain small solar cells inside, which allow them to absorb solar energy all by themselves, then the wireless lights would become possible,” Michael imagines.

Michael’s suggestion has inspired both ANAW and China House, an organization that aims to advise Chinese companies and individuals in African countries. As CEO Hongxiang Huang mused, “Wireless solar lights are already widely available in China at a relatively low price. And as long as it’s easy and cheap to refit the existing lights with twinkling lights, it’s possible to use wireless solar lights in the fields.”

But there are still problems during the whole process. Ren is hesitant to allow others to redesign their products so that they flash. If there are problems in the future, it may impair the company’s reputation. When asking whether Chinese companies can offer specialized products for expelling elephants, he raised another concern: would there be enough demand for special solar lights to justify mass production. “NGO wants to help people in needs, but companies want and need to pursue maximum profits,” Ren explained.

Despite the difficulties, “we still believe in the future we will find a model through which Chinese solar companies could not only help the wildlife conservation by using their products, but also enter the rural African markets,” concluded Huang.

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guan ziyiGuan Ziyi is a Chinese national currently studying in Shanghai. She was a China House Fellow in the Winter of 2015-2016, and worked on a project equipping fields with solar panel to help farmers prevent elephants from destroying their crops. She will be going to America for further education next year. 

 

Hua Yanting is also a Chinese national that worked on the same project. 


This post first appeared on The China-Africa Project on March 1, 2016.

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