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Harnessing solar energy in Senegal

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(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Dear FSB: I have a small agribusiness in Senegal and would like to take advantage of solar power for my enterprise, due to the high cost of oil. How can I get in touch with solar companies to help my business and create a working relationship spread solar power in Senegal?

- Chek, Ann Arbor, Mich

Dear Chek: Senegalese government officials have also been talking about developing renewable energy. Strangely for such a sunny country, solar isn't on the top of their list, according to Cathy Diam, monitoring and evaluation officer for West Africa for E + Co, an American NGO that provides enterprise development services and financing for clean energy projects in 25 developing countries.

"The [Senegalese] government has never promoted solar energy for fear of creating competition against the country's sole power utility, which is mostly owned by the government," Diam says.

In areas connected to the electric grid, it's actually illegal to use solar energy unless it's for backup during power outages or for powering a limited number of household appliances. Off the grid, the main barrier is the high cost of the initial investment, according to Diam.

"Solar systems are still very expensive, and importers don't benefit from any tax break," she says.

Solar water pumps are available on the market for agribusinesses, but at a very high price. Some agribusinesses have turned to diesel-powered pumps.

There may be other options for relieving oil-price sticker shock.

"Recently, the government has been talking a lot about developing renewable energy to ease the crunch created by the high price of oil," Diam says. "There's a lot of talk about bio-fuel and wind power, but solar is still not being discussed, which seems very odd for a country which has sunlight all year around."

Some new solution is needed: 85 percent of the 7 million people living in rural Senegal lack access to electricity, according to the World Bank.

To learn more, check out E + Co's website. Diam also suggests contacting E + Co's partner in Senegal, Environmental Development Action in the Third World (ENDA). The Solar Electric Light Fund, another, much smaller American NGO working in developing countries, has links to retailers and manufacturers that sell solar equipment in West Africa. To top of page

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