BUTEMBO — These days, Butembo dazzles come nightfall. Everywhere, lights illuminate houses while hundreds of others twinkle along the town’s main arteries. And yet, this important economic center of Congo’s North Kivu province isn’t connected to any official power grid.

“We used to have generators bought by the consumers’ association, but two years ago we started using solar power,” explains John Tchipenda, an electrician who specializes in renewable energies.

In the neighborhoods, many roofs have solar panels attached to them. “Back when diesel generators imported from China were successful, burglars would often cut the cables, leaving whole parts of the city in the dark,” recalls Mustari Vangi Sivavi, who, like many other residents, now uses solar energy. “That way they could go about their business undisturbed. That made people think.” 

Robert Shayighanza, another electrician, says it’s not difficult to fulfill the demand. “The traders being the same, they import the solar panels and the batteries depending on the orders.” To discourage thieves, residents install alarms on the panels.

"The good thing about solar energy is the responsible attitude that goes with it,” Tchipenda insists. “We don't waste energy anymore. Now we save it.” Because they’re aware that they can run out of energy if they’re not cautious, people are cautious with their energy use. “The children know now that they can’t leave the lights on when they leave their rooms and that they need to turn off all appliances in the living room before they go,” explains Kakiranyia Jean de Dieu, a parent who converted to solar energy two years ago. “It’s very educational,” he says.

Freedom under the sun

The other advantage of solar energy — and another reason for its success — is the autonomy it gives people. Users depend only on themselves, without having to wait for an electrician to decide for them.

“As soon as the device is set up, you know it belongs to you alone and you can do whatever you want with it,” says Mutsuva Silvestre. “But with generators, we could only have electricity from 6 p.m. until 10 p.m., and at the end of the month the bill was huge. Sometimes, electricians even turned the generators on and off as they pleased,” he claims.

Urban environmental services officials are pleased with this shift towards renewable and non-polluting energy. Karungu Mahamba, who heads this service in the neighborhood of Kimeni, is confident that within 10 years, the entire city of Butembo will use solar exclusively. According to their statistics, more than 5,000 homes already use it, but only for light and television. “In order to have enough power for household appliances, you need to invest over $1,500, maybe even $3,000,” Robert Shayighanza explains. “In any case, in the long term, it’s still cheaper than having to buy fuel for a few hours of electricity.”

Experts, however, have warned that solar panels don’t last forever. “It’s true that they’re efficient, but if they’re not well managed, the battery can get damaged pretty quickly, and then you need to get a new one,” Tchipenda says. “That’s why we teach our clients to manage their energy responsibly.”

The market has also become a victim of its success: To supply the growing number of people who want to convert to solar energy, some sellers are importing cheap, counterfeit panels that don’t last. Specialists are therefore recommending that customers seek their advice before purchasing solar panels.