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A street in Accra, Ghana's capital
A street in Accra, Ghana's capital
Caterina Clerici

ACCRA — It's a hot and humid night in this capital city and a long line waits at the entrance of Papaye, Ghana's top fast-food chain and a symbol of the country's burgeoning middle class. But the restaurant seems closed, its neon lights turned off.

The restaurant's staff struggle to turn on the generator. A light flickers on, briefly illuminating two large halls full of patrons eating plates of fried chicken and rice. Seconds later, darkness once again envelops the Papaye outlet.

Ghana's senior citizens have a saying: "You can't lose faith in God while there's still light outside." But light is scarce in this small West African country often described as a success story in the developing world because of its stable democracy and moderate economic growth. But, more recently, things have taken a turn for the worse in Ghana. The country's growth has slowed and power outages have increased, alarming foreign partners.

Ghana has been grappling with a severe energy crisis since 2012, which has, at its worst, caused day-long blackouts across the country. Locals even have a name for the phenomenon: dumsor, which literally means "on and off, off and on."

Sub-Saharan Africa produces little energy. South Korea alone produces more energy than the whole region. But Ghana has a higher rate of access to electricity than its African neighbors. The problem is a surplus of demand compared to supply, worsened by the low energy production of the country's primary power source, the Akosombo Dam, due to a regional drought.

"Some mornings we arrive and there's no power, we know it will come back but we don't know when," says Grace Ogrey, owner of a frozen chicken store at the Asafo market in Kumasi, Ghana's second largest city. "So then we're forced to throw our meat away to avoid being reported by the Food Safety Division for selling expired food."

In a country where refrigeration is still a luxury for most restaurants, businesses and households, "cold stores" like Grace's are an essential part of daily life. But with dumsor, the lines of people who used to gather outside the shop are no more.

Ghana's government is trying to diversify its energy sources and develop renewables. The cornerstone of this new policy is the Chinese-owned BXC solar farm in central Ghana, the largest solar plant in West Africa. The transition in infrastructure to solar energy is proceeding slowly but ordinary citizens are increasingly turning to solar panels as a solution to dumsor.

"We went on YouTube and saw how it was done," says Idrissu Musah, a teacher at King's College in Kumasi. "Then we went into the city to ask how much solar panels cost."

The school's 2000 students were previously unable to study at night. Now the panels meet almost 20% of the college's energy needs. In the next three years, the institute hopes to produce enough solar electricity to meet 90% of what it needs.

When there's a power cut from the national grid, an inverter switch activates the panels and life carries on as before. Now the school's electricity expenses have fallen sharply and no one has an excuse for skipping their homework. "One day we might get to the point where even during a total blackout, schools can keep running," says Musah.

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