It is the paradox of Niger that despite its dark colonial history it is one of the sunniest countries in the world. In the 1960s in the years after colonial rule it was a global pioneer in solar energy research. It set up the Solar Energy Office (ONERSOL) where they built the world’s first solar powered machine, developed by the legendary Nigerien scientist Abdou Moumouni Dioffo.
It was a thermonuclear solar pump which he hoped would transport water in a time of drought.
However, the rich resources of the country were yet again to be its undoing. Funding for the solar programme dried up in the late 1970s when international investment was instead redirected towards the extraction of uranium for the western world’s developing nuclear industry. It was said that one in three lightbulbs in France were powered by Nigerien uranium. In time, the mines would themselves become an indictment of the enduring hold past colonial powers still have over formerly colonised peoples.
But now, with support from the World Bank and the government of India, Niger’s solar programme is being revived.
The plant at Malbaza featured in our film supplies three nearby towns with electricity which previously had to be bought from Nigeria. For now, foreign control continues. Solar power systems are being built by international mobile telecoms companies – the French company Orange or the Indian company Airtel providing the technology, the expertise and the financing. The route to profitable energy independence is a long one.
In African Apocalypse I met Omar Basheer who works at a solar education programme based at the Lycee Abdou Moumouni in Niamey. Omar is an inspiring evangelist for solar power and travels all over the country teaching school children and students about the practicalities of renewable energy and self-reliance. In rural areas, local off-grid schemes that are a hybrid of solar and diesel are being established bringing the skills and self determination at a grass-roots level.
Omar and his programme were the inspiration for the final Nigerien scene in our film. The school children in the town square, harnessing the one resource colonialists couldn’t take from them, bringing light to their studies and their determination to improve their lives. A challenge to the grave of Voulet that dominates the square, to colonialism and the Heart of Darkness.