The Iponri Market Energizing Economies Initiative (EEI) of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) is one of the pilot projects initiated by the Federal Government to provide stable, affordable, and efficient off-grid power to Small Scale Enterprises (SMEs) in Lagos but it is failing. The project is largely frustrating SMEs in the market. And the small businesses are already better considering alternatives. This is because rather than boosting the SMEs; it is contributing more to energy cost, and reducing their little profit margins. Olugbenga Adanikin, who recently visited the market, reports.
IPONRI market is a shopping complex within the Surulere Local Government Area (LGA) of Lagos State. It comprises businesses such as gift shops, printing services, tailoring, electronic shops among other SMEs.
It is one of the project locations in Nigeria where the Federal Government through the Energizing Economies Initiative (EEI) of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) piloted a clean energy programme, designed to support Micro, Small, Medium Enterprises (MSMEs).
In January 2019, the former Minister of Power, Works and Housing, Babatunde Fashola, alongside, ex-Managing Director of the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) Mrs. Damilola Ogunbiyi visited the market to inspect the solar electrification project, executed through the private sector – Rensource to provide cheap, stable and efficient off-grid power.
Like Sabon Gari market in Kano where the project was co-piloted, the use of generators is forbidden in Iponri market.
And the market is not connected to the grid, yet, FG’s off-grid intervention which would have served as a better alternative is grossly inefficient.
Frustration of small businesses
Mr. Sodiq Abiodun, a tailor was running on a power generator when The ICIR visited.
He had previously relied on the solar energy when the project was first launched. As of this period, he uses the regular manual stitching machine.
He later procured the electric sewing equipment and subscribed to N20, 000 monthly (N5,000 weekly), until he decided to pull out due to the energy inefficiency.
The service is poor, and does not serve his clothing business as planned, he said.
“As you can see, we are currently on the generator. It is not as if we have not used it (solar energy), we did but it is not efficient due to the nature of our business.
“We suddenly realised once we switch on our ironing device, it trips off.”
Abiodun’s complaint later got the attention of Engineers from the Iponri Market Energy Solution Limited (IMESL).
They, in turn, took the irons to their office to measure the required energy. He was later told he would not be able to use the appliances on the solar energy.
By 2019, Abiodun discarded the solar energy source and has been running on generator.
He spends at least N8, 000 weekly, on Petroleum Motor Spirit (PMS), and N24, 000 monthly.
These, however, exclude the cost of generator maintenance, he told The ICIR.
“Had it been the solar energy could power our iron and sewing machines, we would have preferred it,” says Abiodun.
Solar only works with a bulb and small fan – Shop owners
Mrs. Olatunbosun Ibrahimat, a hairstylist almost shared a space with the IMESL, the Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) created through Rensource to manage the Iponri solar project.
Her shop – MK178 is just a few metres from the service provider.
She is a subscriber but the deafening noise from her power generator at the time of visit speaks volumes.
With a small shop, she pays N2, 000 monthly for the solar, and cannot afford to increase to a higher band due to financial constraints and unstable patronage.
Meanwhile, when connected to the grid, she could connect her gadgets for N1, 000 or N1, 500 at most per month.
But for the lingering power problem, she resolved to combine the use of solar and her private generator to sustain the business.
“The solar energy only works on a bulb and small fan. It cannot power the hand dryer, the main dryer, so I mostly use the generator.”
Her story is similar to scores of other hairstylists observed at the Sabon Gari market in an earlier report.
“They just came to garnish it to us…” That was the first response of a shop owner identified as Mrs. Benjamin when The ICIR engaged her.
“Not everybody has access to it,” the middle-aged woman said.
She sells beer.
Before the launch of the energy project, Mrs. Benjamin runs a bar where assorted alcoholic drinks are sold.
But, this has since collapsed as she could no longer power her refrigerators to cool the drinks.
The stall now literally functions as a mini-warehouse.
“Even if you call them to come install it, like my colleague there,” she said, pointing to a nearby stall owner who had repeatedly asked to get connected but ended a fruitless effort.
The service provider, according to her, came at a time to run pipes with thoughts they were coming to connect her shop but it has been the same experience ever since.
This made The ICIR attempt to establish how long she had been in the business in the market.
She said: “Things went upside down when this regime came with solar.
“When people saw the solar, they felt they have seen the saviour. Unfortunately, it has remained inactive.”
That is not all. Those who attempt to get connected despite its inefficiency have been on a wild-goose chase. Hence, the gradual return to generator use in the market.
“Who will I complain to? See my fan, I cannot use it,” she said, pointing at it with a sigh of hopelessness.
Her business and that of those in similar lines of trade have been growing at a snail speed since the supposed intervention.
This clearly was against the project objective.
Rather, it was to reduce energy costs by providing affordable, stable, and sustainable power.
“I don’t know whether power will ever be restored to Iponri market…” she said without concluding her sentence.
Profiling Iponri Market EEI
Iponri Shopping Complex is smaller in size, unlike the Sabon Gari market. It has over 3, 000 shops. The solar power project delivery was to be in two phases.
The first phase, according to the REA, was completed with 530 shops, but there is no completion date for the second phase.
Though REA put the number of shops at 1,759, the market leaders gave a higher figure.
So far, about 450 shops had been metered. This is less than 50 percent of the entire outlets.
Developed by Virtus Energy Solutions Limited, the entire market is yet to be covered four years after. This implies traders still largely rely on power generators.
The basic idea of deploying clean off-grid electricity to support SMEs in different economic clusters nationwide is, thus, being defeated.
“Solar is good but it has been difficult for the service provider to capture the entire market.
In fact, they have not captured half of the market. And, sadly, we have all agreed to totally rely on it (solar),” Wasiu Oriade, the Babaloja of Iponri Market, Phase 1 told The ICIR.
“Most of their staffs have resigned unlike before where they have close to 15 employees. But now, they are just five (5), and they cannot satisfy our needs.”
These on-ground findings reveal gradual rot despite its initial acceptance across the market.
The confidence of being able to reduce reoccurring fire incidents particularly pulled greater acceptability.
In April 2019, when a section of the project caught fire, Ogunbiyi, the former MD of REA restated FG’s commitment to the project.
At least 17 shops where the solar panel was installed were affected. REA later pledged to support the shop owners. It is not certain if they eventually got any help but the traders, at different points, say voluntary donations were made to the affected traders so they could bounce back to business.
“This unfortunate incident will not deter EEI’s objective to electrify over 80,000 shops, empower over 340,000 MSMEs, create over 2,500 jobs with the initial 16 economic clusters while serving over 18 million Nigerians,” says, Ogunbiyi reacting to the market fire incident.
“It is a stark reminder that safe electrical installations and practices are paramount. It is a requirement on all EEI projects and a measure we take very seriously.”
Still, as of the visit, while majority prefers the solar, others whose businesses activities require more energy, rely on Lister and other private generators.
Some others expressed satisfaction over the elimination of estimated billings, noise, air pollution from generators, and low susceptibility to fire disasters.
Available power grossly insufficient
Earlier in 2021, Mrs. Adaeze (not real name) traveled on a private trip outside the State but before she returned her shop which was connected, had already been disconnected from the service provided by the IMESL.
Repeated efforts to get reconnected failed.
“I have been asking to get reconnected over a month but they (IMESL) said it is already full.”
Unfortunately, the middle-aged woman could not afford to run on a generator due to an undisclosed health challenge.
“Solar is better than the generator. Don’t even mention it because of the smoke, and I feel it is better than the normal grid.”
While corroborating other stories, she identified those whose businesses require more energy.
Hairdressers? No! it cannot power their appliances, she said. “Even fridge and freezer, it cannot power them.”
How about tailors, this reporter queried further. “Ahh…those ones? They are paying through their noses.” She said smiling. “You know they use pressing irons, so if they step up the power for them, definitely they will pay more.”
Regardless, her story aligns with other shop owners who needed power yet could not be connected, due to the same reason that the pool is filled.
As of the time of filing this report, there was no assurance from IMESL as to when she would be reconnected.
As this reporter departs, she called out her shop identification number and asked to persuade the IMESL official if she could be reconnected. Visiting the IMESL office, Olawunmi Ayorinde, the official denied her request when put forward by this reporter.
Other respondents are Mr. Nurudeen Quadri, graphic artist; Mrs. Durojaiye Motunrayo, gift seller; and Delta State-born Mrs. Blessing Odensi, who is into the sales of gift items.
Both traders were, rather, comfortable with the solar power, except for a few challenges such as dimness, and its erratic nature during rainning seasons.
“Sometimes, the thing will just trip off on its own. They will say it is the network or they say someone is using a powerful appliance,” says Odensi.
“All though, it’s serving a purpose but it trips off. So you will need to notify them once it happens before it’s fixed,” Durojaiye adds.
IMESL failed to cover our market, we are considering alternatives – market leader
Oriade, the Babaloja of Iponri Market, Phase 1 was of high hope when the project was initially introduced by the former Minister of Power, Works, and Housing, Babatunde Fashola.
He shared similar expectations like several other traders.
The traders eventually agreed to discard electricity from the power grid for solar, due to the trust reposed on the minister.
But, they became disappointed when the project started failing.
Oriade’s major concern now is how to ensure every stall in the market is connected to solar power since no other energy source is literally allowed within the market.
Most traders prefer solar but IMESL has not been able to satisfy the demands. The use of generators is highly restricted.
The IMESL, according to him, had earlier promised to ensure the entire market is covered by January 2021 by expanding their solar panels across board.
That has not happened as of The ICIR’s visit. Aside from that, he observed a gradual decrease in the company’s staff strength.
“Unlike before, only one person now attends to technical issues, one person issues a ticket and there are about two staffs in the office. So this has really affected the service, and other firms already approached us.”
Oriadesays said he had issued a deadline, December 2021, for the service provider to sort the problems and cover the market, otherwise risk being discarded for another firm.
“It is as if they just set it up and they left. The government needs to come around because more than half of the market is not powered.”
IMESL uncertain when the entire market will be covered
The ICIR contacted IMESL, the firm established to manage the operations of the project.
They were to speak to the failures, poor coverage, and unstable power.
Ayomide, the company representative, however, identified weather, as a major determinant in power generation, hence, unstable weather may affect the power output.
“I want you to know that human is insatiable. To some, it is expensive, to others, it is not.”
She attributed the firm’s failure to cover the entire market to initial apathy from the traders. So, those who only indicated interest were powered.
However, she disclosed the company’s plans to kick-start the expansion project but no actual commencement period was given.
Other concerns raised by Oriade were put to the representative of the energy provider but she insisted the set deadline by the traders does not hold water.
“That is extreme for Baba Oja to have said but it is left for the management to decide.”
Ayorinde denied the claim by the trader who accused IMESL of not wanting to reconnect her.
“We need the money than she needs the power,” she said.
On the power dimness, she acknowledged the situation but explained special bulbs that would ensure shop owners do not exceed their limits were distributed. Those subscribed to higher bands, she noted may not experience the same.
“They are free to use their bulbs. So long it is within their package.”
To be continued.