Almost 4,000 families living near the forest areas of Djoum, a town in Cameroon's southern region, have recently found reasons to smile.
"4,000 families now have access to energy, internet connection, and we also installed street lights over a distance of 2,000 kilometres," said Tchuilieu Tchouanga, a Cameroonian engineer who installed photovoltaic systems (a technology that converts sunlight into electrical energy) in the town.
Until the installation in October 2022, electricity supply in the town was irregular, but with his renewable energy source, "Now there is a nightlife in those remote settlements," Tchouanga said.
The grandson of coffee growers, Tchounga has been advancing and pioneering solar energy use across Africa for over the last 25 years. His pursuit of a regular and reliable power source has an unhappy beginning.
When coffee prices dropped in the 1980s, Tchounga's well-to-do family spiralled into extreme poverty. This situation was exacerbated by intermediaries who devised ways to take advantage of already suffering farmers.
"The middlemen would insert a probe thermometer into the coffee bags and declare that the coffee was not dry enough. They did this to offer the lowest possible price to desperate farmers," he said.
"Seeing all this motivated me to build a coffee dryer machine for my grandfather so that he could sell our coffee at the best price. But the dryers needed an energy source, which we did not have. That is how I developed a passion for creating energy."
After graduating from high school, Tchouanga went to Belgium, studied thermodynamics at the university of Lièges, and later entered the Solar Institut Jülich in Germany's FH Aachen University, where he was trained in the production of solar energy.
After developing his solar driers in Belgium, he co-founded All Thermic Solution company, which produced drying machines for the food industry and the installation of solar water heaters.
'Better to work locally'
While this was all impactful, it did not bring Tchouanga fulfilment.
"I just realised at some point that it was better to work locally than to be based in Europe," he said.
With that in mind, he packed his bags and came back home. But he would soon discover that, as the biblical saying goes, a prophet has no honour in his hometown.
"I came to Cameroon in 1999 to promote the invention. Unfortunately, I received no orders at all. None! Eventually, I had to close the company", he said.
He had more luck in Senegal, where he decided to relocate.
There, he developed solar-powered sets for households, hospitals, and schools. His newly formed company, Ecosun, scaled quickly, with clients coming to him from across West Africa.
Shortly after, he received a massive order from Togo, but after completing and delivering the order, his clients did not settle their bills. His dreams of powering West Africa died for the second time as he had to close down his business again.
With nowhere else to turn but home, he returned to Cameroon in 2010. On his third try, he got lucky. His company Ecosun (2.0), received enough orders for him to grow the business. Recently, he's been pushing for solar adoption in marginalised communities, most notably in the Djoum area.
"We started this project in October 2021 and completed it in October 2022", Tchouanga explained.
The town's mayor initiated the project, funded by the municipality's forestry development budget.
"Africa has an affordable solution to its energy crisis, the sun," Tchouanga said. "In the Djoum project, we powered 4,000 people with about 80,000 (US) dollars. And now they have energy for the rest of their life. We could equip every household with a solar system and hydroelectricity to power factories."
Tchouanga has also trained some teens in the Joum village to install solar-powered electric circuits.
Tchouanga's solar energy journey is far from over. Not one to give up; he's still traversing West Africa to promote the adoption of clean power. He is currently working on solar water heaters for hotels, solar pumps for crop irrigation, and sun-powered call centre systems.
bird story agency