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Oil-rich Niger Delta aims to 'light up' with renewable energy

The Niger Delta is the source of Nigeria’s oil. But even here, most people struggle to access grid electricity. Efforts are now being made to diversify to renewable energy as a way of dealing with frequent power cuts.

The waterfront slums of Port Harcourt are constantly faced with complete destruction. The Nigerian government considers the largely self-built communities illegal and vowed to evict around 480,000 people living along the creeks surrounding the city.

On June 2012, when the first bulldozers came and tore down tens of thousands of homes, some in the community stood in the way."They said they wanted to do some developmental projects, that the waterfront community is a slum and that the buildings are not well-planned," said Babakaye Tubonemi, who lives in Port Harcourt's Okrika community.

"Rather than coming to us to plan with us the place, they wanted to do it their own way, which is not right," Tubonemi said.

When Nigerian born filmmaker Michael Uwemedimo first came to Okrikia to document the evictions for Amnesty International, he witnessed first hand the struggles between the slum dwellers and the government. The experience convinced him the community needed an independent voice.

Solar powered community radio

Uwemedimo started building a solar-powered radio station called Chicoco Radio. It is located in the centre of Port Harcourt's waterfront community and surrounded by homes and businesses.

"As we're in an informal, largely self-built community that has no municipal provision at all, it's really important that the facility can serve itself and can be off-grid," said Uwemedimo. "We have sun, we have wind, and so we want to harness that."

The Chicoco radio team has built a training space called the Media Shed.

Solar panels on top of a roof

The roof of Chicoco radio is lined with solar panels which provide energy to run the radio

When the project is completed it is expected to become one of the city's landmarks. The award-winning final design was voted on by the community and will be built mostly by using local materials and expertise.

Chicoco Radio is designed by NLÉ, an architectural company, as part of the African Water Cities project which examines the effects of climate change in coastal cities and waterfront communities. One of the most unique design features is that part of the structure will be floating on water, moving up and down with the tide.

"All the systems will be operated and maintained by people who live here. They were installed by residents and members of the Chicoco team," said Uwemedimo.

The Niger Delta oil curse

Though the Niger Delta holds most of Nigeria's oil and gas reserves most people still struggle to access electricity.

Twenty years ago, Ledum Mitee narrowly escaped the death penalty while campaigning against the Shell oil company and the Nigerian government. He grew up in the Niger Delta and later became a member of the organization called Movement for the Survival of the Ogoni People.

"I grew up in a community that has around 50 oil wells and my first contact with oil was as early as primary school in the village and I grew up to see even when seismic explosions were done right next to our classrooms," said Mitee. "I saw firsthand the devastation that can result from oil exploitation. That's what pushed me."

A security official stands inffront of oil and gas pipelines in Nigeria's Niger Delta.

Nigeria's Niger Delta is filled with flaring gas but little light in surrounding communities

Mitee was arrested with nine other ethnic Ogoni environmental activists who were charged with organizing the murder of four pro-government chiefs. He would be the only one acquitted. The other nine were executed after a widely condemned military tribunal. "I was fortunate that I was not executed," said Mitee.

"Having led that movement for several years, I see what I'm doing now as some sort of continuation of work." Mitee now works as head of Nigeria's Extractive Industry Transparency Initiative. He says Shell has caused oil spills, profited from the resources, and is still not giving back enough to the communities in the Delta region.

"You have a company in South Africa that invests in renewable energy and you see them coming out saying they are a clean company," said Mitee. "Then you see in this country there's nothing, absolutely nothing that they are trying to do. In fact, they are flaring gas"

One light at a time

Renewable energy is slowly picking up in the Niger Delta. Inemo Samiama is Nigeria's country director for the Stakeholder Democracy Network (SDN), an organization that tackles a wide range of issues on the delta, including energy justice.

"Energy issues are critical especially because the Niger Delta lacks energy. It's just a paradox," said Samiama."When you look at the delta from an airplane in the night, you see gas being flared. And surrounding the gas flares is total darkness. "

SDN started a project on renewable energy. They supplied discounted solar lanterns to communities - each costing 5,000 naira ($26 or 23 euros) but residents can pay in installments.

A man tries to separate oil from water inside a canoe in Niger Delta.

Oil giant Shell has been blamed for massive oil pollution in the Niger Delta

On the outskirts of Port Harcourt, Adebayo Amos runs a drug store. He says he needs power to run his business. "In this area the challenge that we are facing very much is power," Amos said. "In a month, they'll bring the light twice and even when they bring the light, they are coming to demand for money."

Amos bought one of the solar powered lanterns for his store and says his customers showed so much interest in them that he started selling them. "Almost everyday people used to ask about the light from me," said Amos. "I have been using this one for nine months and it's okay. It lasts for 10 hours. I love it."

Amos quickly sold out the lamps. He hasn't been able to get any more ever since the project ended.

Research on this article was made possible by a grant from the European Journalism Centre.

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