Exclusive interview with Eric Hawkins, founder and sole shareholder of Solar Speedflex Co Ltd (HK) also trading under the name Thermaltricity International on the future for solar water heaters in Africa.
He started as a one man business at the age of 27 years old in a place called Bournemouth, Dorset, UK. Today he is an entrepreneur with 12 starts ups established over the past 43 yrs including the current business of Solar Speedflex Co Ltd.
How do you see the African Solar Water Heater market?
Having been to Ghana, Nigeria, Cameroon in 2014 and Kenya, this year, the total African market potential could be as high as US$ 100m in sales + the creation of hundreds of thousands of jobs, in assembly manufacturing, sales, marketing, system design, and installation. BUT, there are many issues that have to be resolved first, to become a big success.
- The ERC are allowing every type of SWH system to be imported into Kenya with zero import duty
- The traders importing these systems, mainly from China, are like most traders, looking to buy the cheapest systems, to sell at the lowest price, as lowest price attracts buyers, who also know very little about what they are buying
- In most cases, the importer/seller does not offer an installation service, as he/she just wants quick money to import, sell and import another container
- Installers have to be certified by ERC, but there is NO SWH plumbing standard to follow
- The use of local made PPR plumbing pipe with heat welded fittings, is the wrong plumbing pipe for pressure systems, also you will see no pipes insulated, as it’s another added cost.
- A quality solar water heating system, installed to EU standard, that also reduces water waste, should work for 12-20 yrs
- It’s my own view, seeing the installations I did see, speaking to installers, that thousands of already installed SWH have already failed, which is a cost to Kenya in foreign exchange leaving the country for the pockets of the low quality China manufactures
Why should Africa embrace Solar Water Heaters as an ideal energy saving solution?
The reason the Energy Regulatory Commission enforced this SWH new law, is because the electricity is provided by burning expensive imported oil and also relying on rainfall to fill the dams, which generate hydro electric. As oil price increase, so does the cost of electricity generation. The cheapest cost to produce hot water is through an electric heater hot water tank for home owners, electric showers and maybe some LPG gas water heaters.
Also, the reason for this ERC law is to reduce the amount of generated electricity to be used for heating water when the sun is free, except when it rains.
Having Installed my own designed heat pipe evacuated tube collectors on my house roof in the UK in 2002(yes made in china)which heats my own designed 250litre multi fuel thermal store hot water at mains pressure as well as space heating support with only one service in 16yrs,and still producing a tank of hot water up to 90c,saving me 387000kWh of gas.
To many people living outside the UK,the UK does not have HOT weather of long hours of sunshine (true) but i designed the system to work in the UK after 5 yrs of gaining knowledge and experience through my then business in Cyprus.
What are the challenges in the African market in terms installation and maintenance?
The installation is the biggest issue, as nobody is being trained by professionals. They are just learning about their mistakes as they happen. If the imported system is like the ones shown on a housing development in Kenya, then these are the lowest cost systems, we call Compact Thermo Siphon systems, no pumps or controller needed, but because of the water quality, and the water in the tanks on the roof will corrode the inside, while lime in the water when its heated, becomes lime scale in the tubes, the life is no more than 1-3 yrs.
For such a system, there is no maintenance, until the small tank stops feeding pumped water into the tank, which feeds into the main tank. When you have split systems, where the tank is in the building and just the solar collectors are on the roof, this is also an ongoing cost, as most African countries follow what China or Europe wants to sell them.
What do you think can be done to overcome these challenges?
I had hoped that the Strathmore University would have agreed to establish a professional training centre with a degree for those who completed it, just as the Germans have established a solar PV training and working systems.
The TWO main challenges are for somebody at ERC to start to open their eyes to the existing SWH failures as I have seen and start to restrict cheap imports from China, unless is shown to be suited for Kenya.Not all china manufacture export poor quality systems,but its all about WHO IS OFFERING THE CHEAPEST PRICES TO A PROPERTY DEVELOPER,ITS ABOUT MEETEING THE ERC new regulations who have no idea what will work for 20 yrs and which one will fail inside 1yr. I see Kenya as needing a system that suites Kenya, as I designed a system that suites the UK.
There has to be a training certification as we have in the UK called MCS. In Germany, you cannot install a SWH system unless you go through 5 yrs of plumbing and heating training.
Lastly, I am seeing very high prices being charged by importers to sellers and installers, which do not represent value and is not sustainable
How is the future looking for Solar Water Heaters in Africa?
If what is happening today continues, thousands of Kenyan home owners who were pushed into investing in SWH, will return to using electric hot water heating, as every SWH tank includes a Electric heater, but who will know if the water is heated by solar or by electric ? Except the person paying the electricity bill??