Building a solar-powered Ethiopia

The radiant smile — and ideas — of Samson Tsegaye Lemma have lit up lives with solar energy

By Brittany Gibbons

Rain tapped on the window as Samson, my supervisor at the Solar Energy Foundation, brewed coffee and prepared a plate of kolo, a snack mix made of roasted grains, for us to share. The aromatic coffee roast wafted through the air as I listened to the water collect in the streets and reflected on my experience in Ethiopia. I had arrived three months earlier and this was my last week as a software developer with the SEF team. In addition to learning more about computer programming, my favorite part of my experience was hearing about my teammates’ life stories. When Samson returned with the snacks, I realized that I had not heard about his experiences. So as he poured coffee from the clay jebena I asked him, “how did it all begin?” He passed me the warm cup and then graciously told his story — a journey from engineer, to detainee, to taxi driver, and finally to leader of one of the first pay-as-you-go solar organizations in Africa.

Living in Addis as a child, Samson constantly fiddled with electronic devices, fixing (and sometimes destroying) radios, watches, and televisions. His passion for technology continued when he enlisted in the military and attended civil engineering classes so that he could use his technical skills in a job that protected his country. Before his 25th birthday, Samson excelled and was quickly promoted to an officer role. However, Samson’s life and the country as a whole were both about to undergo a drastic change, as the regime of then-leader Mengitsu Haile Mariam began to unravel.

Samson slider

Samson Tsegaye Lemma started his own solar business, one lantern at a time.

Starting in the early 1970s, the Mengitsu government murdered tens of thousands of people in the Ethiopian genocide, and stifled unrest via the forcible resettlement of over 700,000 people. By the early 1990s, the resistance against the Mengitsu regime reached a tipping point, and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) overthrew the government in the Ethiopian Revolution. The EPRDF leaders feared that servicemen remained loyal to the Mengitsu family, so they detained and imprisoned military officers — including Samson.

Samson was released 8 months later with no documentation to prove his skills in engineering. In addition, the government blacklisted Samson from numerous jobs because of his previous affiliation with the Mengitsu military. To support himself and his family, he purchased a vehicle and started his own taxi business. He continued to drive for nine years until the government relaxed employment restrictions and he found a job at a construction company.

Things were going well — Samson loved using his technical skills again, and the company leadership was impressed by his work. Several years after he started, the construction firm sent Samson to represent the company at a conference in Paris. Unfortunately, Samson was not a fan of France — in our conversation, he described its “unwelcoming environment.” He thought back to his days as a taxicab driver, and remembered a European friend who was more to his taste, a German who often visited Addis for business, and would call Samson to drive him around. Samson hadn’t seen his friend since he stopped driving his taxi, so, hoping to hear a familiar voice, he gave him a call. As they chatted about life, Samson mentioned how he disliked France and his friend urged him to abandon the remainder of the conference and to instead visit him in Germany, where an international solar exhibition was happening.


Coffee and sunshine — the abiding signatures of Ethiopia. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons, Honnold Foundation)

Easily persuaded, Samson took the advice and eagerly made his way to Germany. When he arrived at the expo he was astonished by the innovation and potential of solar energy– this could be the future of Ethiopia, he thought. At this time, nearly 85% of the Ethiopian population lived in rural regions and only 1% had access to electricity in those areas. He asked himself, was he doing the right thing if he stayed in construction? Or should he make a transition into the solar industry?

Inspired by the expo, but unable to afford to leave his construction job, Samson returned to Ethiopia and spent his spare time teaching himself about electrical engineering and solar technology. One contact at a time, he began reaching out to solar companies, hoping to establish business connections for himself, with varying degrees of success.

Despite the difficulties of working long hours at the construction firm and advancing his solar business, after several months Samson felt he had learned everything he needed to in order to sell solar systems. He created a business plan, and then set out to execute a proof of concept with the Guji tribe in the western part of Ethiopia, where some of his friends and their families were going to celebrate the Ethiopian Orthodox holiday, Meskel (translated literally as “The Finding of the True Cross.”)

When he arrived, Samson spoke to his friends about how solar lanterns could provide brighter and cleaner lighting and are an improved alternative to kerosene lanterns that emit pollutants that are health hazards. He attempted to persuade his friends to purchase solar kits as an alternative to the traditional Meskel holiday purchase — a cow for slaughter. Samson told his friends’ families that although this Meskel would be a little different, the benefits from solar would last for years. After Samson gave his pitch, his friends said they were interested in the solar kits… but they also wanted a cow. It took a couple of days of discussions, but eventually five families forewent tradition and purchased Samson’s solar kits to celebrate Meskel.

Samson installed the solar systems on their homes free of charge. When he turned the light on in the house, he still remembers seeing “pure happiness” in his friends’ faces as the bright electric light filled their living quarters. He realized that he had found his true calling — to promote electrification in Ethiopia with solar energy.

His solar business began to take off. Along with his full time job at the construction firm, he spent his weekends selling solar and installing the systems himself (at no cost to families) on 52 homes. By 2005, Samson had developed an international reputation for persistence. Dr. Harald Schützeichel, the founder of Solar Energy Foundation in Germany, reached out to Samson, seeking a collaborator for SEF’s work to alleviating energy poverty in Ethiopia. After a pilot project in the North Shewa region, Dr. Schützeichel asked Samson to join SEF as the Country Founder and Director in Ethiopia. Samson accepted the offer and, at last, quit his job at the construction company.


Solar energy in Ethiopia has lit up homes and lives, despite intense poverty. (Photo: Brittany Gibbons, Honnold Foundation)

A decade later, Samson and his team have constructed solar projects in four villages, distributed over 35,000 solar systems throughout the country, and trained over 65 solar technicians. Inspired by Samson’s achievements, the Honnold Foundation established a partnership and awarded a $50,000 grant to SEF in 2017. Today, Samson and his team intend to open additional branches in other regions of Ethiopia (particularly one in Arba Minch) and seek to expand SEF’s services in other parts of the country.

By the end of our conversation, with just coffee grounds remaining at the bottom of my cup, all of the struggles that he experienced made me realize how deeply personal the entire SEF organization was for him. He fought for decades to help families in rural parts of Ethiopia gain access to clean electricity — and he’s still fighting.

In the summer of 2017, Honnold Foundation Director of Programs Brittany Gibbons received a grant from Stanford University to travel to Ethiopia and work with the Solar Energy Foundation (SEF), a longtime partner of the Honnold Foundation. During her time in Addis Ababa, Brittany worked closely with SEF Ethiopia’s Director, Samson Tsegaye.

This story first appeared on the Honnold Foundation website and is republished with kind permission. Samson Tsegaye Lemma won the 2016 Nuclear-Free Future Award in the Solutions category for his solar work in Ethiopia.

Headline photo by Merklit Mersha for WikiCommons.

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