Low-tech solar thermal energy solutions to provide energy to rural regions of Tunisia

After completing his degree in Germany, Abdallah Khenissi spent three years working in solar research – at the renowned German Aerospace Center (DLR). However, the expert in renewables and solar thermal energy did not see his future in Germany, and returned to Tunisia in 2015. He returned with lots of ideas about how to use solar energy intelligently and cost-effectively.

Abdallah Khenissi in front of a solar concentrator that he produced himself.

‘Back then, when I had to decide whether to stay in Germany or return to Tunisia, I asked myself: What can you do with 5,000 euros in Europe and what can you do in Tunisia with the same amount of money? And that was the decision made.’

Energy for development

Poor energy supply is still a major obstacle for economic development in many emerging economies and developing countries. There is a direct link between poor energy supply and poverty. The International Energy Agency estimates that more than ten per cent (Source: pv magazine 2019) of the world’s population has no access to electricity. Off-grid power generation from renewable energy sources could solve this problem, especially in the rural regions of Africa that are not yet connected to the grid.

The business idea

Abdallah Khenissi says that he has a ‘pathological fixation’. He wants to supply Africans in rural regions that lack an energy infrastructure with cheap, decentralised solar power respectively solar thermal energy and to turn the desert green in the next step. He is currently attempting to achieve this first goal by building and using solar concentrators. These units use solar energy to generate high temperatures, which can then be used for a wide range of industrial and private purposes and processes. After all, heat – rather than electricity – is the most commonly used form of power. It is needed in food production for cooking, baking, drying, pasteurising and sterilising, and also in the textile industry for washing, bleaching and dyeing. And those are just two areas of many. Mr Khenissi plans to revegetate the desert by desalinating seawater, and solar concentrators would play a key role in this process, too.

The 36-year-old is convinced that the solar concentrator manufactured by his company, Water, Energy and Environment, will establish itself on the market in the long term. Solar thermal energy is regarded as the most environmentally friendly renewable energy source and it can be stored cheaply and in huge quantities. This is a major bonus, especially in the age of climate change. Hassan Dhahmen from the Association l’Oasis des Sciences has already tested Khenissi’s solar concentrators and has rented them for events. He says: ‘These solar concentrators can save the population a great deal of work in the future, because they mean you no longer have to go to the trouble of organising and carrying heavy gas cylinders, which have been the most important energy source up to now. The fact that the concentrators are produced in Tunisia and not abroad makes us proud, and it’s another good reason to use them.’

In his workshop: Abdallah Khenissi and one of his employees build a new Scheffler solar concentrator.

Explaining the possibilities of solar power and thermal energy to people, young and old, is part of Khenissi’s daily work as an entrepreneur in Tunisia.

Euphoria meets disappointment

Although Khenissi returned to southern Tunisia full of euphoria and with a grand vision in his mind, those around him were anything but euphoric. ‘Many people were annoyed, and even disappointed, that I hadn’t stayed in Germany. The fact that I deliberately didn’t return with a big, fancy car didn’t make things any better – quite the opposite. Money and prestige aren’t important to me personally. What drives me is the desire to find solutions to current global challenges.’

Three months of training in Germany

Business Ideas for Development supported Khenissi’s gutsy project, because the growing energy deficit and rising energy prices are putting the stability of the country and the achievements of the revolution at risk. Business Ideas for Development financed a three-month training course in Germany for the entrepreneur and one of his employees – with Wolfgang Scheffler, inventor of Scheffler solar concentrators. These units are based on a technology that is both simple and impressive, and they are relatively easy and cost-effective to produce. Khenissi’s firm is the first to produce Scheffler solar concentrators in Tunisia.

Water, Energy and Environment

  • Founded in 2016
  • Winner of two international prizes, including the prize at the International Invention Fair of the Middle East
  • Winner of three national prizes, including the Tunisian Innovation Prize
  • Two employees (as at July 2019)
  • Supported by Business Ideas for Development/CIM

The feeling of doing the right thing

At present, a major challenge for Khenissi’s is reducing the costs of the time-consuming production of these solar concentrators. He is also battling with two other issues: the danger that his employees, who he has to train himself because there is no suitable training course in Tunisia, will pack up and leave for Europe after completing their training. This is a very real fear, because it has already happened. Moreover, the loneliness of a pioneer and non-conformist in the remote south of the country repeatedly crops up as an issue for Khenissi. He says: ‘Other trailblazers who have managed to put their visions into practice in the middle of the desert – despite all the opposition – are a real role model for me. They give me courage and keep me going.’

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