South Africa’s Sigma Solar plans DRC expansion to supply miners, CEO says

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Wednesday, 6 April 2022 12:48

Machinery at the Congolese state mining company Gecamines' copper plant in Kambove, in the southern region of Katanga. Reuters/Jonny Hogg

South Africa’s Sigma Solar is in talks to supply mining companies in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) as part of its international expansion, CEO Gareth Warner tells The Africa Report.

The company is in discussions with three mining groups in the DRC for solar power projects, as well as Côte d’Ivoire’s national power company, Warner says. He is also hoping to close a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the Ceylon Electricity Board in Sri Lanka, where the company is setting up an office.

Miners in the DRC are producing the minerals needed for the global energy transition, yet the country has one of the world’s lowest rates of access to electricity. According to USAID, the current rate of access nationally is 9%, with 98% of that being hydro-powered. The World Bank says that there was no significant increase in installed capacity at the country’s national grid SNEL between 1990 and 2017. The bank says that DRC population growth means that available capacity per head since 1990 has been divided by almost five.

More efficient mining of its mineral resources is crucial to lifting the DRC’s GDP, but the World Bank says that the mining sector has unmet demand for power in the southeast of the country. Some miners are using expensive power from diesel generators, and could find solar an interesting proposition, the bank says.

Sigma Solar offers turnkey solar power solutions including design, financing, construction and maintenance. Warner started the company in the UK, where it built the first solar farm in the country to receive planning permission. The farm, on the site of an abandoned tin mine, in Cornwall, went into operation in 2011.

He is now based in Johannesburg in South Africa, where the company has  a range of solar projects.

  • African countries need to engage more with renewable energy and understand its potential for power generation, Warner says.
  • Uptake is being held back by the fact that state power generators are “very fixed in their ways,” he argues. “They fight against paradigm shift.”

Chinese supply chains

South Africa still represents “a big opportunity” for the company, Warner says. Sigma is now planning a 120 MW wind farm for the Western Cape which would be the company’s largest scale wind project to date. Warner hopes it will be off the ground in the next year.

The modules which the company provides are sourced from Canadian Solar, which has its factory in China. Warner has few worries about relying on Chinese supply chains. The quality of the modules is high and prices have continually dropped, he says. That underlines that although China dominates solar equipment supply globally, there is no price fixing and Chinese suppliers still have to compete with each other, he says.

  • Falling prices mean that both wind and solar projects can be combined with batteries to ensure energy security, he says.
  • Still, it would be “ideal to have more countries in the mix.” Vietnam and Malaysia are possible locations, though it takes time to build module supply capacity, he adds.

Bottom line

Miners in the DRC are likely to provide fertile ground for reliable renewable energy solutions.

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