The annual rains that soak the red dusty lands of central Togo are almost a month late, a pattern that has become all too familiar in recent years.
Agriculture creates about 90 per cent of all employment in Blitta, a town set to ride the wave of transformative change thanks to a huge solar project lighting up this corner of West Africa.
While the worrying trend of a delayed wet season — due to start in May — is a sign of a changing climate, locals are more positive about the future and the huge potential ahead.
Some farmers have been forced to switch crops from rice grown in water-dependent paddy fields to yams, less reliant on the annual heavy rains.
Situated 270 kilometres from the southern coastal capital of Lome, Blitta is well-placed to provide services around Togo and deliver goods from emerging new industries to neighbouring Burkina Faso, Benin and Mali in the north.
But without a reliable energy supply, that has been a far-fetched dream until now.
Solar plant points to a brighter future
Ground has already broken on an extension to the huge Sheikh Mohamed Bin Zayed solar plant in Blitta that currently provides 50 megawatts of power to about 500,000 homes across Togo.
It is the biggest solar project of its kind in West Africa and has been paid for with a $25 million loan provided by the Abu Dhabi Exports Office.
“There are new homes, schools and a health clinic. Women have started businesses selling food because of the plant.”
Togo aims to deliver 100 per cent electricity coverage across the country by 2030, currently only 60 per cent of the population has access to a reliable power supply.
Rise of renewables
It is hoped 50 per cent of the energy mix will be provided by renewables by the end of the decade.
“Most people in Blitta were farmers or worked in agriculture, there was nothing else for them to do,” said Mr Damtare, whose wife is expecting their first child in October.
“Some jobs are not full-time, but the company pays well.
“When the plant expands, there will be even more jobs here.”
In Blitta, with a population of about 20,000, homes typically have a single light bulb and plug socket, and the energy demands are only 2MW a day for the entire town.
The gradual increase in supply means blackouts from the patchy national grid that takes power from Benin and Ghana are becoming less frequent.
That reliability has had a huge impact on attracting new businesses that see Blitta as a sleeping giant, with huge industrial potential.
Herve Rioux, operations manager at the Amea solar plant, said shortages of rain have forced farmers to look for new avenues of work to feed their families.
“During the wet season we would get rain every day, but that hasn’t happened for the past three years,” said Mr Rioux, who is French.
“Now we are lucky to get rain once a week, rather than every day. It will be a big problem for the farmers growing corn, the main staple food.
“Before we came here there was nothing, now there are more homes, schools, a health clinic and street lights.
“There is now power for 24 hours a day at the clinic and that is life-saving.”
The arrival of the solar plant has boosted the value of land in the town. Land owners have built small houses on their territory, fetching up to 500,000 West African Francs per plot, or about $1000.
Some are selling up to incoming workers from Lome, to capitalise on the mini-property boom. The average wage in Togo is about $300 a month.
It is not just Amea investing in Togo, there are other renewable energy projects expanding the national power supply.
A hydroelectric plant is up and running near the town of Nangbeto, and produces about 35MW of power.
Togo plans to build two more solar plants in the years ahead, one in Salimde and another in Awandjelo, north of Blitta — close to the border with Benin.
Egnaounou Akoua is the village chief of Blitta which is the home area of Togo’s President Faure Gnassingbe.
She said the people there can now look forward to a brighter future and fresh hope to escape poverty.
“We have more power in the village now and that has allowed more people to make money for their families,” said Ms Akoua.
“It is not just new jobs, those people growing and selling food now have more customers. It is making a huge difference to life here.
“Before, children would rarely go to school and they would have to share a bench, with four other children. Now they want to learn and improve their lives.”
At the clinic, there would be several patients in a room, but now there is more space and the government is sending more health professionals to work there.
“It is making a huge difference,” Ms Akoua said.
“The development of Blitta will allow us to compete with Lome and attract more people to want to come to live here.
“Because of the school, we will produce more intellectuals, who will have more job opportunities for them.
“It is giving them a brighter future, we cannot do this without power.”