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An innovative response to island challenges

Using natural resources effectively

La Réunion is a volcanic island in the Indian Ocean where the population is growing, and land is increasingly scarce. A local project is addressing this problem by transforming unused land around a prison into a solar farm, producing clean electricity for the nearby city of Le Port and helping to reduce carbon emissions.

The Bardzour project, named after the prison where it is based, began in 2014 with the installation of solar panels on the former farming land around the prison, which houses more than 500 inmates on the outskirts of Le Port in the northwest of the island. Today, the solar farm supplies enough energy to meet one-third of Le Port’s needs, including providing electricity to around 4,000 households each year, and brings savings of nearly 9,000 tons of carbon emissions annually.

Preparing for a greener future

The installation of solar panels in Bardzour is part of a shift towards La Réunion becoming greener and more self-sufficient in the future by reducing its dependency on fossil fuels and food imports. For example, islanders are encouraged to cultivate fruit and vegetables instead of crops, like sugar cane, intended largely for export.

For Eric Scotto, the co-founder and Chairman of Akuo Energy, the renewable energy company behind the project, the best way to prepare for the future is to exploit the island’s most available resource: the sun.
By harnessing solar power, the project has been able to secure an autonomous supply of electricity for the community around Bardzour and, in this way, opened up new possibilities for agricultural production.

Bringing new skills to local communities

As well as providing electricity, the solar farm is also a training ground for inmates to learn about renewable energy and gain new skills enabling them eventually to work in the field as solar panel installers. The company has also built a series of greenhouses, which are used by its partner Agriterra, to teach new agricultural techniques to prisoners. In addition, beekeeping is offered in cooperation with the company’s charitable initiative, Fondation Akuo.

Each year, 6-12 men nearing the end of their prison sentences are trained on the farm, with some going on to work for Agriterra after their release. To date, around 50 inmates have been trained through the project and, in total, it has helped to create nearly 300 local jobs. The prisoners have responded very positively to the opportunities provided thanks to the project. “For the first time we would give them responsibility, to learn a profession that might give them the possibility to have a job when they leave the prison,” Scotto said.

As the prisoners return to the local community after their release, the project is helping to widen knowledge of renewables and innovative farming practices on the island. Together with the energy from the solar farm, the project is having a tangible impact on the local community and has received, according to Scotto, “a high level of recognition” from islanders living nearby. 

Responding to climate change

Akuo Energy has set up similar energy harvesting projects in 30 other locations including the islands of Corsica and Guadeloupe.  

For islands, where the pressure to have enough food and energy is so intense, projects like Bardzour offer a new vision, enhancing the islands’ ability to withstand climate change, while also bringing benefits to local communities.