The renewable energy sector in the country has developed in the past two years more than anyone could have imagined.

Business Reporter Shoshana knows her way around Europe and the Middle East with a notebook and video camera. She has worked as a multi-media journalist for Channel NewsAsia, Ruptly video news agency, the UN, and most recently, with 7Days in Dubai. She speaks Arabic and English and has degrees in Middle East History and Political Science.

An aerial view of old Sana’a city shows towering, baked-brick rooftops dotted with modern, blue solar panels glittering in the Arabian sun.

As the country’s central electricity system breaks down, solar panels have become a mainstay of Yemen’s ancient, richly ornate architecture.

Over the last two years, roiling conflict has jarred Yemen’s already fragile economy. However, one facet of business, the country’s solar power sector, has boomed.

Since Houthi forces seized power in the capital in 2015, Yemen’s solar industry has surged to the tune of $400 million dollars, said Saad Sabrah, country head for Yemen at the International Finance Cooperation (IFC), the financing arm of the World Bank Group.

“The total shut-down of power generation (in mostly populated, and conflicted areas) in Yemen took place during the early months of the current war, around June of 2015,” he told Inc. Arabia from his office in Beirut.

“However, over the proceeding months, power generation through public resources resumed only in some (more stable) sub-regions and through local administration, while access to public power in the bulk of highly populated regions remains very moderate to date.”

These regions have switched to using solar PV panels, he said.

Famous for their brinkmanship and resilience, Yemenis have proved resourceful entrepreneurs in finding new and ingenious ways of doing business, Sabrah said.

We know that the renewable energy sector in the country has developed in the past two years more than anyone could have imagined.”

“PEOPLE WENT FROM BEING SO DEPENDENT ON PUBLIC POWER INTO ACQUIRING SOLAR SOLUTIONS. IT’S AMAZING THE TRENDS AND THE LEVEL OF MARKET SIZING IN THAT SEGMENT.”

“A lot of businessmen who used to do across the board retail or services have shifted to becoming suppliers of solar solutions. So the evolution in that regard has been tremendous.”

Farea al-Muslimi, founder of Yemen focused think-tank The Sana’a Center For Strategic Studies, and a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center, said that solar power has become the ‘name of the Yemeni business game’.

“I know hundreds of people who have shifted their business after the war, from technology…food…everything to solar energy,” he told Inc. Arabia.

“You obviously can’t say good things about the war, but Yemen would have taken 10 years to move into solar energy, and that happened in one year when, people no longer had an electricity from the government.”

“It has become a source of innovation, a source of energy, a source of wealth and a very good friend of the environment in the last few years.”

The whole of Sana’ is now powered by solar power, helped by the fact that there’s no legal framework or standardizing, governing or controlling the quality of solar products coming into the country, he added.

The one thing about Yemen, he quipped, is that “Yemen will never run out of conflicts and sun.”

Warplanes by candlelight

Even before the 2011 revolution, that fired up the current civil war, 70% of Yemen was out of the power grid, al-Muslimi said.

“It has always been a problem,” he said. Throughout 2014, as the government collapsed amid protests and the Houthis took over in 2015, Yemenis were used to around 2-3 hours of electricity per day in the capital.

March 26, 2015, was when the big blow came as the fuel shortage grew, roads became unusable, and air strikes around Yemen damaged many power stations, Al-Muslimi said.

“It’s good electricity but not powerful like the electricity before the war. Most of them [solar panels] are from China, so they are cheap, not strong.”

However, even before then, many including himself had solar panels in their homes, he explained.

One Sana’a resident Dr. Fawzia Bodorm said the power supply from Yemen’s burgeoning solar sector does not compare to pre-war energy currents.

Their house in downtown Sana’a is equipped with six solar panels on their roof that cost around YAR200,000 (Dhs2,000), a high price to pay in the Arab world’s poorest country.

“It’s good electricity but not powerful like the electricity before the war. Most of them [solar panels] are from China, so they are cheap, not strong.”

She said that although expensive German-made solar panels are available on the market, few can afford them.

“Sometimes we have to use candles if there is no sun or if the weather is rainy,” she said, of the usually subtropical dry, desert climate with low annual rainfall.

“We depend on the sun,” she said, adding that when the sun doesn’t shine they have to leave work early, and resort to candlelight and write-off watching TV.

“We have a small generator, but it’s not that strong. We use it from time-to-time, but it’s tiring. It uses a lot of petrol which is expensive in Yemen.”

Dr. Bodorm said solar panels are sold in the Bab al-Yaman market in the walled city of Old Sana’a and electrical appliance shops in the upscale Hadah Street neighborhood.

“People who are rich have a big, generator,” fuelled by diesel bought at high prices on the black market, she said.

Solar Disrupting Agriculture

The IFC has also seen a shift among many farmers away from using water pumps dependent on diesel or electricity, to those dependent on photo-voltaic solar panels, as the conflict exacerbates access to fuel in the country.

Sabrah said that providing access to financing to these farmers is key in supporting the foundation of the Yemeni economy, which has been crippled by food shortages.

“But also access to finance for other service providers throughout the country, like micro-clinics, and large hospitals and schools,” are desperately needed in the country, he added.

“In our space, we are trying to see what we can do to support the access to finance for the Yemeni small and medium -sized enterprises who are in need of such services.”