Renewable Energy Dawn on the Africa Continent

Since a brave new world entered the 21st Century, we partied like it was 1999 and said goodbye to the 20th Century forever… Africa has quietly been undergoing a transformation. And part of Africa’s unbelievable progress has been routed in the fact that it has not been tied to old structures and ways of doing things but has been able to look to a bright new horizon unencumbered by old systems.

Africa is about to peak: Smartphone connectivity, an emerging middle class, and opportunities for technology are unprecedented. People are starting to see Africa as a private-sector market, rather than just a recipient for aid. Africa is not just comprised of poor people who need to be saved. People here want the same things people have in the U.S.

Mbwana Alliy, founder of Savannah Fund.

Developed economies reap huge benefits from having set systems and infrastructures in place, such as highly developed but largely fossil fuel oriented energy infrastructure or communications network, but Africa has emerged as a confident new player; a fighter fresh off the block and prepared to take on climate change and a new way of doing things.

This quiet revolution has been been most evident in the Energy and Telecommunications sector: off-grid, renewable energy and mobile phones are providing African citizens across the continent with new opportunities to reshape these sectors, and their lives, across huge swatches of land where up to 70% of the population in countries across Sub-Saharan African does not have access to the power grid and where even in large cities power cuts are common and long-lasting.

The World Bank estimates that in 2040 over half of all Africans will access the energy they need through off-grid power solutions from renewable energy sources, including solar. And mobile’s are also changing the business landscape with the World Economic Forum reporting that more than 60% of Africans in sub-saharan Africa now have access to a mobile phone. What does this mean for citizens? Although the exact economic impact of mobile phones is difficult to quantify the impacts are becoming more apparent year by year. Farmers are able to check in real time the best market value for their crops before they sell them, small scale entrepreneurs are using mobiles to organise micro-loans, conducting their banking on the go whilst mobiles are also being used to monitor and prevent crime.  

Freedom, Innovation & Fresh Ideas across the African Continent

And this is all being facilitated by a freedom for business that is not available in advanced, Western economies stifled by existing corporate interests. The fossil fuel lobby is strong in the West where the Fossil Fuel Lobby literally does all it can to cripple UN Climate Talks.

Africa’s history is its strength. A lack of development in the past now means that Africans are free, untied to old infrastructures, to bring more innovative sustainable solutions to the table. The very concept of a ‘grid’ is as an interconnected, physical network or centralised control delivering electricity from producers to paying consumers; a hyper centralised system of control that just won’t work in such a vast continent.

African cities have been designed around Western concepts of design without little care to the needs or requirements of huge environmental challenges and burgeoning populations. Which is  why ‘smart cities’, as highlighted by CNN are at the top of the agenda:

The terms “smart cities” relates to the use of ICT to improve quality of life and city services. “Smart cities” also aim to be sustainable cities. They develop with respect to the economic, social and environmental needs of the present and the future.

But what does this all mean for Climate Change? And why is Africa positioned to benefit most from the coming power and communications revolution?

Renewable Energy

To get a clearer idea of the scale of the challenges facing Africa we only have to look at the numbers, which tell their own story. Today, as of 2018, 620 million out of 900 million do not have access to electricity. Furthermore many governments across Africa are not in a position to offer grid capacity and even in areas where citizens can be hooked up; power is not guaranteed and customers may wait months, or even years for it to materialise. 

Off-grid solar provides a solution that offers instant energy as soon as a solar pack is connected and set up. The technology is scalable as per the customers requirements and cost effective when compared to the infrastructure costs of linking individuals and communities to the grid.

What’s more, Africa is at the forefront of the battle against climate change. With the mighty, all-consuming Sahara straddling the northern half of the continent, communities along the fringes of this desert are feeling the heat of global warming more than any other location in the world and in ways that we cannot even imagine.

Annually Africa spends billions on fossil fuels, estimated to be a cool US$75 billion in 2015 for the whole region. These dirty fuels power hugely polluting generators which provide energy for rural communities. But this is changing. Developments like the GreenWish Solar Farm in Senegal are bringing clean, renewable power on stream and changing the energy mix of the regional power grid.

And even more transformative is the impact of off-grid renewable solutions for rural communities. Because the very nature of off-grid power solutions has a democratising effect: once the solar system is installed and paid for by the individuals or community they literally have the power in their hands. Using older, fossil fuel power generators means that Africans are forced to rely on a centralised system of oil supply, which keeps them under the control of producers.

The cost of a solar powered home pack has been calculated as being less that $2 per day, through the use of Mobisol’s 200w Elephant System. And this is generally paid off after 3 years. Medium.com has conducted a full analysis of the cost and benefit of off-grid solar as compared to on-grid power. And off-grid stacks up as a real, viable and cost effective solution.

But delving into the detail and comparing the intricacies side-steps the two major advantages that off-grid renewable tech provides:

  1. The power is placed in the hands of those using it, providing independence, freedom, information and powering communication technology across the continent.
  2. The portable nature of renewable tech means that it can be picked up and placed anywhere in the world. This means that communities that have never before experienced the wonder of electricity (we all take for granted) can gain access to it.

And renewable costs are set to drop as solar panels become ever more cheaper and battery tech provides the energy storage solutions that are needed to keep the lights on. Even if the day to day and installation costs were not cost competitive, the two benefits above provide advantages that grid power will never be able to offer.

Communications (and the benefits of decentralised power)

Mobile phones, powered by mobile comms and renewable tech are enabling a technological revolution across Africa that is transforming businesses.

Historically the cost of using mobile tech in Africa has been steep; largely because of the physical effort required in getting large bytes of data down undersea cables and through data lines. However, costs are falling massively. Google is utilising new and innovative balloon technology through its amazing Project Loon

Project Loon aims to bring internet connectivity to Africa stating:

More than half of the world’s population is still without Internet access. Project Loon is a network of balloons traveling on the edge of space, designed to extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide.

And you can find more about how they plan to do it here:

The benefits of a programme like Project Loon are only now beginning to be understood. By facilitating connectivity to the internet these programmes will create clear and efficient digital value chains – this being the activities or energies committed to the development of a product or service and what it takes to deliver that product or service to market.

Streamlining and enabling producers with the renewable power (and renewably powered) digital information and communications enables small, and large, scale entrepreneurs across Africa to create clean, efficient value chains that have more benefit to them and their communities.

This in turn has a ripple out effect as social and economic benefits are created in more rurally located populations including services across health, education, food and farming.

And mobiles are democratising African citizens and emerging markets in ways that Western countries and established markets have never even thought of.

Telecoms and banking in Africa are converging in unprecedented ways to help provide financing in a continent where less that one quarter of the population have a bank account! So how is it done? Its beautifully simple, and was essentially built on the mobile phone prepaid credit system. Instead of sending money through bank accounts (that citizens do not even have) mobile phone credit is being used as an alternative.

Kenya is leading the way where up there are, as of 2016, 18 million active users of M-Pesa (Mobile-Money). Users are able to send credits using pin secured transactions via SMS – you don’t even need a smartphone. These can be used for buying goods and services across the country or redeemed for actual money. This is blockchain cryptocurrency before blockchain became a mainstream thing.

Its branchless, its cashless and it has given millions upon millions of Africans access to a system of finance whilst simultaneously reducing the crime that accompanies relatively easy access to cash. M-pesa has spread as far afield as Afghanistan and India and it has changed everyday life in Kenya for good.

MIT conducted a study showing that M-Pesa was able to lift ordinary Kenyans out of poverty:

The researchers also think mobile money could give women in male-headed households, who are also usually secondary income earners, more financial independence, which could help them start their own businesses.

Empowering women has a ripple out effect that is beneficial for society as a whole. When women earn more money they are more likely to send their children to school to educate them and improve their own chances in life.

Countless studies have shown that when women are educated they have fewer children and the pressure on the environment is reduced.

Populations can’t be directly controlled as this would both impede human rights and be very difficult to achieve. However strategies for empowering women to follow their own choices and to make the decisions that are right for them mean that population growth can be influenced in subtle and meaningful ways.

In Africa women on average give birth to 4.7 children and the population is rising on a trajectory that would result in an overly populated continent that is unable to feed its own residents.

Culturally large families have been favoured and the issue of population control has been largely sidelined by politicians and aid agencies in favour of less culturally insensitive topics. However there are changes occuring in some parts of Africa and studies have shown that when women are able to see through their education and go on to college, their fertility drops to 2.2 children; which is approx the rate needed to replace parents only, rather than adding to an ever increasing population.

The population question is complex and requires a holistic approach that involves strong leadership and a cohesive society at all levels. Reducing human population pressures around the world is undoubtedly a key component and David Attenborough, a patron for population matters, has highlighted the urgency of this in words both urgent and clear:

All our environmental problems become easier to solve with fewer people, and harder — and ultimately impossible — to solve with ever more people.

Mobile money, telecommunications and renewable tech are playing significant roles in contributing to the solution; providing independence, financial security and the freedom for young women to make choices about the size of family they want, the use of contraception and the opportunities that education can provide.

The provision of financial opportunities, energy and education are essential in allowing women to control their own destinies. And when we begin to see the flourishing changes that these technologies can bring to the lives of ordinary Africans its possible also to see the beneficial effects that are essential if Africa and the world are going to fight the mounting challenges of climate change and overpopulation this coming century.

Renewables for Planet Earth – wildbluedot.com