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Solar and mobile innovations bridging urban-rural gap

Solar panels. Today, 1.2 billion people have no access to mains electricity. FILE PHOTO | NMG
Solar panels. Today, 1.2 billion people have no access to mains electricity. FILE PHOTO | NMG 

It’s sometimes hard to believe that the Internet is only 25- years- old. This change in the way we all live now affects all our lives, to the point where many roles and tasks simply would not happen without it.

Starting in the USA as a way of connecting government research labs, the Internet as we know it has evolved and become, alongside the mobile phone, one of the most universally accessible and enabling infrastructures globally.

But while the Internet is a great enabler to those that have access, it serves to widen the gap to those that do not.

Today, 1.2 billion people (roughly one person in five on the planet) have no access to mains electricity.

This lack of infrastructure is a major driver in the urban migration that is common in developing countries.

Individuals leave relatively stable lives, where they build their own houses and grow their own food, to move to often crowded and unsanitary high density dwellings, where both housing and food cost money.

This, in the belief that cities have infrastructure and therefore opportunity.

In Africa today, some 600 million people, mainly in rural areas, lack access to the grid.

And this number is increasing as the population of the African sub-continent grows by about 3 per cent per year (that’s 30 million new people).
Until a few years ago, the conventional view was that the grid would eventually reach everywhere.

That is no longer the case. Governments have come to the view that the grid is ideal for high-density population such as cities but in rural areas, where still around two-thirds of the population live, another solution is needed.

Fortunately, modern technology is providing some genuine alternatives.

The one thing Africa has in abundance is sunshine. It also has a pretty continuous mobile network.

Bringing together modern solar power, batteries, ultra-efficient devices, like LED bulbs that use 20 times less energy than a conventional filament bulb and the mobile phone to allow electronic banking, customers in some of the remotest parts of Africa now have more advanced technology for basic electrical services than you will find in a typical Western household.

This quiet revolution (or “reverse innovation” as it is sometimes known), is allowing rural Africa to skip whole generations of technology such as the grid, TVs with tubes in them, filament lights, land lines for phones and physical branches for banking and adopt the new generation of technology, often well before this technology is available in the West.

Starting at the simplest level, solar light replaces kerosene or candles for lighting and provides the ability to charge phones at home instead of travelling long distances to get power. This has a dramatic effect on family life.

On average children study up to two hours per night extra with solar light and adults report their productive day extends by as much as three hours.

But such simple home power is not electrification, it’s provision of some basic service – a starting point rather than an end point.

Simon Bransfield-Garth is founder and CEO, Azuri Technologies.