The end of Africa's darkness
Associate since 1991
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October 19, 2011
Africa is a dark continent. Look at it from a satellite at night. Most of it is dark - with only blotches of light in the south, the north and a little bit in the west. For the rest electricity is a rare and precious resource, limited to villages that line a main road or in the small towns. They are infrequent points of light. They don’t light up the sky. From above all we see is darkness.
I have just been to a conference in Oslo, “Energy for All- financing access for the poor.” Most of the participants were men in business suits. Not more than 20% were women which was a slap in the face for emancipated Norway where women are 50% of nearly everything- politics, doctors and increasingly business. Nevertheless, the conference was a useful getting together of energy endeavours from very big to very small. Many trumpeted the rapid progress they were making in the use of solar energy, a system whose time has come as the price of solar panels sharply falls and oil prices have risen to the forbidding $100 a barrel.
Into this high-tech, male-dominated, gathering stepped a frail old woman from the village of Dunkassa in Benin, Africa- Madame Gueroi Comigue. Until now she had never been further than the nearby town. She grew up and lives in a village with a primary school but no health care, no electricity and the water supply coming from wells which the women had to porter on their heads. Malnutrition was often present and the growing of fruit trees and green vegetables limited.
She told the tale of the village as well as showing us a film that the village’s sponsor, the Washington DC-based Solar Electric Light Fund, had made.
She is the chair of the village women and they have worked together to install energy panels which power a drip feed irrigation system which waters their food crops. This is a dry area with only seasonal rainfall and the difference irrigation makes is substantial- at least in village terms.
Now production has increased, they have a surplus to sell, their standard of living and nutrition has risen, they are eating more green vegetables and they spend half as much time watering as they did before. They have money saved to buy during the dry season the staples they are short of. Before the project got off the ground only 4% could pay the fees to send their children to school; now it is 22%. The project also gives employment to men- five technicians to install and maintain the power pumps, a local management team, a manager, an agricultural technician and a solar technician, and three masons to help build small reservoirs. They no longer need to use the old diesel generators that consumed growingly expensive oil and often broke down. The solar panels are non-polluting.
So successful has this project been that there are plans to replicate it in eight more villages and to reach around 100,000 people. But success does not come cheaply. The project has cost $135,000, mainly spent on borehole surveys and drilling, on training in farming expertise and for the solar equipment. There is no way that Benin could afford this on a wide scale. The aid has to come from abroad and one can wonder how far into the future it can be sustained and, if there is success, does this American NGO have the resources to spread the concept far and wide?
Despite the cost and the hurdles it is possible to think of development ideas like this beginning to spread in a significant way. The time has never been more ripe. After years of mismanagement, financial ineptitude, a long term decline in prices for the main agricultural and mineral exports and, not least, civil wars, the largest part of sub-Saharan Africa is now on the up. Civil war is limited to two countries, Somalia and Sudan. There is a boom in the price of commodities for export and most countries have got or are getting their financial and monetary affairs in order. The result is that economic growth is averaging 5-6% and in some countries more than that, like Nigeria with over 8%.
India has been able to increase its electricity supply in the last few years from 57% coverage of the rural population to 67%. In Vietnam it has increased from 3% to 98%. So why not Africa?
An important point was made at the conference by some of the big power companies- once the local governments and NGOs lay the foundations then private enterprise money will be available and spreading these electrification/solar energy projects will become an attractive economic proposition.
One day, but not too far into the future, Africa will no longer be a dark continent.
Copyright © 2011 Jonathan
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