It’s sometimes hard to believe that the Internet is only 25 years old. From simple beginnings in the USA as a way of connecting Government research labs, the Internet as we know has evolved and become, alongside the mobile phone, one of the most universally accessible infrastructures. The Internet and mobile technology, in general, is often thought of as the great leveller. A tweet is a tweet – as it does not take into account your age, income level, where you live, how much education you have had or what you earn.
But while the Internet is a great enabler to those that have access, it has also served to widen the economic or development gap for those who aren’t accessing it. Today, 1.2 billion people, roughly one person in 5 on the planet, have no access to TV, no electric light, no computers or the ability to consistently charge mobile phones. For millions of people, access the internet via a mobile phone requires a trip to the market to charge their phone. This is not a place to have a data-hungry smartphone that needs charging twice a day.
This lack of infrastructure is a major driver of the urban migration which is common in developing countries. Individuals leave relatively stable lives where they build their own houses and grow their own food to move to the often crowded and unsanitary high-density dwellings where both housing and food costs money. But people feel driven to do this by the sense that the cities provide better opportunities. A city has the infrastructure to underpin entrepreneurship, and increased earning potential is deemed to outweigh the disadvantages.
Today, in Africa, 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 year. That’s around 30 million new people every year. Until a few years ago, the conventional view was that the grid would eventually reach everywhere. That is no longer the case. Governments have succumbed to the view that the grid is ideal for high-density population, 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. In Africa, the one thing in abundance is sunshine. It also has a pretty continuous mobile network along with the perfect conditions for solar innovation and application.
Various companies have merged modern solar power, ultra-efficient devices and mobile payment technology to enable customers in some of the remotest parts of Africa to gain access to basic electrical services. As it is often the case, the technology behind this solar revolution is more advanced in these rural African homes than you will find in a typical Western household. This quiet revolution, or ‘reverse innovation’ is allowing rural Africa to skip whole generations of technology.
Rural Africa has leapfrogged the need for landlines, traditional banking and now the grid itself. In Kenya alone, some 40% of the country’s GDP passes through one mobile banking application which is accessed using SMS from conventional mobile phones. There will always be reasons for the people to live in cities, just as they do all over the developed world where the infrastructure is essentially universal. But today, the economic productivity in the rural areas of Africa is way below that in cities, and agricultural productivity is approximately 50% of the global average. Here, the technology can be transformative and solar is leading the way.
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. Recent studies show that 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 endpoint.
The ability to charge phones is substantial. Individuals have reported spending up to half a day every week just getting their phones charged. Now, households can leave their phones on all the time and start using data services that were simply not practical when power was unavailable. In addition, the cost of the solar power is often lower than the kerosene and phone charging costs it replaces. In fact, a recent study by the solar industry body GOGLA showed that solar households increased their income by an average of USD35 per month.
Next on the list of services is access to the media via radio or TV. Rural areas can be very isolated and mainstream media provides a window onto the world that drives expectation, ambition and understanding. Today, solar-powered TVs are becoming affordable to the rural consumers, delivering satellite TV services into even the remotest home. There is evidence that TVs are having a wide range of positive impacts, including increasing political engagement both on a local and national level. In a poll of solar TV customers, 98% of respondents said they feel more aware of local and international affairs and that children feel more confident in discussing current topics in school. The results also showed TV impacts language capacity, with 92% saying watching television programs in their preferred language has improved their communications skills.
This technological revolution is just the beginning. Moving forward, just as solar has delivered low-cost and energy efficient TVs and radios to consumers in rural Africa, it will deliver more commercial appliances, from fridges and fans to computers. In this way, many of the barriers to making a successful living in rural areas are being torn down, and a new generation of tech-savvy individuals are taking advantage of how technology can enable their lives. Individuals with motorbike taxis (boda-bodas) can find their customers over instant messaging instead of having to hang around the markets. Farmers can check crop prices in the national markets and ensure the prices offered by local wholesalers are in line and not punitive. In the future, children will be able to study remotely, mothers will have access to e-health and business people will be able to collaborate and trade without consideration of the physical distance or difficulty of travel between places.
All of this, thanks to the electrical power and modern digital technology.
For rural consumers, the historical one-way traffic has a competitor. Now city lifestyle is coming to the rural sub-Saharan Africa. Solar-powered services are helping to bridge the digital divide and enriching lives without destroying livelihoods. Now, that sounds like a positive development and Azuri is proud to be part of this revolution through its solar lighting and solar TV products.
About the Author
Simon Bransfield-Garth is the CEO of Azuri Technologies. He is a leading commercial provider of pay-as-you-go solar home systems to off-grid homes in Africa.