Africa is the most under-supplied region of the world for electricity, and access to it is very different throughout the continent. While industry receives plenty of cheap power, 80% of the population lives off the power grid. As in other parts of the world, African economies utterly depend on electricity, “but levels of inequality are particularly pronounced here due to the inherent unevenness of ‘electric capitalism’ on the continent,” writes David A. McDonald in his recent book Electric Capitalism: Recolonising Africa on the Power Grid.
The international community is trying to improve the quality of life in Africa, and different sources of energy are being developed and installed. “Initial delivery of electric service to rural Africa is far from a ‘one size fits all’ technical solution, especially given the seasonal diversity of energy needs, as well as the availability and quality of candidate renewable energy resources”, argues S.R. Connors in an article titled “Providing Electricity Services to Rural Africa.
dissigno, a for-profit company based out of San Francisco founded by CleanTechies blogger Gary Zieff, is currently working in Tanzania on a project to distribute battery-powered LED lamps to users without access to the electrical grid. The project focuses on entrepreneurs with existing grid or solar power who lease the batteries and lights from dissigno, then sub-lease the equipment to end-users. The project aims to lower the use of inferior lighting fuels such as kerosene and to promote a healthier, safer environment in developing countries using clean technology.
Kathryn Nevard is working with dissigno in Tanzania to implement the project. She is a former Peace Corps volunteer who was stationed in West Africa, drawing on her field experience and local community development knowledge. I talked to her about her experiences in Africa and the development of clean technologies for this continent.
Q: What kind of challenges are international project developers like you facing in Africa?
Kathryn Nevard: Nothing in a developing country is ever easy, even if it looks clean and clear on paper. Once in the field, the troubles always begin. It sounds straightforward to businesses in America – stop using kerosene, use LED lights, both of which are not only more inexpensive but also better for one’s health and the environment. In Africa, the challenge is to educate people – who have never seen or heard about the consequences of inferior lighting fuels on the environment and health – on what is right and what is wrong. In Gambia, where I lived it as a Peace Corps volunteer, I sat by a fire nightly with my host family, holding discussions focused not on what they want but what they need. A rural village of twenty; using kerosene at night unaware of all the health consequences, the ground filled with polluted debris being used as the children’s playground, unsanitary drinking water from an uncovered well, and barely having the funds to afford a bag of rice while living on ground zero for the food crisis.
Q: How is your previous experience in Africa helping you with your current project?
KN: In Nepal, where I worked as a volunteer teacher, I lived in a similar poverty stricken environment at a school in the Himalayas. The only power source was miles away. At night, studying was impossible, our only option was to sleep. The children, mostly refugees from Tibet, and I slept on a wooden floor. At night, I heard stories of their life without light, water, and power – something that Americans couldn’t fathom to live without. To us, these are necessities, to them a convenience. At sunrise, the children and I walked a mile to bath at a community well, the line of villagers wrapping around the hillside and the foul smelling well being the only water source in town. All these countries and projects produce difficult challenges and endless questions. With these discussions and experiences, I have learned to make every effort to understand these communities’ values, expectations and strategies that they develop to meet their daily needs. With this understanding, we can then learn how to implement projects that will be sustainable and vital to the energy poor communities.
Q: More and more international companies are providing technological solutions in Africa. Is all help good?
KN: Unfortunately, I have also observed the effects of failed projects in the field. The solar panels that become broken and unused, computers that crash due to lack of power, water pumps damaged and in need of maintenance, water filtration devises that become toys for the young children, books that develop into the source for a families cooking fire; the list is endless. How do we produce clean technology without further polluting the planet and stop producing technology trash in developing countries? It is disappointing to see projects fail.
Q: Why do you think some Renewable Energy projects fail?
KN: Many failures come from lack of community surveys and ignorance of the villager’s culture and values. These daily challenges that the energy poor face – one can only learn how to attack this challenge by working out in the field where the obstacles begun. Asking the locals, going to the villages, and learning their lifestyle to figure out how to implement the appropriate project in that developing country. It is imperative to remember that even if projects sound flawless, it may not be suitable for the selected community.
Q: How do you feel about the LED lamp project your are working on – will it be successful?
KN: I believe dissigno is on the right track. We are implementing small businesses and working with local entrepreneurs to create a sustainable lifestyle and environment. By providing entrepreneurs with the skills and technology needed, they can proceed to take control of the evolving situation by using their own problem-solving techniques and providing the community with reliable income flow. This project, like all, will take steady monitoring, assessment, and on-site revisions in order to succeed. If managed properly and assessing the local’s needs, I predict we will come closer to our goal of helping developing countries create a sustainable, healthy, and safe environment that before long will stand on its own.