About six weeks ago I came across this quote from a Wall Street Journal article and I have been pondering it ever since:
Africa has the capacity to generate about 63 gigawatts of power for roughly 770 million people — about what Spain produces for its population of 40 million. For most African countries, the World Bank estimates that universal access to electricity is at least 50 years away. But these days, even the few who have come to expect electricity are finding it increasingly difficult to come by — or afford.
The article goes on to emphasize that the situation varies considerably from country to country, with internal conflicts and lack of investment among the primary reasons for low energy generation capacity in several countries. As India and China steadily modernize, we get constant reminders that they are going to be huge consumers of energy resources. The quote above is a reminder that large portions of Africa could eventually be major consumers of energy as well.
A reliable African energy infrastructure is necessary to attract large amounts of foreign direct investments. Electricity is vital in powering factories, offices, schools, hospitals, and other public services. While a modern infrastructure may be years away, there are “energy hacks” that can have tremendous impact over the short-term. One just needs to note the importance of cell phones in most African countries. Mobile phones have the added benefit that they can be easily powered using distributed renewable technologies.
At the recent Where 2.0 conference, Erik Hersman pointed to a paper he wrote that outlines the importance of cell phones in Africa (“Africa’s PC”) while highlighting software application areas (“search, news, community”) that could prove popular on the continent. Mobile phone initiatives similar to Grameen Phone’s Village Phone and Community Information Center could also be high-impact projects in Africa.
No doubt full-scale modernization requires the large energy infrastructure projects that take years to fund and build. Rather than get discouraged, I look to the work of people like Joel Selanikio (click here for details). Public health initiatives like Joel’s have demonstrated that simple mobile devices go a long way towards improving the lives of the poorest people in the world.