January 28 ,2015 | by Helen Gould

Solar energy fuels African economic revolution

In a world run on fossil fuels, Africa solar energy skips the mains to get its power from the sun.

The collective economy of Africa is thought to be pumped full of potential, natural resources and a rapidly expanding population that could catapult the continent to the height of the Western economies.

 

Surveys suggest that seven out of ten of the world’s fastest developing economies are found on the continent of Africa. It’s then no surprise that the combined African economies expanded around four per cent in 2013, outpacing global growth of three per cent in the same period.

But despite this fast pace of expansion, it seems that a large proportion of Africans lack essentials such as access to a supply of electricity. The International Energy Agency estimates that 585 million people have no access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa, while in rural areas the electrification rate gets as low as 14.2 per cent.

 

Power grids aren’t the solution

In fact, the problem appears to be most persistent in East Africa and is failing to get better. The electrification of these nations just can’t keep up with the pace of population growth, meaning that most Africans still use unhealthy forms of energy for cooking and lighting.

Building power grids that span the huge distances between settlements was never really feasible and the maintenance costs meant that returns on investments failed to materialise. However, changing technology and the involvement of local entrepreneurs has opened up the possibility of small-scale solar power to these remote villages.

Solar powered projects aren’t a new idea in Africa as villages are often littered with failed solar technology. But this time round, the idea is to keep things small to start off with.

 

Improved technology key for solar’s success

Technology such as LEDs has helped see a wave of cheap solar-powered lights take the place of kerosene lamps in the homes of some Africans. Not only is this cheaper, but much healthier too, as burning kerosene releases toxic fumes as well as large amounts of carbon dioxide. Furthermore, the efficiency of solar panels has greatly improved since the initial solar projects were started in Africa, meaning they’re more useful and produce more power per amount of light absorbed.

However, the main key in kicking off this solar revolution is the mobile phone. Cellular networks now cover more than 85 per cent of the continent and mobile subscriptions in sub-Saharan Africa alone are projected to number around 930 million by 2019. The rise of cheap smartphones has allowed the average African to skip out owning a laptop or desktop, instead using their mobile device for most online activities. Now that almost everyone has a smartphone, they also need a cheap source of energy, and it’s this requirement that has seen the rise of off-grid solar power business models.

In fact, businesses have been set up that provide pay-as-you-go renewable energy to off-grid households at affordable rates, especially as these will mostly be low-income homes.

 

Governments light the way

One of the main obstacles to growth is that setting up solar power technology involves huge initial costs for consumers. However, once the initial costs are fronted, the affordability of it shines through.

It’s these advantages that have seen East African governments take steps to cut the initial costs of solar power, such as not charging VAT on solar products. Additionally, there are programmes from governments designed to facilitate rural energy access and solar businesses are well-placed to reap these benefits.

Africa should push solar revolution and see how far they can take it instead of backing the development of fossil fuel energy, which would require the creation of a colossal power grid. The leapfrogging of fossil fuel for the cleaner off-grid power will allow rural Africa access to more immediate benefits and act as an example of what’s achievable with renewable energy.

Helen Gould

Helen is a News Writer for LSBF who writes about education, careers, sustainable business, and women in business.

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