As solar power technology has improved, new pioneers have emerged to exploit this innovation. Several decades ago, solar power was seen as too expensive for wide-scale roll out in poor countries and communities. But today, an army of solar technology pioneers has fanned out across the world to show the new wave of innovations and how they make solar power affordable.
More than 1.7 billion people around the world have no domestic electricity supply, of whom more than 500 million live in sub-Saharan Africa (World Bank). Without access to domestic electricity, these people need to fall back on expensive, battery-powered devices or use gas generators and lamps: a cost that eats into their income.
More than 90 percent of Nigeria’s estimated 155 million people (US Census Bureau) live on just US $2 a day. Many of them are small farmers in remote areas. Access to information is very poor, especially critical information that can improve farming methods and boost incomes.
One of the most effective ways to communicate to a large number of people over a large territory is through radio.
A clever use of solar-powered battery radios has enabled the building of a low-cost, two-way communications network for rural farmers. The Smallholders Farmers Rural Radio (http://smallholdersfoundation.org) network broadcasts to 250,000 listeners with 10 hours of daily programming. The communications network reaches 3.5 million farmers in around 5,000 villages in Imo State (www.imostate.gov.ng), southeast Nigeria. The programming tackles issues from sustainable farming practices to HIV/AIDS and how to open a bank account . The clever part is the two-way dialogue between the listeners and the radio station. This is done through mobile radios known as AIR devices. They are small, solar-powered radios that let listeners send voice messages to the radio station. The message is stored on the radio station’s computers and later broadcast during a programme, allowing farmers to share their experiences, ask questions and receive answers in their own language.
The slim, hand-held silver-coloured radios have a small antenna and dials.
The network was created by Nnaemeka Ikegwuonu, who won a 2010 Rolex Laureate award (http://young.rolexawards.com/laureates/nnaemeka_ikegwuonu). The awards seek to foster innovation in the next generation. Launched in 2009, it looks for “visionary young men and women at a critical juncture in their careers, enabling them to implement inventive ideas that tackle the world’s most pressing issues in five areas: science and health, applied technology, exploration, the environment and cultural preservation.”
Ikegwuonu hopes to bring the service to other parts of Nigeria.
His radio studio is the height of simplicity and sophistication: a laptop computer, a microphone, a headset and a small control board to manage the sound levels. The radio signal is broadcast through a 30-metre-high antenna.
Solar power is being creatively used in many countries to tackle energy poverty. This ranges from lamps and lights to cookers to small power packs for electronic devices, all the way to large hardware to power homes and communities.
In India, whole villages are already using solar energy and improving their standard of living. Various companies and projects are selling inexpensive solar appliances – from cooking stoves to lanterns and power generators – across the country.
A report by the International Finance Corporation called the sub-Saharan solar market the largest in the world – a market of 65 million potential customers, who could access off-grid lighting over the next five years (IFC). The report anticipated high growth rates of 40 to 50 percent for anyone entering the market, with less than one percent of the market currently being served.
With a billion Africans using just four percent of the world’s electricity (The Economist), energy poverty is already harming further economic growth and development gains. As Africa’s population is expected to double to 2 billion by 2050, the gap between people’s needs and the power available will be stark: in Nigeria, out of 79 power stations, only 17 are working (The Economist). It will take innovators like Ikegwuonu to bring hope to this situation and transform lives despite the obstacles.
Published: December 2011
1) ToughStuff has developed a modular range of affordable solar powered energy solutions to the three main power needs of poor consumers in the developing world – lighting, mobile phones and radios. Website:www.toughstuffonline.com
2) Solar Power Answers is a one-stop-shop for everything to do with solar power. It has a design manual and guides to the complex world of solar power equipment. Website:www.solar-power-answers.co.uk/index.php
3) How We Made It Africa: A website detailing success stories on businesses investing in Africa and how people are making the most of opportunities on the continent. Website:www.howwemadeitinafrica.com
4) Solar Sister: A clever way to sell solar lamps and torches using a network of women. Website: www.solarsister.org
5) D.light Design: Their lights use LEDs (light emitting diodes) (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LED_lamp) and are four times brighter than a kerosene lantern according to D.Light Design. Website: www.dlightdesign.com
6) Lighting Africa: Lighting Africa, a joint IFC and World Bank program, is helping develop commercial off-grid lighting markets in Sub-Saharan Africa as part of the World Bank Group’s wider efforts to improve access to energy. Lighting Africa is mobilizing the private sector to build sustainable markets to provide safe, affordable, and modern off-grid lighting to 2.5 million people in Africaby 2012 and to 250 million people by 2030. Website: www.lightingafrica.org
7) A list of Nigerian companies selling solar-powered equipment and devices. Website: http://posharp.com/solar-energy-service-companies-in-nigeria-in-alphabetic-order_renewable.aspx?ptype=solar&btype=service>ype=country_NG&xtype=ntype
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
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