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Three ways Africans are making cheap do-it-yourself electricity

In countries like Kenya and Tanzania, most people lack access to electricity. Wind turbines made from local scrap and a 'Netflix' model for distributing batteries may be solutions.

By Erik MandellGlobal Envision / April 12, 2012

Environmental activists promoting the use of solar and wind energy engage with locals on a Durban, South Africa, beach last November during a UN conference on climate change. Little by little Africans are finding alternative ways to meet urgent demands for electricity.

Mike Hutchings/Reuters/File

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Across Africa, simple carbon-free technologies and local creative partnerships have the electrical juices flowing, expanding grid access and prosperity.

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In countries like Kenya and Tanzania, 80 to 90 percent of the population lacks access to electricity from an established grid, according to Fast Company. Although electric grids exist in most urban areas, connecting to them and paying monthly bills is too expensive for most residents. And in rural areas, access is even rarer.

For the 580 million people without grid access on the continent, that means resorting to kerosene lamps that harm health and the environment for meager amounts of light, and walking long distances for simple tasks like charging mobile phones. And as mobile technology use skyrockets in Africa, it's increasingly recognized as an important anti-poverty tool. Being off the grid not only keeps people in the dark. It also keeps people poor.

IN PICTURES: Solar power: Harnessing the sun's energy

But three innovative approaches aim to brighten the future by expanding affordable grid access and harnessing renewable energy sources with minimal carbon emissions:

1. Turbines from scrap give new meaning to "local power." A Kenyan company is finding power in scrapyards. While solar energy is abundant in Africa, and solar panels are generally cheaper than wind turbines, Kenya-based Access:energy is making wind power work in rural regions. Its trick? Funded by NGOs, donors, and consumers, Access:energy teaches locals to build reliable turbines using existing scrap metal and car parts already present in communities.

That means no need to import or transport materials, and it creates design and manufacturing jobs in rural communities. Turbines are built where they are needed, minimizing the cost of tapping into existing electric grids or transporting solar panels over long distances. And replacement parts, when needed, are easily accessible.

For the 30 million Kenyans lacking electricity, Access:energy believes “the easiest way to get that power to residents is to teach them to make it,” according to Fast Company. So the organization is training local technicians to build the Night Heron turbine. One turbine can cheaply power up to 50 rural homes.

With fully local sourcing, Access:energy says it has created “the first commercially viable zero-import wind turbine,” while creating jobs, reducing waste, and increasing off-the-grid energy.

2. Solar partnership aims to brighten the future of R&D. Despite abundant sunshine on the energy-starved continent, a lack of funding and coordination has slowed African solar research to a crawl. But a new research-oriented network that now includes close to 200 scientists from 22 African and 10 non-African nations hopes to build the connections to turn that around.

ANSOLE (the African Network for Solar Energy) launched following a 2010 conference in Tunisia when scientist Daniel Egbe of Cameroon introduced unacquainted colleagues working on solar energy research in different African countries. "I said, 'let's see if us Africans can sit down and work together'," Egbe told the Science and Development Network. "We realised that we are working in related fields of solar energy, and that's how ANSOLE materialised."

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