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 , Global Envision

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

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.

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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."

According to Mammo Muchie, founding editor of the African Journal of Science, Technology, Innovation, and Development, “solar power will become the major renewable energy source on the continent only by organised research, training, design, and engineering.”

That’s where ANSOLE comes in. “Connecting researchers is key, especially in a field where the continent's scientists have little interaction with those in richer countries, a continent which is expensive and time-consuming to traverse,” according to the Science and Development network. The ANSOLE website now allows scientists to start new collaborations online, join together on funding proposals, and offers webinars at African universities.

"ANSOLE can help the movement of students from one country to the other, from poor countries to rich countries – in this way information will start to circulate between institutions," Egbe says.

3. "Netflix for batteries" delivers power where it’s needed. Sometimes, the cheapest way to get electricity into a home is to carry it. Tanzanian entrepreneur Solomon Faraji of EGG-energy has worked with co-founder Jamie Yeng to develop a low-cost subscription service for small, rechargeable batteries to provide electricity for individual homes and businesses.

"We want to move power in an inexpensive way from the grid and into homes and businesses," Yeng told the BBC. And the subscription service is inexpensive, costing around $80 for the initial installation and $60 for a yearly subscription, compared to between $400 and $800 to be connected to the existing grid. The installation includes wiring a home or business for full power access, and then allows the occupants to buy the subscription for the battery, which connects directly to the newly wired power system. 

EGG, like Netflix, enables customers to exchange a drained battery for a fully charged one at charging and distribution stations as its charge runs out after three to 10 days. Then, returned batteries are recharged and re-distributed to other subscribers.

Two of the three existing EGG charging stations are connected to existing grid transmission lines, while the other is solar-powered. While the company hopes to increase the number of solar charging stations, using existing transmission networks allows EGG to “bridge that last-mile gap” between the grid and disconnected homes and businesses, according to the BBC.

And for a fraction of the cost of traditional grid access, this Netflix-like battery-sharing system is helping more people with limited connectivity see the light.

This article originally appeared at Global Envision, a blog published by Mercy Corps.

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