Outage Africa?

As entrepreneurs spark change, Africa’s electricity future is getting brighter.

Women working on solar lighting circuit boards
Women working on solar lighting circuit boards.
Photo Credit: UN Women/Gaganjit Singh

With the blessing of global institutions increasingly worried by the prospect of global warming and so happy to push green agendas, entrepreneurs are hacking out a small-scale, low-carbon path to universal African electrification.

What’s encouraging them is the enthusiasm with which mobile phones have been taken up by many Africans and the new innovations and opportunities that this has opened up; the success of undersea fibre-optic broadband cables, the possibilities that this is opening up.

In Soy, in rural Western Kenya, some 280 km from Nairobi, as long as the sun keeps shining, Mark Kragh’s audience of young farmers is completely electrified. Turning sunlight into free electricity is a life changer.

“They’ve listened and learned like nobody I’ve taught before,” says Kragh who runs a solar panel business, KnowYourPlanet, in London. “They took notes, they figured out my diagrams. And within four hours, the first phone was charging away.”

Kragh’s solar master classes teach how to make solar phone chargers. These sell for 700 shillings (just over $8) each. There’s likely to be a ready market for them in Soy, says Kragh. It only takes 70 charges for the charger to pay for itself.

Access to electricity for Soy’s residents used to be a luxury. Now, with the advent of mobile phones, it’s turned into an expensive necessity. When everyone uses a phone, it’s difficult to opt out.

However, few people have electricity at home. With incomes in Soy hovering around the dollar a week mark, getting plugged into the national grid isn’t an option for most.

Charging a mobile phone at a shop or a phone kiosk costs around ten shillings (12 US cents) — prohibitively expensive. And there’s the cost of not working when trekking to the shop as well — a round trip of 10 kilometres for some of Kragh’s farmers.

Fresh from building miniature power stations with his students, the solar entrepreneur says: “The thing is that they’re really motivated to learn.”

Electric Innovations

In Silicon Valley and New York and London, tech investors with deep pockets are ready to consider innovative schemes designed to dent Africa’s electricity deficit. If this lays the foundation for new African businesses, a new culture of grass-roots entrepreneurialism, then that’s all for the good as well.

Leading social enterprises in this burgeoning sector include Solaraid which installs solar panels in schools and community centres across East and Southern Africa. Set up by Jeremy Leggett, the London-based company gives out small loans to African entrepreneurs so that they can get into the business of selling its products.

Founded by an American former investment banker, Katerine Lucey, SolarSister also uses micro-financing to fund small businesses. It creates “woman-centered” solar sales networks across rural Africa, in Uganda and Rwanda mainly, which sell its solar lamps.

Based in Kenya, backed by the World Bank, ToughStuff produces solar-powered products, lamps, solar panels, phone chargers, aimed at low-income Africans.

Founded by Ned Tozun and Sam Goldman, Stanford MBA graduates, based in San Franciso, d.light provides clean and affordable solar alternatives to kerosene lamps.


At the level of the UN or the World Bank, the hope is that low-income countries can miss out on the 20th Century, on electricity generation that’s dependent on fossil fuels, and instead develop low-carbon, decentralised schemes.

“The same leapfrogging happened with phones, when many places skipped landlines and went straight to mobile,” says Ken Banks, developer of FrontlineSMS, the free text-messaging software for Africa-based NGOs. “Perhaps the new model for Africa’s power is also very different, then — localised grids using renewable energies.”

The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), a US-based industry body, predicts that what may emerge from these innovations is a meshing of grids with real-time performance data, an African “IntelliGrid” — a wireless information network binding together a continent-wide power system.

Such a smart grid would funnel together different sources of energy: centrally produced electricity, from traditional, hydro and nuclear power stations, combined with power coming from local micro grids and generated by renewables such as solar energy.

Constantly monitoring itself, the IntelliGrid would take steps to counteract any power disturbances. Power outages would become a distant memory, as ancient as needing an operator to place a telephone call.

Current Realities

At the moment, of course, Africa’s electricity supply is far from this. Count the backup generators in any five-star hotel, in any large manufacturing company.

In hard, economic terms, what counts most when judging any electricity supply is its reliability, argue Thomas Barnebeck Andersen and Carl-Johan Dalgaard, professors of economics at the Universities of Southern Denmark and Copenhagen.

“A patchy service is an improvement over no service, of course,” says Andersen. “But policy makers shouldn’t think that once a power grid is up-and-running, that this is enough in itself.”

When power gets turned off regularly, businesses end up having to cough up. Unlike their better connected competitors, they find themselves forced to invest in expensive generators. Computers are sensitive to even small power disturbances: surge protectors add to business costs. Computers go wrong more often: there’s less investment in IT, less readiness to innovate. All this harms economic growth over the medium term.

Here’s a counterfactual. What would happen to Africa’s economic growth if all African countries were to experience South Africa’s power quality? Instead of, say, 10.5 power outages during a typical month, if the number went down to two: what would that do for Africa’s growth figures?

Anderson and Dalgaard’s research suggests that the average annual real GDP per capita growth rate would increase by two percentage points. In other words, countries like Ghana and the DRC would find themselves growing as fast as China. “This is how important a reliable power supply is,” says Andersen.

A version of this appears in the May issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

Facebook Misstep? Yeah?

So Facebook hired a PR firm to plant negative stories about Google. What you gonna do about it? Get over it, already… although it isn’t right, obviously… MG Siegler on the latest Facebook “slimeball stunt”:

Like it or not, Facebook is too integrated into the fabric of the web now for everyone to just walk away. As has been proven time and time again, people will get really angry with them for some misstep, and then totally forget about it a week later.

110512 TechCrunch

iPhone Knows

Apple has made it possible for almost anybody – a jealous spouse, a private detective – with access to your phone or computer to get detailed information about where you’ve been.

Pete Warden

Apple’s iPhone contains a secret file which keeps track of everywhere you go, say researchers.

110420 Guardian

Google CEO talks privacy

Your privacy online? Who cares about it? Google CEO Eric Schmidt, that’s who:

Those concerns are real – I’m not trying to move away from them. The fact of the matter is that if you’re online all the time, computers are generating a lot of information about you. This is not a Google decision, this is a societal decision. In Britain, you all allow yourselves to be photographed on every street corner. Where are the riots?

100701 You can trust us: Shane Richmond: Daily Telegraph

Shooting War

071106 Shooting War coverJust published, graphic novel Shooting War by Anthony Lappe and Dan Goldman: it’s 2011 and anti-corporate blogger Jimmy Burns is working as an embed for Global News – ‘Your home for 24-hour terror coverage’ – in President McCain’s Iraq… And boom. The beta online version is available here.


Net Costs

… conned by the numbers from their web departments and aided and abetted by laughably inconsistent web metrics… newspaper owners will strip newspapers of the resources they need to reinvent themselves in order to nurture an internet beast that they believe is a rottweiler puppy but is, in fact, a fully grown poodle. They are barking mad.
– John Duncan, former managing editor of the Observer, 1999 to 2005, Press Gazette

Hello Microsoft, Goodbye

Hired by Microsoft to be an “enthusiast evangelist”, to “go out and mingle, bond and touch influential end users and show them all the cool things that Microsoft has to offer”, lifestyle blogger Stephanie Quilao quit after only nine and a half weeks.

It wasn’t just that working for Microsoft made her feel like Martha Stewart trying to fit in at a Star Trek convention — “I wanted to play with style and they wanted to play with robots.”

Comparing Microsoft’s desktop software to the Web 2.0 services available online, Quilao says that Microsoft doesn’t cut it for everyday people:

I created my blog business for less than $100, and it costs me about the price of a pair of nice jeans a month to run beyond my time and energy. I cannot do this with the current MS products or services. And I tried… I can use CSS and be creative in my blog design, and control what is advertised on my space. You can’t do that in Live Spaces. To buy Office 2007 Home edition is $150, and Vista Home Premium is $240. (Buying Vista Basic is really kind of pointless.) With that $150 and $240, many people can use that for more pressing things like health insurance, car insurance, debt elimination, rent, food, or gas…

… what MS has forgotten is that small business owners either left or despise the  Enterprise culture. The last thing they want is something that makes them feel Enterprise-y especially the creative types. When I speak to a group of Pro level bloggers, my passion group, I had nothing much to sell them on. When MS develops something as robust and creative as TypePad, Blogger, or WordPress, then it will be interesting.
Stephanie Quilao, Back in skinny jeans

And it’s not just Quilao. Two other MS workers leaving for vistas new: Microsoft’s top search exec Christopher Payne and yet another enthusiast evangelist — hired way back in mid-February — Michael Gartenberg.

Class Acts

Curious to note that sensitive US indie-rock band Death Cab for Cutie — catch them on Atlantic Records, a subsidiary of the colossal Warner Music Group, catch them on the OC, Fox’s top-rating TV drama about the affluent youth of Orange County, CA — ultimately gets its name from sociologist Richard Hoggart, from The Uses of Literacy, his 1957 critique of British popular culture.

In conversation with the once angry young man, now grand old man of British cultural studies, DJ Taylor evaluates Hoggart’s thesis 50 years on — a culture devised by ordinary people for themselves is being stamped out by a mass culture devised by corporations for maximising shareholder profit.

Vista Launches… At Last

How come it took Bill Gates five years to revamp his flagship bunch of code? Was it laziness? Procrastination? Perfectionism? Did Bill mislay his copy of Getting Things Done?

One straight-forward answer is that in trying to compete against Apple and internet-based companies, in trying to anticipate whatever the future may throw at the PC, Microsoft ran into problems with Vista’s code. The geeks made it too complex. Senior executives stepped in and refocused Vista. And shipping got delayed.
Microsoft milks the cow one last time, Independent
After delays, Microsoft in party mood for launch, San Francisco Chronicle

Gates, not surprisingly, gives a positive spin to this. Five years is a worthwhile investment; it lays the deep foundation for incremental improvements down the line:

Well, we haven’t been idle. During that time, we had many Media Center releases, many Tablet releases, lots of things like desktop search. We had a security-oriented release called XP SP2. But, we also had to invest in the layering of the operating system, so that we could be more agile in the future, and have things at the higher layers, like the browser, release on an every-two-years, or even in some cases every-year-type basis, whereas the deep things like the scheduler, the file system, you don’t want to change those more than every three years or so, because they affect compatibility. So you want stability in those pieces. So we invested a lot in layering and security.
Bill Gates, Q & A, Business Week Online

But maybe Scott Rosenberg has the better big picture answer. He doesn’t quite say it, but it’s there, bubbling under with a bunch of proximate causes: free coffee and pizza and a big salary; and it’s just too easy for the guys at Redmond to get into the flow, to succumb to the temptation of trying to create the one, perfect, transcendent program:

… unlike computer hardware — the microchips and storage devices that run programs — software isn’t rooted in the physical world. It’s still written, painstakingly, line by line and character by character; essentially, it’s all made up. Software straddles the wide-open realm of the imagination, where it’s created, and the fixities of everyday reality, where we expect it to work. And so far, it has proved uniquely resistant to engineering discipline.
Scott Rosenberg, Washington Post

Hail the New Democracy?

Avoid any easy hype about the potential of the internet to usher in a new age of democracy, warns Jackie Ashley.

Murdoch and the better-off are mapping their monopolistic powers over to the new digital medium while the old medium’s powers to question these elites are being sidelined:

We should be nervous when politicians start boasting, as they are, that the net allows them to bypass irritatingly persistent, difficult interviewers such as John Humphrys and Jeremy Paxman. Obviously, they need to be scrutinised and cross-questioned by well-briefed interrogators, secure enough in their jobs to push the point. Democracy demands it. Putting up your own website, conducting online question-and-answer sessions, is a doddle by comparison. They allow the politician to control the terms of the exchange and never face a public challenge on questions they don’t want to answer.
Jackie Ashley, Guardian