In the process of doing research for last week’s post on e-waste, we stumbled upon a fabulous film about renewable energy in Africa. As our society has become more wired with all kinds of gadgets that have made our lives a lot easier, sometimes those of us living in the West take for granted the simplest thing that many in the developing world don’t have to work those gadgets effectively – electricity.
Specifically, one-third of the estimated 1.6 billion people living without access to electricity worldwide live in Africa. The lack of electricity is recognized as a major impediment to development on the continent, ranging from health care, education, water access, sanitation and women’s rights.
Of course, poor electrical access has a major effect on ICT development in Africa. As a matter of fact, infrastructure for communications technology has not grown at the same speed as the growth in mobile phone ownership. So it is not unusual for people to travel long distances for many hours just to charge a mobile. Many people use generators to charge mobiles, which can be both very dangerous to the person charging it and harmful to the environment long term. In other cases, mobile phone users might be charged a fee to re-juice their phones, which can cost as much as that person’s weekly pay.
So, it was pretty awesome to find the above film Burning in the Sun, which is currently showing in the United States on PBS’ AfroPop series. The documentary stars Daniel Dembélé, a young entrepreneur who has come back to his village in Mali to start up a solar panel business called Afriq-Power. In this short version of the film, we see Dembélé and his company building panels for an area largely without electricity. The differences these panels make in the village are like night and day, as people are able to continue doing things after dark, like studying. Before the students in the featured school had electricity, every year only 20 percent of them passed their national exams. After the lights were installed, the number jumped significantly to 97 percent!
It is also a great business model that other aspiring African entrepreneurs can learn from. Most importantly, we loved the ideas of self-sufficiency Dembélé discussed in the film.
“Maybe the solution is to not give money to governments,” said Dembélé. “Maybe the solution is to do micro-projects to help the people develop themselves. Give small money to people and they will help themselves.”