Sunshine and Cell Towers

Can solar panels be “the next cell phone” in rural Africa? Although far from relevant to my main line of work, at a few random moments the back corners of my mind have been working overtime on this question. If this sounds random, that’s because…it is. Still, let me elaborate.

Although visitors’ experiences and perceptions in Africa are extremely diverse, there is one thing most people would agree on: cell phones are taking off like crazy here. From major telecom companies to entrepreneurs in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, it seems like everyone is getting into the market. This is happening because the market demand is keeping pace: in Malawi one in ten people has a cell phone, and more are getting them every day.

But why cell phones? Shouldn’t landlines come first? That’s what happened in the western world. And in Canada, having a landline telephone is still way cheaper than a cell phone. Why isn’t Malawi’s industry developing along the same path?

Well, what I believe we’re seeing here is a good old case of “technology leapfrogging”. For the same reasons that it doesn't make sense to run Malawi's factories (yes, there are factories here) off of 18th century steam engine technology, it also doesn’t seem to make sense to start with landlines and move into cell phones later. If, as a country, you’re joining the game a bit late, you may as well use the best of what’s out there. This is happening all over the industrializing world, and Malawi is no exception.

So what makes cell phones a “better” technology than landlines? I would propose two reasons: affordability and quality.

While I haven’t run the numbers, I would say that at this point, building a cell phone network in Malawi is probably more economical than building a landline network. With landlines you have to string wires down every street and path, into every community, and then run smaller lines into every house. With cell phones you just have to put up one tower and you can provide a large area with coverage. I haven’t actually run the numbers, but I think that because of , cell phones service is cheaper to disseminate than landline service.

The second reason why I believe they’re taking off is because cell phones are an infinitely superior technology to landlines. Why? You can carry them with you. I think this is the main motivation for the trend in my generation of Canadians as we all move out of home: not owning a landline. Although having a landline might cost less in Canada, since we’re all going to have cell phones anyways (for the convenience of carrying them around) why bother having both. I think the same sort of thing applies in Malawi too.

So how does this all bring me to talking about solar panels? Well, since arriving in Malawi I’ve seen a fair number of solar panels. At first I figured it was just a classic “appropriate technology” push, funded by altruistic westerners, and largely irrelevant to average Malawians. Names like “Malawi Solar Project” on the side of shops provided further evidence for this interpretation.

However, this assumption was challenged when I started seeing solar panels in actual shops. In my first few weeks, I also saw a couple people carrying recently-bought panels on minibus trips. Finally, when I stayed with Enos Banda last month, he was even talking about buying some solar panels to power outside lighting for a new livestock arrangement he was trying to start. All this got me thinking “hmm, maybe solar panels aren’t just some donor-funded ‘appropriate technology’ fantasy”.

After following this thought path, the question I was left with was: can solar panels actually work here in Malawi, as a major energy source? Can rural Malawians leapfrog the traditional fixed electrical grid idea, and get off-grid energy directly from the sun? I find this prospect exciting for several reasons.

First of all, it would be good for the environment. Not that Malawians should have to worry about their carbon emissions (in my opinion climate change, ethically speaking, should be our problem to solve, at least for the next few decades), but still, it would be cool if the world’s next wave of industrialization happened using renewable energy.

Further, and more importantly, off-grid solar could give rural Malawians access to electricity far faster than waiting for the national grid to spread out to villages. Currently, only 5% of Malawian households have access to electricity – if this sounds bad, also take into account that the small number of households who do have electricity suffer regular blackouts, as the supply can’t always keep up with demand.

Given that Malawi is already tapping a lot of its hydro-power potential, and doesn’t have any large reserves of coal or fossil fuels, this challenge seems insurmountable. A small grid, supplying a tiny percentage of the population is already experiencing blackouts, and 95% of the population still lacks electricity.

At the current pace, it could be centuries before this problem is solved. For just for a second though, imagine if solar panels spread like cell phones. Huge parts of the country could be electrified in a few decades. It could revolutionize Malawi’s electricity potential.

And what could people do with electricity? So much. It could mean light for kids to study with by night. It could mean some women being able to cook over a small electric stove instead of an open fire. It could break rural dependence on firewood for energy and help curb deforestation. It could radically transform rural life.

Of course all of this is just dreaming. It’s just pie in the sky. Solar panels right now aren’t spreading like cell phones. They’re still too expensive. They also might not be useful for the half the stuff I’m dreaming about. Sure you could power a radio and a LED lightbulb using one, but a stove? Probably not. At least not now. But still, imagine.

Whenever I get back to Canada and settle down (assuming this happens, which is almost certainly will at some point), there’s a good chance I’ll end up working in the Canadian environmental or renewable energy sector. Maybe, by working on off-grid energy technology for our own use, I could also help development here. More research, development, and implementation of off-grid energy technology in the west will develop the technology and drive down prices here. In some strange, weird way, by supporting renewable energy in Canada, we might be supporting rural development here. Welcome to the interconnected world. Of course, it’s still just a dream, but most big things start that way. So, as for me, I’ll just keep dreaming. Hoping you all do the same.

Owen
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3 comments:

  1. (I had a response all written, hit post, and then had IE crash... over the Firefox I go!)

    Anyway, awesome post. Though I don't really know the feasibility, it's exciting to think of renewables as playing this sort of role in industrializing nations.

    I do sort of wonder some of the details though -- is in possible to sell high-performing panels at a low enough price to individuals, or will companies or communities have to create larger-scale solar farms and then sell the power to meet needs? If it's the latter, what power (im)balances does that create within what is present already?

    My main thought, though, is if it's a good investment? Will solar power lead to technologies that will reduce vulnerability and improve the security of people's lives? Or will a more widespread availability of electricity just create a new 'need' -- one that will draw money away from things such as farming inputs? (Then again, if it does, is it necessarily a bad thing if people prefer having lights and radio to having better crop harvests?)

    Am I able to write a sentence that's not a question?


    Take care,
    Bryn

    P.S. What do the people you've talked to think about the whole Bakili Muluzi aid money embezzlement thing?

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  2. Hey Owen,

    I think the key factors are around barrier to entry, cell phones are discrete - a provider can start small (one provider in ghana started with just one city) and build infrastructure as demand (and revenue) call for.

    In the case of landlines (and transportation to some extent) you need a big rollout and existing demand to justify it.

    As for solar power...I'm a fan but have my doubts. Power density, energy storage and cost are all barriers. For fun figure out how big (and expensive) an array has to be to power grinding mill (5-7kW) or a cookstove (1-2kW). FYI: Solar panels have about a 10% conversion efficiency and the sun puts out abour 1200 Watt/m^2

    IMO: Best use of solar is for simple and lighweight provision of low power/high value services - lighting for example. Check out - http://www.dlightdesign.com/ - for a good example of this, it's a company founded by a ex-Peace corps friend.

    Cheers,

    Tom

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  3. awesome post Owen, go on and post more pictures too!

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