Many countries in Africa remain not connected to the main grid and they never will be. Why do I say this? These countries may leapfrog from using power from the main grid to use of decentralized renewable energy packaged solutions. Just the same way Africa leapfrogged from using grid type connected telephone lines to use of cellphones—there is a potential and the technology is available to use to help homes or businesses in going solar through the use of packaged solar PV solutions, that may include smart grids, smart meters, financing, service, warranties, etc.
With electricity, children would not have to gather wood in order to boil water – a simple electric stove could do that. A light could be turned on at night so that they could read before bed. And the aged grandparents or infant sibling could enjoy the breeze from a simple fan on sweltering, 40+ degree Celsius days – it could make a difference between life and death.
I believe we can make this happen by offering decentralized energy solutions to these homes. Governments alone cannot solve this problem, because we are talking about 600 million people without electricity and this translates to $19 billion a year in energy investments. This huge population of Africans without electricity is almost twice the population of the USA.
Therefore, this problem could be solved by the private sector with support from the governments and civil society. The solutions would center around creating decentralized renewable energy solutions rather than constructing massive power plants or grid extension which may take time to develop and may require huge investments.
It would take simple renewable energy-based packaged solutions that come with power, financing, service, warranties and energy-efficient appliances (in this case solar PV or wind technologies where there is a good wind potential). This solution has failed in the past, because of the mode of delivery or approach. In the past, the donor approach failed to deliver; because development agencies would provide “free stuff” which would stop functioning at some point, maybe because of lack of maintenance, no training and lack of after-sales service by the provider. This model, therefore, proved it couldn’t work because the donor approach is reliant on “targets” rather than provide a service to the people that would develop a long-lasting customer relationship.
If it was a private sector entity providing this service, this would change because a truly private sector would want to develop a relationship with the community or village, then train the villagers on how to use the equipment, install, and then provide after-sales service if needed. This model would work because the private sector entity is incentivized by profits they make as well as the number of sales they obtain. Hence, it is to the advantage of the private sector to provide a better service for them to remain in business and expand in other areas.
Just like the telecommunications sector changed from the grid type of sector to mobile phones, a similar paradigm shift could take place when it comes to energy access in Africa or other developing countries. These countries may leapfrog to the mobile type or renewable energy packaged solutions. In this regard, solar will play a major role in technology advancement, solar will become cheaper and affordable to reach millions of individuals in rural Africa and other developing countries.
The government and development agencies like the World Bank would provide the regulatory and policy frameworks to eradicate the barriers of inferior quality of solar products entering the market and encourage fair competition among the private sector companies. Also, governments would set up financial mechanisms and schemes to overcome the investment or cost issues by the private sector or the end-user.
Since the initial cost is a huge barrier for rural communities, and a solar set could cost up to $200, the private sector can be provided guarantees or other incentives by the government to allow people to pay small installments or buy in credit in order to overcome this barrier. This lowers the risk for the private sector entity and encourages them to invest in decentralized renewable energy solutions. The communities would get service from the private sector and in-return the private sector will get paid by communities. On the issue of quality, communities distrust solar solutions, because they have been sold cheap products that don’t last long or they’ve bought appliances and haven’t been taught how to use them properly. Private sector companies that are service-minded can help solve this problem.
In conclusion, I would say this issue is solvable and currently many players including the World Bank are already applying these models, but to accelerate and solve this problem will require targeted campaigns that would raise awareness about this issue and how to solve it. It will take you and me to raise this awareness about the best models for energy access, the best financing solutions available, the best technologies to adopt and how or even how to solve the energy access problem. The private sector also needs this information, as most of them may not have the capacity to conduct meaningful data analytics to determine what models work or how to fine-tune them and get the desired results.
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