19 March 2004

Ghana: Combining Renewable Energy With Information And Communication Technologies: a New Solution to Rural Poverty And Global Competitiveness

Alternatives to centralized grid power and wired telecommunications are emerging which can have a major impact on the quality of life for rural people in developing countries, a UN Task Force has found.

Combining the use of renewable energy, such as solar power, with wireless technologies and energy efficient computers should be a key strategy for developing nations in addressing the rural development crisis and in improving global competitiveness.

This was the central conclusion of the Task Force for ICT Applications of Renewable Energy for Sustainable Development (IRESD), initiated two years ago in Paris, where the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Division of Technology Industry and Economics is headquartered.

The Task Force held a two-day meeting at the Neko Tech Center in Ada. The meeting kicked off with a round table discussion with the Ada local community to seek practical solutions to the challenges faced by rural communities around the world. In a tour of the area around Ada, the Task Force found that power outages and poor telecommunications facilities are severely hampering the provision of information and communication services. At the Anointed Communications Center, little 'anointing' was taking place and the service had come to a standstill due to constant unannounced power cuts and high trunk call costs to Accra, where the nearest Internet service provider is located. In addition, records revealed that in the last month the phone lines worked 30 percent of the time at the Center. The business is no longer sustainable, said Charles Dogoh, owner of the Center, who adds that the demand for Internet services is high and with affordable and adequate access to the Internet, he would enjoy a business 'revival.'

Community leader Mr. Kabu Jumpah, Chairman of the Neko Tech Community Advisory Board Steering Committee, lamented, "It is time for Ada to be part of the Information Age, but we cannot fully participate without working telephone lines."

Princess Asie Ocansey, Co-Founder of Neko Tech and a member of the Task Force stated, "We are continuing to search for affordable and sustainable ways to get on the Internet in the absence of regular power sources. Our interest in being a part of this important research work is to draw on the rich expertise to enable us to effectively address and contribute to this critical issue."

"Access to small scale appropriate energy and communications systems is essential to accelerating sustainable development, especially in low income off-grid rural areas," says Dr. Ashok Khosla, Task Force Chairman and President of the Indian NGO Development Alternatives.

"There's an incredible opportunity and a huge market out there, but the policies and mechanisms are not yet in place for widespread adoption. We recommend very strongly that more support is given to these cost-effective solutions," adds Dr Khosla.

The Task Force found a number of successful renewable energy and ICT projects in rural areas around the world, but points out that a variety of issues still need to be addressed in order for these examples to become more generally adopted. In particular, the group says that governments need to create incentives for using renewable energies, reduce the regulatory barriers for private networks to obtain connectivity, such as through tax incentives, and sanction the use of license-free radio spectrum.

The private sector needs to collaborate with the scientific community in developing appropriate products for the rural market while financial institutions and donor agencies need to be more supportive of these technologies and the use of small-scale solutions. Effective projects will also require a high level of community participation to adapt new technologies to local conditions.

The other members of the Task Force are energy, ICT and development experts and include representatives from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) Switzerland; Winrock International, USA; Massachussettes Institute of Technology (MIT), USA; Kumasi Institute of Technology and Environment (KITE), Ghana; United Nations Industrial Development Organization; an independent consultant Mark A. Foster (MAFA), USA; and Mike Jensen, South Africa.

Information & Communication Technology and Renewable Energy for Sustainable Rural Development

A United Nations Environment Programme Task Force on Information & Communication Technology and Renewable Energy for Sustainable Rural Development conducted its third meeting at the Neko Tech Center in Ada, Ghana.

Building upon its work in Paris, Delhi, and on-going field work from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the Task Force found that:

* Renewable energy enables rapid deployment of reliable affordable electricity in rural areas, a prerequisite for accelerated national development;

* Information and communications technologies are essential to enhancing rural health, education, government, entertainment and enterprise, and to participating actively in the global economy; and

* Deployed in harmony, renewable energy and information/communication technology mutually reinforce the cost effective deployment of basic infrastructure and enable new livelihoods, social empowerment, and environmental security.

The Task Force identified the following critical action items to catalyze the deployment of sustainable rural communications and renewable energy systems:

1. Governments need to rationalise regulations imposed on these emerging sectors that have stifled the development of local entrepreneurship. For example, governments have found that license free use of wireless spectrum bands has allowed rapid development and deployment of communications systems. In other instances, governments have refrained from taxing emerging technologies to enable accelerated development and deployment of service;

2. Governments should make it financially attractive for small-scale initiatives (individuals, community-based initiatives) to succeed by introducing fiscal incentives and promoting start-up finance and capacity building for rural communities and enterprises;

3. Academic and research institutions need to work in collaboration with the private sector to develop effective low cost, durable, renewable energy and energy efficient information and communication technologies that are designed for use in rural areas; and

4. Financial institutions and donor agencies should provide new financial instruments to support community based initiatives and social enterprises that adopt new technologies and develop sustainable livelihoods.

5. Governments can lead the way in the creation of markets by using their procurement practices to promote the production and diffusion of innovative renewable energy and information and communication technologies.

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