London — It is estimated that around nine out of ten Africans do not have access to electricity. Without electricity, many parts of Africa, particularly rural areas, cannot get access to electrical devices and thus cannot use mobiles or computers.
The two technologies needed to overcome this difficulty - photovoltaic panels and batteries - are those that have made much slower progress than other areas of technological improvement in the last decade. But despite this drawback, there those that are still working on delivering computing power using renewable energy. Mapara Syed reports on low-cost, solar powered laptops in Rwanda.
For the past six months Digital Links, a London-based charity, has been working with World Links to computerise primary schools in Rwanda. The collaboration between the two brings together the two themes of delivering renewable energy powered education and communication to one of the most disadvantaged countries in Africa. 94% of the schools, especially in rural areas, have no electricity supply. To answer this challenge, Digital Links developed a product consisting of a refurbished laptop powered by a solar PV (photovoltaic) panel, used in conjunction with a car battery, which provides a reservoir of power for the computer.
Solar PV is used to generate electricity directly from daylight, rather than from the sun's heat, by using advanced semi-conductor technology. All PV cells have at least two layers of semiconductors: one that is positively charged and one that is negatively charged. When light shines on the semi-conductor, the electric field across the junction between these two layers causes electricity to flow - the greater the intensity of the light, the greater the flow of electricity.
The PV panel, situated on the roof of the building, is connected to a standard car battery via a solar controller, which ensures the battery is not overcharged. The electricity that is generated then travels from the battery to an adaptor, which steps it up to the appropriate voltage of the laptop, varying between 15 and 19 volts. As the laptops run on direct current, "there is little loss of power as the system bypasses the AC to DC transfer, which occurs when using standard mains electricity," says Digital Links CEO, David Sogan. The system is also flexible enough to work with any laptop, as "there are different fittings for different laptops," he added.
When asked how successful the initiative has been in Rwanda, Sogan said it was still too early to evaluate its impact but so far the solar powered laptops "give on average about two to three hours use a day, with a little more if left to charge over the weekend," which is significant when considering these schools had no IT facilities before.
To date, Digital Links has distributed 800 of these systems in Rwanda and are continuously looking to broaden their horizons. A new project the charity is about to embark on is an initiative to establish 50 computer laboratories across Mozambique for teacher training purposes. In conjunction with the country's Ministry of Education who are funding the programme, Digital Links will set up these labs in "50 cluster schools, which will act as resources to other schools by providing access to teacher training equipment like CDs" said Sogan. "Each lab will cost around GBP2500, which includes all the equipment; 5 laptops at around GBP500, the solar-powered system at GBP1400 and the battery back-up at GBP500."
"Unlike in Rwanda, where we just provided the hardware, we are completely involved with this project from planning to implementation to training," Sogan added. Digital Links hosted a delegation from Mozambique's Ministry of Education during the second week of January to discuss the final stages of planning. "All we are waiting for now is the green light from the Ministry and we can begin implementing."