AfricaFocus (Washington, DC)

12 November 2013

Africa: Digital Divide to Power Divide

"The success of many African countries in addressing the digital divide masks a large, yawning hole into which many are about to fall. The more successful they are at addressing the digital divide, the more it turns into the power divide. The shortage of electricity access and poor quality of supply will begin to undermine what has been achieved. ... The kind of political focus that has been bought to bear on the digital divide just does not exist to address this problem." - Russell Southwood, Balancing Act Africa

As noted in the articles excerpted below, from the Balancing Act Africa newsletter, the advances in mobile technology and mobile access to Internet are among the most obvious signs of rapid economic advance on the continent. But, Southwood warns, if the power sector does not catch up, including reliable energy with a large component of renewable decentralized sources, that progress will soon stall. African creativity is already being applied to path breaking information technology, including innovative uses for mobile Internet. But the same creativity is hardly touching the traditional power generation sector.

[Note: all the following articles are excerpts: for full versions visit http://www.balancingact-africa.com/news/en/latest / http://tinyurl.com/msogcdh

For previous AfricaFocus Bulletin articles on information and communication technology, as well as other links, visit http://www.africafocus.org/ictexp.php

Africa reaches the point where the Digital Divide will turn into a yawning power divide

Balancing Act Africa

http://www.balancingact-africa.com

Issue no 680 8th November 2013

The success of many African countries in addressing the digital divide masks a large, yawning hole into which many are about to fall. The more successful they are at addressing the digital divide, the more it turns into the power divide. The shortage of electricity access and poor quality of supply will begin to undermine what has been achieved. Russell Southwood looks at the next big challenge facing Sub-Saharan Africa.

The future for a successful Africa is easy to see and the trends are very clear. Consumer devices like smart and feature phones and tablets will continue to increase in number. These will encourage the use of screen-based apps that need to be hosted remotely.

Taking advantage of increasing levels of bandwidth, the enterprise market will up its use of things like SaaS and external continuity for their data. All of this will require power-hungry data centres capable of running cloud based services. The implementation of 4G/LTE will encourage much higher levels of video use which again will require local server based access for local conent.

Each and every one of these services will increase the burden on the power grid. Mobile operators have begun to explore renewable energy to power base stations but they have yet to make anything more than a small dent in their need for diesel-based generators. Not only is the diesel fuel extremely expensive but a significant proportion is being siphoned off, increasing their operating costs.

There is no country in Sub-Saharan Africa that is not affected by the shortage of access to reliable electricity, whether simply generation capacity or where the power exists, transmission infrastructure issues. Countries like Ghana and Senegal are at the better end of this spectrum. Urban areas in Senegal have 57% access to electricity but there is only 10% access in rural areas.

Ghana has nearly 100% access to electricity in Greater Accra but only 40% access in Upper West. By contrast, Kenya has only 18% access to electricity. The same urban/rural disparities exist as in the other countries.

However, even these figures are misleading. Anyone familiar with somewhere like Accra knows that the electricity supply is extremely unreliable with more than occasional power cuts and spiky, uneven levels of power supply. The overall result is that each time there is a blackout or a surge, large amounts of equipment has to be reset before it will work again. ICT equipment lasts less long even when surge protectors are in place and often they are not.

Everyone's answer to this problem - whether a household or a company - is to have generators using expensive and environmentally unfriendly diesel to cover for the outages on the power grid. So Sub-Saharan Africa has three difficult power issues to deal with:

  • The overall shortfall in power supply in the face of rapidly growing demand.
  • The absence of effective national transmission systems to distribute the power, in particular to rural areas.
  • A low quality of power infrastructure leading to unreliable supply even when the grid is functioning.

Let's take Kenya, the poster child of the ICT revolution in Africa as an example. According to its 2030 vision, it wants to turn itself into a medium sized industrial country by that date. It generates 1,300 MW but has a shortfall of around 700MW. 70% of electricity comes from hydro-electricity but the shortfall during periods of drought and for evening peak time demand is made up from diesel-generated power.

This is both extremely costly and environmentally unfriendly. Fuel costs fluctuate with the world price for oil, making it hard for businesses to plan their future expenditure.

So what plans are in place to address this problem? The country is exploring geothermal which could be the answer to all of these problems but which is no quick fix. It has paper plans to connect to its energy-richer neighbours Ethiopia and Uganda but there is almost no political will to make this happen and certainly no current budget.

The kind of political focus that has been bought to bear on the digital divide just does not exist to address this problem. Kenya was the country that built an international fibre cable in a little under two years and rolled out a national fibre network. It continues to have ambitious plans to give each school student their own laptop with curriculum materials.

But on the power issue, Kenya, as with many other African countries, appears to be asleep at the wheel. Why? In ICT development terms, much of what had to be done could achieved by investment from the private sector. Energy is dominated by Governments that set long-term prices for electricity and control the utilities that are supposed to deliver it.

Speak to anyone in the business of raising finance to address the energy shortfall and it quickly becomes clear that the timetable for the gargantuan task of meeting the shortfall is being held up by the snail's pace of work by African Governments.

With the digital divide, there were brave pioneers at the World Bank who supported African governments to address ICT infrastructure investments by using their money to help change the policy framework and overcome these obstacles. They crafted public private partnerships to address the shortfall in both infrastructure and government capacity.

The same drive and commitment does not seem to exist in international organisations to address these power supply issues. Energy policy seems to be in the dark ages rather than crafted to address the scale of a shortfall that will undermine all other efforts on the road to greater prosperity.

So what is to be done? Nothing in the energy sector in Africa is simple and we offer these ideas as a point of discussion but something has to happen and quickly. So let's focus on three things:

  1. Accelerating large-scale power generation projects - Governments need to focus on 1-2 projects that will fill a large part of the shortfall in the next 5-7 years. ... An emphasis needs to be laid on renewable energy where it is as cheap as other forms of power.
  2. Getting better transmission coverage - As has already happened in Uganda, the generation and transmission functions need to be separated out. Private investors need to be encouraged to put money into purely private or public private partnerships to develop power transmission infrastructure, particularly to population centres where coverage is poor and to mobile base station sites.
  3. Supplying electricity in rural areas - For rural areas without power supply, Governments need to encourage anyone who will come and create micro-generating capacity. This could be a mobile operator selling its surplus energy in a village to a small microenergy company offering wind and solar to anchor tenants like schools and clinics, with villagers also benefiting from the supply. ...

The mobile phone sector was energised by the existence of competition. The sleepy and sometimes corrupt incumbents found they had to emerge from their slumbers if they were to survive. The power sector needs to find a way of energising the slumbering state giants of electricity supply. Perhaps the idea of micro generation companies might be also extended to urban areas?

Solar mobile phone chargers for sub-Saharan Africa to launch next week

A suite of handheld solar phone chargers by U.S.-based World Panel, set to be unveiled next week at the AfricaCom industry conference, target a region where scarcity of electric power is a widespread problem.

The devices are designed to charge virtually any phone, tablet, or other electronic device that uses a USB cord as quickly as plugging it into the wall, without depending on electricity from the grid. With the company's "direct-from-the-sun" technology, the chargers, which can charge up to 10 phones per day, are built to endure the harshest environmental conditions in sub-Saharan Africa. In the region, the electricity supply is largely non-existent, and erratic where available. In most cases, users have to charge their phones at charging points powered mainly by generators.

"It would be a welcomed development," says a Freetown resident, Samuel Taylor, about the chargers. "On several occasions, we have to drop our phones at various charging points for few hours. In the course, we'll be deprived of using the phone. What if we have something urgent to attend to? But with these solar chargers, I believe one can use it at his or her own convenience." Another phone user, Sidikie Turay, said: "Some of us have to leave our phones for charge overnight and there have been instances when such charging points were burgled and phones submitted for charge carted away. We were left with few options. "

According to World Panel, recent independent tests performed on the chargers show that the most popular phones in Africa charge in an hour, providing five to six hours of talk time.

"Consumers will like that they're small, can be thrown on your back (with our clear on-the-go included backpack), colorful, fast, durable and can be a money-maker if they choose to charge others' phones for a fee. Entrepreneurs will like that they can pay for themselves within a month," says World Panel co-founder Cheryl Gordon.

The company targeted sub-Saharan Africa after CEO John Anderson visited Uganda in 2011, Gordon said. "Everyone told him, 'We want to charge our phones normally.' When he delved deeper, they explained that 'normal' was like a wall plug. He didn't quit the design process until the charger exceeded wall plug speeds on our testing meters."

However, potential users of the chargers may have problems getting their hands on them due to distribution and cost issues. Stringent trade barriers that exist in some African countries may slow down distribution of the devices and jack up the price of the chargers in some areas.

...

World Panel plans to take orders at the AfricaCom show to be held in Cape Town, South Africa, but the products won't be available until early 2014.

'Could the next Google come from Africa?'

In East Legon, a smart suburb of Ghana's capital, Accra, two men and a woman in their 20s stand in front of a slick ad featuring a large plane in mid-flight. They are pitching a business idea for a website that would allow travellers to compare ticket prices, then book and pay for airline tickets on domestic flights.

The pitch has sparked a lively debate among the pupils who sit in a darkened classroom, with the words "generosity, positivity, standards" emblazoned on the wall. The students, who nod seriously at the feedback, are on the first year of an intensive training programme at the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (Mest), a postgraduate school that offers university graduates - some with no prior experience at all - a two-year course in software programming and business development.

Mest provides its students with housing, pocket money, meals, transport and a laptop - free of cost - and, in return, it expects full concentration for two years of full-time study. Its teaching staff say that the transformation after students have been through the process is extreme. "When they join, they probably haven't written two lines of code before. Next year they are creating apps left and right," says Unni Krishnan, senior faculty member at Mest.

It is widely acknowledged that intensive training of this kind - which Mest says is producing world-class software engineers and businesses - is exactly what is needed in West Africa. But, like many of its neighbours, Ghana is still a country of contradictions, with pockets of world-class innovation coexisting alongside chronic poverty.

The mobile penetration rate in Ghana, which is now a lower-middle income country, exceeds 100%. Of a population of 24 million, 17 million people own a total of 27 million mobile phones. The six telecommunication companies operating in the country earn an average daily income of about $10m (£6.2m).

The Ghanaian company RLG is increasingly popular in West Africa with its locally manufactured laptops, smartphones and tablets. Last month it added a Ghanaian tablet, the "G slab", invented by a 28-year old as a rival to Apple's iPad and Samsung's Galaxy tablet.

Yet the Ghanaian education system still teaches through a Victorian English-inspired system of rote learning. In many schools, IT is taught in classrooms with no electricity, let alone access to computers, and pupils are asked to copy out pictures of a desk monitor and keyboard into their notebooks.

"The Ghanaian education system is not generally producing people who are innovative," says Mac-Jordan Degadjor, a tech blogger and entrepreneur who has raised the profile of tech startups in Ghana. "We need to start focusing on entrepreneurial skills as a topic within schools, and make sure that by the time you get to university, you are not just thinking about applying for jobs, but starting something for yourself."

But, like those of many African countries, Ghana's tech entrepreneurs are thriving in spite of what is often perceived as a far from ideal environment.

Mobile applications for money transfers, bypassing the lack of access to formal banking for many rural dwellers, and for farmers who need real-time updates about prices and help accessing marketplaces, are examples of how developing country problems have only created opportunities for local entrepreneurs to come up with innovative problem-solving.

"The exciting thing is that there's a new generation of technology entrepreneurs in Ghana who are starting to transform the country," says Dr Sipho Moyo, Africa director for anti-poverty charity One, which is supporting tech innovation in Ghana. "I have high hopes that their innovation can accelerate progress right across the continent, thus shaping its future."

"Could the next Google come from Africa? Why not?" says Richard Tanksley, entrepreneur and senior faculty member at Mest. "Our whole business model is to produce a globally successful software company in the next five years, and we have every reason to think it will happen.

"There is so much focus on Africa as a place to invest, to build businesses, there is no reason why you couldn't have multimillion dollar software companies coming out of here."

...

For tech people anywhere in Africa, this is a familiar sight. A dapper, 6ft 4in young Ghanaian, wearing Ray-Bans, a smart navy blue suit and brown beads around his wrist, sits engrossed in a laptop emblazoned with "Make Fufu not War!" and a sticker marked "I do not consent to the search of this laptop".

"They tried to search it once!" exclaims Mac-Jordan Degadjor, referring to when Dutch authorities insisted on gaining access to his laptop at Schipol airport. His beloved machine now bears the sticker as a form of protest.

Degadjor is no stranger to run-ins with the authorities. The 28- year old first began his blog, macjordangh.com - now renowned as one of the best tech blogs in Africa - as a young student in Ukraine, frustrated with persistent racism and unwanted attention from the authorities.

"I started blogging because of the way the Ukraine police were targeting African students - harassing them and extorting money from them if they were not carrying their passport," he says. When he returned to Ghana, he realised that there was very little blogging going on back home, and what there was was not engaged with tech and innovation.

"In Ghana we are still talking about political parties, about corruption," he says. "We are behind other countries. Kenya has a goal to achieve broadband penetration of 100% by 2015. We are still below 20%."

Degadjor's blog is now at the forefront of a change in Ghana. Despite the undoubted challenges in a country where basic infrastructure is still lacking - with erratic water and electricity supply even in major cities and poor roads - the MacJordan Degadjor blog is a hub of startup tours, hackathons, tech ideas, and good news for those who care about Africa's place in a tech-driven world.

"There are challenges, but the tech revolution is happening all over Africa," says Degadjor. "Day in, day out people are getting together at hacker spaces or innovation centres, and gradually ideas are coming up from these hubs."

...

Ben Nortey's sixth-floor office is one of the last places you would expect to find robots. Next to Makola market, the chaotic, pulsing centre of urban Accra, the Metro Institute of Innovation and Technology (Mint) is just one, neat room in a tower block which is surrounded by the commotion of traders, hawkers and shoppers on one side, the vast, misty Atlantic ocean to the other, and Accra's slow-trawling traffic all around.

But inside is a rare oasis of scientific order. Bookshelves lined with titles such as Algorithms from P to NP and Programming Language: Concepts and Constructs sit side-by-side with a neat array of robots - most made from scrap materials such as plastic bottles, colourfully painted, alongside electronics equipment, tools and robotics kits.

Nortey, an energetic 27-year old Ghanaian computer science graduate with an infectious smile, loves robots. "As a child I had a lot of interest in these kinds of creatures - I loved movies like Transformers," he says.

Since there is virtually no robotics teaching in Ghana, Nortey taught himself. "I worked out how to build robots by reading books, and by looking at what other people are doing on the internet and experimenting," he says. "I spent hours on the internet - it has been a serious resource for me. And I have taken online courses on open platforms, like one from MIT and one from Stanford."

Nortey's vision is that in 20 years' time he will be building sophisticated robots in Ghana: "In this part of the world, we start everything too late. In Ghana, many computer science students write their first computer program code during their first year in university. But I read stories of 12-year- olds in other countries who have built apps, put them in a store online and made loads of money. I want to transfer this knowledge."

Nortey's company runs private classes for young people with a natural passion and interest in robotics, as well as other computer programming areas such as creating apps and gaming. One of his proudest achievements is teaching a five-year-old how to write code.

"This five-year old learned how to program motors and microcontrollers. He could understand concepts like loops which some people find quite complex," Nortey explains. "He is exactly the kind of child I want to work with!"

...

Source: The Guardian

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