Around 80 per cent of Africa is unelectrified.
Nicole Algio of the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI).

Like more than 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, gardener Benjamin Kulube lives without electricity. He could choose to connect to the grid illegally, like some of his neighbours in his South African shantytown. But with five kids at home he would rather they did their homework by candlelight than risk death by electrocution.

Life without electricity isn't easy. For cooking, the family use a paraffin stove which gives off toxic fumes. During South Africa's cool winters, they shiver around a makeshift coal-powered heater – it pours out so much choking smoke they have to use it outside. To charge his mobile phone, Kulube walks 20 minutes to his sister's house.

IBM Africa Solar

And Kulube is far from alone. "Around 80 per cent of Africa is unelectrified," says Nicole Algio of the South African National Energy Development Institute (SANEDI).

Solar power, often seen as an expensive luxury in the West, can bridge a vital gap. Just as sub-Saharan Africa leapt straight from a landscape with barely a telephone wire to a region replete with mobiles, smartphones and even mobile currency, swaths of the continent may sidestep the grid and move straight to solar: clean, green and – thanks to Africa's climate – reliable energy.

Leapfrog to solar

“Africa has the potential to leapfrog straight into clean and reliable energy sources like solar,” Algio says. “Because the lessons have been learnt in the developing world, Africa has the opportunity to bypass the intervening stages.”

Increasing solar penetration in Africa will improve health, bring electricity to rural hospitals and free citizens from the toxic smoke of paraffin, coal, wood or dung cooking fires. It will drive education by electrifying rural schools and increasing access to the internet. It will empower small businesses. And, of course, it will help to slow the pace of climate change.

Many Africans, whether living in the countryside or in the slums of fast-developing cities, could benefit from small solar, be that simple solar lamps that include a mobile phone charger or higher wattage set-ups. And these kinds of solutions are increasingly available off-the-shelf, complete with micro-financing options.

IBM Solar

Simplifying solar energy


Solar start-up M-Kopa makes an 8-watt solar panel that comes with two lightbulbs, a torch, a mobile phone charger and a radio. Currently available in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Ghana, customers pay an initial deposit of $30 followed by 365 daily 50-cent payments, using mobile phone currency: if they miss a payment, the system powers off until the debt is up-to-date.

And a new app undergoing testing in IBM Research's Johannesburg lab could bring the benefits of small solar to residential users, both rural and urban, including people who are already connected to sub-Saharan Africa's often unreliable grids.

The simple, user-friendly app calculates the solar power needs of an individual home or business based on its location, the number of appliances that run on solar and how many hours they run for. The app's algorithm draws on detailed solar radiation data for locations across South Africa to recommend a solar system set-up based on the worst-case month of the year.


Traditional home solar installers and installation apps require a level of technical detail that the average householder simply does not know. The new app strips out that complexity. “It tells your average Joe who might not have any technical background or idea what a kilowatt-hour is, and just knows 'I have two lightbulbs in my house and a fridge and a TV', just how much solar power he might need,” says Algio.

Piece by piece off the grid

The app not only empowers lighter electricity consumers to go off-the-grid for a fraction of the cost and complexity of a full solar install by professional installers. It enables wealthier users to move off-grid piece by piece, greening their homes one appliance at a time.


“From my perspective, it was about education. You don't need to spend a small fortune, like tens of thousands of dollars, to put your whole house off-grid,” explains IBM engineer Toby Kurien. “If you just wanted to run your business, you could run your laptop, printer and internet using one solar panel and two batteries, and that whole system would cost $100 or so.”

That is not an option solar installers would currently recommend, Kurien says, simply because it is not worth their time. “If you want to find out what your options are for your house, solar installers are going to try to steer you towards going off the grid, or running your entire household off solar,” he says.

South Africa's grid is currently under pressure, with a system of rolling blackouts in place. So many small businesses have been exploring how to keep running during the hours when the city goes dark. “A lot have bought generators and some have used solar,” Kurien says. “I thought an app that enabled people to explore how solar works, without having to sit with an expensive consultant, could be an answer.”

Shape of things to come

The app began as a smartphone app that will launch within a few months, but plans to evolve. Kurien wants to develop a web app, which he thinks will see higher uptake, and can envisage a simplified, multilingual, pictogram-heavy version of the smartphone app for use in rural South African villages further down the line.

Algio believes the finished product could see uptake in cities across the continent. “South Africa in many ways is a pioneer,” she says. “Whatever new policies or technologies are taken up in South Africa tend to be shared with the rest of the continent.”

IBM is promoting the use of solar energy by creating a groundbreaking mobile application that drives universal electrification in Africa. This user-friendly app calculates the solar power needs of an individual home or business based on its location and the appliances used to recommend a solar system set-up.

Solar

Hero image credit: IBM Solar Panels by IBM Research, used under CC BY.

Illuminating a path to a brighter tomorrow

IBM is promoting the use of solar energy by creating a groundbreaking mobile application that drives universal electrification in Africa. This user-friendly app calculates the solar power needs of an individual home or business based on its location and the appliances used to recommend a solar system set-up.

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