Converting urine into electricity, creating a more efficient solar cell, distributing a do-it-yourself solar lamp — these are just a few of the innovations that are helping to address Africa’s energy gap.
The need for power is widely recognized: nearly 600 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, or two-thirds of the population, lack electricity — including more than 85 percent of the rural inhabitants. The good news is that a myriad of solutions are emerging to meet those needs, as young entrepreneurs across the continent and beyond work to develop technologies and programs to provide power to Africans living far from national grids. While small in scale, these innovations can add up to a big part of the energy equation.
“Across Africa, there are literally hundreds of small businesses and community enterprises that are eager to develop affordable, renewable off-grid energy to meet the needs of these underserved communities,” says Shari Berenbach, president and CEO of the United States African Development Foundation (USADF).
USADF has teamed up with GE to support local innovation in Africa through the Off-Grid Energy Challenge, awarding grants to creative off-grid power solutions. “Local entrepreneurs, with a bit of support, are inventing new ways to deliver energy solutions to meet these needs,” she says.
The younger generation’s interest in finding creative solutions to Africa’s energy requirements was in evidence at GE’s recent pop-up innovation workshop in Lagos, Nigeria — GE Garages — launched in partnership with the Dangote Foundation and Points of Light.
Among participants in the three-week event were four teens from the Doregos Private Academy who had invented a machine that converts urine into gas power — as well as drinkable water. The students showed off their prototype to GE’s technical experts, who helped to develop more efficient urine-processing chambers and 3D-printed battery pack.
“One of the major problems in Nigeria is the irregular supply of electricity power,” says 14-year-old Tomisin Osibote, one of the young entrepreneurs from the Doregos science club. “Therefore, the importance of technologies that produce alternative source of electricity is high.”
While there’s no shortage of creativity — or enthusiasm — across the continent for devising energy solutions, the lack of technological tools and technical skills can often hamper the development of programs and services.
“In Nigeria, where innovation abounds but is often hindered by lack of technical solutions, GE Garages aims to help drive innovation into production,” says Jay Ireland, president and CEO of GE Africa.
Gift Nyikayaramba recalls how the power supply in the town where he grew up in Zimbabwe became increasingly intermittent. “I started channeling some of the frustration that had built up within me because of this lack of reliable power,” he says, focusing on energy solutions as a student, including during his current undergraduate studies at Duke University.
At the recent Africa Ascending event hosted by GE and The Economist, Nyikayaramba explained how he has been working to improve the efficiency of organic solar cells, which are cheaper than the more widely used silicon cells and flexible enough to be deployed on anything from clothing to building materials.
To ensure that energy solutions can be tailored to the actual problems on the ground and accessible to the people “at the bottom of the pyramid,” he said there needs to be more investment in research and development, innovative financing options and a data-driven smart grid approach to infrastructure building.
“This will allow us to design better policy and also better technological solutions to help people gain access to power, so that we don’t have a situation where we have more than half of a continent lacking access to power,” says Nyikayaramba.
Beyond making electricity more accessible, some young innovators are enabling rural residents to build their own technology solutions. LEDsafari, founded by a group of professionals and graduate student twentysomethings out of Switzerland, is training locals how to cheaply and easily build their own solar-powered LED lights.
“It is important that the know-how also comes from the people themselves, that they take ownership of the system so that it is not simply an element imported from rich countries that they soon forget,” says Govinda Upadhyay, a doctoral student who created the LEDsafari lamp, a $2 do-it-yourself solar lamp made using a short list of locally available parts.
What all these innovations have in common is an infusion of creativity, youth and vision — optimism that small-scale innovations can help solve the large-scale energy needs confronting Africa.
“Our driving desire is to help in solving the problems of power generation in Nigeria,” says Osibote of the Doregos academy. “As the proverb says, children are `The Leaders of Tomorrow.’”
Top image: Bello Opeyemi shows off the project he developed with fellow students, machine that converts urine into gas power, at the recent GE Garages event in Lagos.