How Africa Is Hacking Its Energy Crisis
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
At a small dispensary in a village just outside Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I stared in disbelief as I watched health care provider, Recho Mengo, expertly balance a cell phone in her mouth so that she could free her hands to measure a pregnant woman’s belly. The phone’s flashlight was providing the only source of light in a facility that has no power. I couldn’t help but think back to my own pregnancy less than two years prior; the situations were like night and day.
According to the World Health Organization, women in developing countries are dying every 90 seconds from complications during pregnancy or childbirth. As such, not having light can mean life or death. And when students struggle to read by kerosene lanterns in the dark of night, or young girls can’t attend school because they must gather firewood and other sources of fuel for the household, the lack of energy can also mean holding back the dreams and advances of a new generation.
It’s estimated that some 600 million people across sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to reliable energy. Ghanaian President John Mahama has been nicknamed Mr. Dumsor after the popular word for power outages. Lack of rain has forced the Tanzanian government to shut down hydropower plants, which generate 35% of the country’s electricity. From Nigeria to Kenya and beyond, basic activities, such as studying and conducting business, often happen in the dark. Vital services – from delivering babies to caring for the sick – occur in dimly lit rooms.
The paradox is that Africa is home to the world’s fastest growing middle classes and that technology has played a large part in this growth. Cell phone use in particular has exploded. In 2002, only 8% of Ghanaians said they owned a cell phone; today 83% use a mobile. Everything from basic communication to mobile banking is done using the cell phone. However, the infrastructure needed to simply charge these phones and to empower sub-Saharan Africa in general, just doesn’t exist, leaving hundreds of millions of people in the dark.