Solar power has the potential to bring a new era of ‘sunlight-based’ services to remote African settlements and provide children with the educational opportunities they desperately need if they are to play a role in Africa’s burgeoning economies. Samsung’s Thierry Boulanger, Director: IT Solutions and Business to Business in Africa, discusses just what harvesting the sun can achieve.
Africa is a continent of contrasts. It is home to 54 countries in various stages of development and economies that operate at various levels of prosperity. It is a continent where it is common to find poverty existing alongside urban, westernised business districts serving cosmopolitan business communities.
Most often the thing differentiating the two communities, and defining the lack of opportunities available to the poor, is simply a lack of infrastructure that has been exacerbated by an inability to deliver electricity to sites where it is most needed.
The shortage of power, besides defining the geographical boundaries between urban and rural areas and separating the ‘haves from the ‘have-nots’, has a direct impact across a broad spectrum of life and service delivery in communities, particularly those situated far from roads and access to transportation routes.
The most important spheres of activity impacted on include:
- Medicine and health services. No electricity means an inability to use diagnostic and other equipment as well as restricting the use of essential basics such as refrigeration that are required in clinics.
- Access to telecommunications, the Internet, telephones and media.
- Education, which is stifled through the existence of the digital divide and the lack of teaching aids, textbooks and infrastructure that enables children to be taught, or to study alone at their own pace.
- Agriculture, which is impacted on by a lack of water pumps, boreholes, irrigation equipment and electrically-driven equipment required for intensive farming practices, whether it be the delivery of crops at a commercial level or construction of facilities such as ‘hot houses’, chicken breeding, silos and even abattoirs.
- Access to government services in rural areas. The lack of facilities here can extend from clinics through to provision of services ranging from social payments and population registration services.
- Most importantly, the commonly accepted amenities of life such as household appliances cannot exist.
Bringing quality of life to far-flung communities therefore requires that a cost effective, sustainable source of power is established close to communities. Delivering the solution, however, also requires power sources that can be easily transported along existing routes, no matter what their state of repair or disrepair to final destinations.
Solar power is the obvious solution to the dilemma, and has long been proposed as a solution to compensate for the lack of a formal electricity grid. In addition to the immediate improvements to quality of life offered by these facilities, is the fact that other benefits can be accrued.
These, if correctly used and implemented can result in solar power solutions also offering communities a facility which offers a return on investment over a short period of between two and three years, requires little maintenance. Best of all, it can cap its initial investment costs by offering communities a means of generating income.
Purpose- built installations that can be housed in traditional shipping containers present just such an opportunity. Delivered via rail or road, they just need to be treated to ensure that they can survive the vagaries of African weather conditions, and require nothing more than a flat solid, site for their placement.
The potential for these mobile installations lies in their ability to be tailored to meet specific requirements. Use as clinics, community centres or for education is all within their capabilities.
An example of what can be achieved through these containers is illustrated by the fact that a single unit could power four TV’s for five hours a day and simultaneously run four fridges for 24 hours a day, 16 neon or LED lights consuming 16w each for five hours a day, and four plug points delivering a maximum of 100w each for 24 hours. The advantages for a small rural village are obvious.
Power for the units would usually emanate from an array of panels deployed on the roof of the container and connected to a junction box so that the power can be distributed.
To ensure that a value is attached to the provision of electricity to the community, it can be arranged that pre-paid meters are installed and that a fee, no matter how small, is levied for the power. Funds generated can be allocated towards payment of the installation, a fund for battery replacement (generally required after about seven years) or paid to a municipality.
Reality at this stage dictates that many installations of this type will remain within the ambit of corporate social investment projects. Government and parastatals are required to concentrate on meeting the electricity demands of expanding economies. They therefore need, through necessity, to concentrate their primary efforts on the erection of new power stations and the appropriate delivery infrastructure.
When taken in context, what can be achieved through CSI programmes, however, is not insignificant. Recently Samsung Electronics delivered one container, the first of what could be a number of Solar Powered Internet Schools based in containers in Angola, in association with the Angolan government and other partners. The support for the project was in line with the company’s positioning as a leader in the business of creating solutions using solar energy.
The Solar Powered Internet School, which is geared to provide access to the Internet and electronic textbooks will operate on a shift basis and meet the needs of 200 children a day.
This school, housed in a ‘40-foot’ shipping container was delivered by truck to its site. It represents a breakthrough in the delivery of education by helping to break down the technological barriers facing education in Angola.
Used on a rotational basis by children during the day, the school will operate between 08h00 and 17h00 every day. It also has the capacity to operate effectively for up to 36 hours without any sunlight at all.
Built to withstand harsh African conditions the solar panels powering the school are made from rubber instead of glass, to ensure that they are hardy and durable enough to survive long journeys across the continent.
The power generated by the panels each day also means that the school can be used beyond the traditional learning day. After-hours it can operate as an adult education centre or a community centre over weekends.
It may be a small beginning, but for the 200 children who will benefit, the school opens the door to huge opportunities. Finding the funding to create hundreds of similar facilities across Africa could, within a comparatively short period, transform education, quality of life and service delivery across Africa.