May 27th, 2010

AC/DC Rocks the Bottom Billion – Musings on Electricifying Africa


I was working with Anza Technologies in the remote village Matala, Tanzania last month.  We deployed “appropriate technologies” to help rural farmers carry water more efficiently.  I noticed that each of these “dollar-a-day” farmers had a cell phone but no electricity in their homes.  How they charge their phone batteries may be the beginnings of an energy infrastructure unlike any we have seen.

The rural Matala region had largely leapfrogged land-based telecommunications infrastructure—pretty standard in the third world, but the cell phones hit some of the villages before electricity had, which raised some questions for me.  I wondered how they charged them.

I found out that they charged up at one or two houses in a given village with electricity, or they’d give them to a friend to bring into town.  In fact, it seemed they treat electricity like they do water—walk to a source, fill up, bring it home.

The farmers earn close to $1/day, so hooking into the grid is cost-prohibitive—nearly 4 years income.  Getting a gas generator is an option that would cost nearly 1 year’s income.  Alternatives like solar and wind?  1-2 years income.   It is clear there is no solution other than scavenging for what electricity they can to power the few, small electronics they need.  There is very little incentive to make these types of investments even if they could save the cash.  Their investments take other forms.

Driving through the valleys of Kilimanjaro I noticed acres of crops where some corn was about 3-4’ higher than the rest.  I asked our guide, Ibrahim, why.  He said that the first rains came early this year, so farmers had to bet on whether to plant their seed or not. “If it’s a false start to the season, their seed is ruined. But if they wait too long, they miss an extra harvest.”  So the farmers hedge by planting a portion of their crops during the early rain and saving most of their seed for later.  When you’re making a dollar a day, crops are the only currency you have the volume to risk.  Crops are their primary investment.

Accordingly, most farmers typically invest any spare cash into low-risk, low-return items like tools for work—things that bring an element of security and predictability to their business in the fields.  They will not take a leap of faith in a technology which may only marginally improve yield, break, or be too expensive to maintain (take it from Paul Pollack if you don’t believe me). They need real, immediate cashflows from what they invest in—or small investments with short payback periods that hold inherently low risk.

I asked a bit more about alternative ways to get affordable power to the region.  I learned about a company called Egg Energy. They were setting up portable battery charging stations in remote villages of Tanzania where consumers can access electricity at a price they can budget. I didn’t encounter any of the stations, but the idea made a lot of sense to me. It got me thinking about the evolution of the country’s “grid”.

With this “distributed power redemption” model (I dub thee), there is promise that the need for DC power electronics (mainly battery charging & lighting) will pull-through alternatives in remote locations where grid-connected AC is cost prohibitive. It could take the form of distributed DC charging stations.  The model could be a good stepping stone to rural electrictrification by alternatives.  It may even introduce further standardization in global DC infrastructure, as increasing DC power supply & demand cut-out the AC/DC inverter-middle-man (imagine a standard DC wall plug that’s not a jerry-rigged cigarette lighter?!).  It will be interesting to see how elements from this embryonic business model will affect the 1st world’s AC/DC power infrastructure in the coming years.

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Adam Standley

About Adam Standley

Adam Standley is a Boston-based “Mainer” who loves to invent. He is currently owner of Arista Solutions LLC developing lean, green, cleantech machines.

  • Chris Williams


    Really loved the post, it was very entertaining and kept me reading the whole way through. I loved the analogy to electricity being like water when there is no distribution.

    From your experience did you see any place where there could be some technology swap?