A Solar Solution for Africa's Mobile Problem
A new product that consists of a small solar photovoltaic cell connected to a battery can recharge mobile phones in Africa where electricity is scarce.
January 09 , 2012
Travel around Africa, and you do not have to go far to see a mobile phone. More than any other device, this is how Africans are accessing the networked world, using mobiles for everything from healthcare services to payments. By 2010 more than half a billion people in Africa and the Middle East were using a mobile phone.
These devices, however, have limitations in Africa, where mobile network growth is far outstripping the expansion of the electric grid across the continent. As a result, remote cellphone users may have to travel for hours or even days to recharge their handsets if they have no electricity supply. Such a challenge could easily hamper the mobile phone's ability to bring greater communication, convenience and prosperity to remote communities.
Simon Bransfield-Garth thinks he has a solution to the problem—and it is as clear as daylight. His company, Eight19, has launched a product called IndiGo that consists of a small solar photovoltaic (PV) cell connected to a battery that can recharge mobile phones and power a high-efficiency, light-emitting diode lamp.
PV cells have often been touted as a potential cure for off-grid power supply challenges in the developing world, but the problem is that most rural Africans cannot afford its upfront cost. Eight19's innovation is that IndiGo is offered on a pay-as-you-go basis: the battery has an electronic "lock" that shuts it down after a week. The owner can get a "scratch card" and buy another week's worth of service for $1.
Bransfield-Garth believes IndiGo could be a major help for people in remote African locations who want to join the digital revolution. "Our view is that PV has a huge role to play in developing economies," he says. "There is ample sunshine and the cost of energy is much greater than in the West. This enables a dramatic transition. Within a few years, a household with access to the Internet is in a completely different place to one without."
Bransfield-Garth notes that in Madagascar phone usage has gone up by about 15 percent in areas where some form of battery recharging service is offered. "If you have to take a three-hour bus drive to charge your mobile phone then you will just switch it off," he reasons.
Brett Prior, a senior analyst with GTM Research, agrees that the pay-as-you-go PV model could offer a viable path for cash-strapped Africans to buy the power they need to get connected. "The challenge is they often do not even have $10 to buy even a basic solar panel," he says.
IndiGo is currently in trials in Kenya, with plans to reach tens of thousands of users in its first year.
Jason Deign is a freelance writer located in Barcelona, Spain.
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