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In Africa, entrepreneurs are key to off-grid electricity innovation

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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Can a soccer ball change the way we think about electricity in rural areas? We’ll get to that in a moment.

For the more than two-thirds of Africa’s sub-Saharan population that lacks access to electricity, even the most mundane tasks can be difficult or even deadly. Lack of electricity can be a matter of life and death (such as when women walk through the darkness to do nightly business) and a major barrier to economic growth. According to the International Energy Agency, sub-Saharan Africa will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal electricity by 2030.

The issue is so important that President Obama announced the Power Africa initiative that aims to double power access in sub-Saharan Africa in the next five years through a series of public-private partnerships and financial support.

But as Africa electrifies, it won’t necessarily look like the grid you and I are familiar with.

Africa, a latecomer to a massive, organized, and antiquated electric grid roll out has the potential to leapfrog the current electric grid – large central power plants and miles of transmission lines, substations, distribution lines, and homes -  and roll out a more distributed model.  For some, there is hope that Africa will do what it did with personal communications, where it skipped landlines altogether and jumped ahead to cellphones and mobiles.

To aid this innovation, the U.S. African Development Foundation (USADF) will “launch a $2 million off-grid energy challenge to provide grants up to $100,000 to African-owned and operated enterprises to develop or expand the use of proven technologies for off-grid electricity benefitting rural and marginal populations.” Think African startups (Silicon Serengeti?) addressing and tackling some of their toughest challenges that fall under the radar of larger organizations and companies.

What types of problems will these entrepreneurs solve? Lighting is one of the biggest needs in rural areas, where it is essential for reading and studying at night or making trips to the bathroom safely outside through the darkness. Others, like businesses, simply need a reliable supply of electricity to operate and sell their goods.

Which leads us back to the soccer ball. It’s no ordinary soccer ball. This one, called the Soccket, generates electricity as you play with it. Soccket is the invention of Uncharted Play, an nine-person for profit social enterprise in New York City, which aims to bring electricity into rural communities like those found in sub-Saharan Africa. To charge, you simply play with the soccer ball while a pendulum generates charge inside the ball. You can then attach various devices and accessories, say a cell phone charger or LED lamp.

Credit: Uncharted Play

According to the Soccket’s Kickstarter page, thirty minutes of play will net you three hours of light at 6 watts of power – enough for late night homework or to top off a cell phone.

The Obama Administration is showcasing the Soccket as illustrative of the innovations in off-grid energy technologies that are possible, which have the potential to transform rural Africa through direct access to electricity in addition to the economic stimulus resulting from developing and launching successful products.

While there is still a need for centralized power generation in Africa, these entrepreneurs will literally be putting power in the hands of Africans.

David Wogan About the Author: An engineer and policy researcher who writes about energy, technology, and policy - and everything in between. Based in Austin, Texas. Comments? david.m.wogan@gmail.com Follow on Twitter @davidwogan.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. sethdayal 3:04 pm 07/5/2013

    “massive, organized, and antiquated electric grid roll out has the potential to leapfrog the current electric grid – large central power plants and miles of transmission lines, substations, distribution lines, and homes – and roll out a more distributed model”

    Oddly nobody has figgured out how to send electricity out 24/7 over the air like cell phones. With the cheapest local storage envisioned at $2 a kwh, I guess Africans have no need for power at night?

    We could provide a small 5 MW nuke plant for each small hamlet though even that would need some distribution.

    Link to this

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