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Charging a mobile phone in rural Africa is insanely expensive

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


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Credit: Angaza Design

Think about the last time you plugged in your phone to charge it up. Did you first pause to think about how much it would cost you?

If you’re like me, you plug in your phone before you go to bed so that it’s charged up and ready to go in the morning. Or you top it off throughout the day. And if you’re like me, you give little thought to how much it actually costs to charge up your phone. That’s because charging mobile phones and tablets doesn’t cost all that much in the grand scheme of things – at least for those of us “on the grid”. A typical electricity rate in the US or UK is 12 cents per kilowatt-hour (kWh).

But what about those without the convenience of centrally-produced electricity and a network of transmission lines and distribution stations and household wiring? How does one charge a mobile phone. And more importantly, how much does it cost?

As I found out during research for my article about pay-as-you-go solar energy, those who live off the grid pay an outrageous amount for their energy.

Let’s do a quick comparison. For convenience, I’m going to use my iPhone 5. According to the folks at iFixIt, it uses a 5.45 watt-hour (Wh) battery. That is about the same as running a 5-watt CFL for a little over an hour. If we assume that I charge my phone every day (365 times a year) my total bill comes out to just 25 cents. What a steal! Nothing costs a quarter anymore. Except, apparently, charging my iPhone for an entire year.

Now, let’s switch gears to rural Africa. If I take my iPhone 5 to a rural village in Kenya without grid access to electricity I can’t plug it into the wall because there won’t be a wall outlet. For nearly 5-in-6 people living in rural sub-Saharan Africa this is the norm. Instead, I would have to walk to a local shop and find a kiosk to charge my phone, where I might pay around 25 cents every time I need a top up – or $91 a year. That’s 383 times more expensive than in the US!

I like the way Simon Bransfield-Garth puts it: “the poorest people in the world are not just paying a bit more for their energy, they’re paying a disproportionate amount.”

As I write in my article, clever business models coupled with technology can bring electricity to rural populations at competitive rates. And with roughly 253 million mobile phone subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa, there appears to be a market ripe for disruption.

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. Arbeiter 2:32 pm 11/26/2013

    What obligation does First World productivity owe to clades, polities, and faiths demanding their own versions of reality plus the full benefits of empirical reality? “Marche ou crève,” re Kipling’s “savage wars of peace.” Reparation demands are not immune to royalty payments for interim technological upgrades.

    US Patent 406968 (16 July 1889): “a cheap and durable machine” Make all the electricity you want; no coils are necessary.

    Link to this
  2. 2. FORGOT_PASSWORD 4:45 pm 11/26/2013

    It seems peculiar to me that @Arbeiter would cite a Nikola Tesla patent, given Tesla’s philosophy and vision of the transformative nature of electricity. Tech companies are looking to developing populations as the logical next marketplace, not as an “obligation”. Suggest that readers follow article link to GSMA (mobile industry) report for enlightenment on industry motives, as well as well-crafted report on the importance of mobile technology to this growing economy. Clearly, they do not view their efforts as “reparations”. (http://www.gsma.com/newsroom/sub-saharan-africa-leads-world)

    From NIKOLA TESLA’s speech at the opening ceremony of the NIAGARA FALLS hydroelectric power station, January 12, 1897. It signifies the subjugation of natural forces to the service of man, the discontinuance of barbarous methods, the relieving of millions from want and suffering” (http://www.teslasociety.com/exhibition.htm)

    Link to this
  3. 3. Jerzy v. 3.0. 6:41 am 11/27/2013

    That’s why Africans don’t use iPhone but less energy-churning mobiles.

    And why people keep their mobiles on at night, increasing power consumption by 50% without any benefit?

    Link to this
  4. 4. Arbeiter 12:32 pm 11/27/2013

    @FORGOT_PASSWORD The velocity of money arises from demand and supply culminating in exchange of value. Charity eradicates value and impoverishes productivity. Sub-Saharan Africa’s historic population is less than 50 million. It now snugs 1000 million, 20 for 1. Pouring value into a bottomless bucket is madness,

    http://visualizing.org/sites/default/files/imagecache/embedded_vis_medium/images/un__maddison_data_spiral_ss.png
    http://static.alsosprachanalyst.com/2011/01/image31.png
    http://populationaction.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/01/asset_upload_file515_10175.gif

    Link to this
  5. 5. Postman1 7:38 pm 11/28/2013

    Coal fired power plants and hydroelectricity are the best bet for most of the sub-saharan African nations.

    Link to this

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