Solar panels are a part of the landscape in southern Africa. Here, two boys ham it up for the camera while playing around a large-form factor panel.
The transformative potential for mobile communications is upon us in every aspect of life. In the developing world where infrastructure of all types is at a premium, few question the potential for mobile, but many wonder whether it should be a priority.
Note: This post originally appeared in Re/code on April 29, 2015.
Many years of visiting the developing world have taught me that, given the tools, people — including the very poor — will quickly and easily put them to uses that exceed even the well-intentioned ideas of the developed world. Poor people want to and can do everything people of means can do, they just don’t have the money.
Previously, I’ve written about the rise of ubiquitous mobile payments across Africa, and the work to bring free high-speed Wi-Fi to the settlements of South Africa. One thing has been missing, though, and that is access to reliable sources of power to keep these mobile phones and tablets running. In just a short time — less than a year — solar panels have become a commonplace site in one relatively poor village I recently returned to. I think this is a trend worth noting.
Could it be that solar power, potentially combined with large-scale batteries, will be the “grid” in developing markets, perhaps in the near future? I think so.
It is also the sort of disruptive trend we are getting used to seeing in developing markets. The market need and context leads to solutions that leapfrog what we created over many years in the developed world. Wireless phones skipped over landlines. Smartphones skipped over the PC. Mobile banking skipped over plastic cards and banks.
Could it be that solar power, potentially combined with large-scale batteries, will be the “grid” in developing markets, perhaps at least in the near future? I think so. At the very least, solar will prove enormously useful and beneficial and require effectively zero-dollar investments in infrastructure to dramatically improve lives. Solar combined with small-scale appliances, starting with mobile phones, provides an enormous increase in standard of living.
Historically, being poor in a developing economy put you at the end of a long chain of government and international NGO assistance when it comes to infrastructure. While people can pull together the makings of shelter and food along with subsistence labor or farming, access to what we in the developing world consider basic rights continues to be a remarkable challenge.
For the past 50 or more years, global organizations have been orchestrating “top down” approaches to building infrastructure: Roads, water, sewage and housing. There have been convincing successes in many of these areas. The recent UN Millennium Development Goals report demonstrates that the percentage of humans living at extreme poverty has decreased by almost half. In 1990, almost half the population in developing regions lived on less than $1.25 a day, the common definition of extreme poverty. This rate dropped to 22 percent by 2010, reducing the number of people living in extreme poverty by 700 million.
Nevertheless, billions of people live every day without access to basic infrastructure needs. Yet they continue to thrive, grow and improve their lives.
This UN Millennium Development Goals infographic shows the dramatic decline in percentage of people living under extreme poverty. (United Nations)
While the efforts to introduce major infrastructure will continue, the pace can sometimes be slower than either the people would like or what those of us in the developing world believe should be “acceptable.”
A village I know of, about 10 miles outside a major city in southern Africa, started from a patch of land contributed by the government about six years ago, and grew to a thriving neighborhood of 400 single-family homes. These homes are multi-room, secure, cement structures with indoor connections to sewage. The families of these homes earn about $100-$200 a month in a wide range of jobs. By way of comparison, these homes cost under $10,000 to build.
While the roads are unpaved, this is hardly noticed. But one thing has become much more noticeable of late is the lack of electrical power. Historically, this has not been nearly as problematic as we in the developing world might think. Their economy and jobs were tuned to daylight hours and work that made use of the energy sources available.
Solar-powered streetlights have been installed recently — here under construction — increasing public safety and providing light to the community.
Several finished homes around a nearly complete streetlight installation that also illuminates a drinking-water well, enabling nighttime access to water.
In an effort to bring additional safety to the village, the citizens worked with local government to install solar “street lights,” such as the one pictured here. This simple development began to change the nighttime for residents. These were installed beginning about nine months ago (as seen in the first photo, with a closer to production installation in the second).
Historically, this type of infrastructure, street lighting, would come after a connection to the electrical grid and development of roads. Solar power has made this “reordering” possible and welcome. Lighting streets is great, but that leads to more demands for power.
Mobile phones, the new infrastructure
These residents are pretty well off, even on relatively low wages that are three to five times the extreme poverty level. While they lack electricity and roads, they are safe, secured and sheltered.
One of the contributors to the improved standard of living has been mobile phones. Over the past couple of years, mobile phone penetration in this village has reached essentially 100 percent per household, and most adults have a mobile.
The use of mobiles is not a luxury, but essential to daily life. Those that commute into the city to sell or buy supplies can check on potential or availability via mobile.
Families can stay connected even when one goes far away for a good job or better work. Safety can be maintained by a “neighborhood watch” system powered by mobile. Students can access additional resources or teacher help via mobile. Of course, people love to use their phones to access the latest World Cup soccer results or listen to religious broadcasts.
All of these uses and infinitely more were developed in a truly bottom-up approach. There were no courses, no tutorials, no NGOs showing up to “deploy” phones or to train people. Access to the tools of communication and information as a platform were put to uses that surprise even the most tech-savvy (i.e., me). Mobile is so beneficial and so easy to access that it has quickly become ubiquitous and essential.
Last year, when I wrote for Re/code about mobile banking and free Wi-Fi, I received a fair number of comments and emails saying how this seemed like an unnecessary luxury, and that smartphones were being pushed on people who couldn’t afford the minutes or kilobytes, or would much rather have better access to water or toilets. The truth is, when you talk to people who live here, the priority for access unquestionably goes to mobile communication. In their own words, time and time again, the priority is attached to mobile communications and information.
Fortunately, because of the openness most governments have had to investments from multinational telecoms such as MTN, Airtel and Orange, most cities and suburban areas of the continent are well covered by 2G and often 3G connectivity. The rates are competitive across carriers, and many people carry multiple SIMs to arbitrage those rates, since saving pennies matters (calls within a carrier network are often cheaper than across carriers).
Mobile powered by solar
There has been one problem, though, and that is keeping phones charged. The more people use their phones (day and night), the more this has become a problem. While many of us spend time searching for outlets, what do you do when the nearest outlet might be a few miles away?
It is not uncommon to see one outlet shared by many members of a community. This outlet is in the community center, which is one of a small number of grid-connected structures. Note the variety of feature phones.
When there is an outlet, you often see people grouped around it, or one person volunteers to rotate phones through the charging cycles. Above a picture of an outlet in the one building connected to power, the community center. This is a pretty common sight.
Small portable solar panels can serve as “permanent” power sources when roof-mounted. You can see the extension wire drawn through the window.
An amazing transformation is taking place, and that is the rise of solar. What we might see as an exotic or luxury form of power for hikers and backpackers, or something reasonably well-off people use to augment their home power, has become as common a sight as the water pump.
The plethora of phones sharing a single outlet has been replaced by the portable solar panel out in front of every single home.
An interesting confluence of two factors has brought solar so quickly and cheaply to these people. First, as we all know, China has been investing massively in solar technology, solar panels and solar-powered devices. That has brought choice and low prices, as one would expect. In seeking growth opportunities, Chinese companies are looking to the vast market opportunity in Africa, where people are still not connected to a grid. There’s a full supply chain of innovation, from the solar through to integrated appliances with batteries.
Second, China has a significant presence in many African countries, and is contributing a massive amount of support in dollars and people to build out more traditional infrastructure, particularly transportation. In fact, many Chinese immigrants in country on work projects become the first customers of some of these solar innovations.
People are exposed to low-cost, low-power portable solar panels and they are “hooked.” In fact, you can now see many small stores that sell 100w panels for the basics of charging phones. You can see solar for sale in the image below. I left the whole store in the photo just to offer a bit of culture. The second photo shows the solar “for sale” offers.
A typical storefront in this community, selling a variety of important products for the home. Solar panels are for sale, as indicated by the signs in the upper left.
Detail from the storefront showing the solar panels for sale. There is a vibrant after-market for panels, as they often change hands, depending on the capital needs of a family.
Like many significant investments, there’s a vibrant market in both used panels and in the repair and maintenance of panels and wiring. Solar is a budding industry, for sure.
But people want more than to charge their phones once they see the “power” of solar. Here is where the ever-improving and shrinking of solar, LED lights, lithium batteries and more are coming together to transform the power consumption landscape and the very definition of “home appliances.”
In the developed world, we are transitioning from incandescent and fluorescent lighting in a rapid pace (in California, new construction effectively requires LED). LED lights, in addition to lasting “forever,” also consume 80 percent less power. Combining LED lights, low-cost rechargeable batteries and solar, you can all of a sudden light up a home at night. Econet is one of the largest mobile carriers/companies in Africa, and has many other ventures that improve the lives of people.
Here are a few Econet-developed LED lanterns recharging outside a home. This person has three lights, and shares or rents them with neighbors as a business. Not only are these cheaper and more durable than a fossil-fuel-based lantern, they have no ongoing cost, since they are powered by the sun.
Several modern, portable, solar-powered LED lamps sold at very low cost by mobile provider Econet. The owner rents these lamps out for short-term use.
With China bringing down the cost of larger panels, and the abundance of trade between Africa and China, there’s an explosion in slightly larger solar panels. In fact, many of the homes I saw just nine months ago now commonly sport a large two-by-four-foot solar panel on the roof or strategically positioned for maximal use.
These two boys were hanging out when I walked by, and quickly chose a formal pose in front of their home, which has a large permanent solar panel mounted on the roof.
Panels are often on the ground, because they move between homes where the investment for the panel has been shared by a couple of families. This might seem inefficient or odd to many, but the developing world is the master of the shared economy. Many might be familiar with the founding story of Lyft based on experiences with shared van rides in Zimbabwe, Zimride.
A trio of medium-sized solar panels strategically placed outside the doors of several homes sharing a courtyard.
Just the first step
We are just at the start of this next revolution at improving the lives of people in developing economies using solar power.
Three sets of advances will contribute to improved standards of living relative to economics, safety and comfort.
First, more and more battery-operated appliances will make their way into the world marketplace. At CES this year, we saw battery-operated developed-market products for everything from vacuum cleaners to stoves. Once something is battery-powered, it can be easily charged. These innovations will make their way to appliances that are useful in the context of the developing world, as we have seen with home lighting. The improvement in batteries in both cost and capacity (and weight) will drive major changes in appliances across all markets.
Second, the lowering of the price of solar panels will continue, and they will become commonplace as the next infrastructure requirement. This will then make possible all sorts of improvements in schools, work and safety. One thing that can then happen is an improvement in communication that comes from high speed Wi-Fi throughout villages like the one described here. Solar can power point-to-point connectivity or even a satellite uplink. Obviously, costs of connectivity itself will be something to deal with, but we’ve already seen how people adapt their needs and use of cash flow when something provides an extremely high benefit. It is far more likely that Wi-Fi will be built out before broad-based 3G or 4G coverage and upgrades can happen.
Third, I would not be surprised to see innovations in battery storage make their way to the developing markets long before they are ubiquitous in the developed markets.
A full-sized “roof” solar panel leaning up against a clothesline. Often roof-mounting panels is structurally challenging, so it is not uncommon to see these larger panels placed nearby on the ground.
Developed markets will value batteries for power backup in case of a loss of power and solar storage (rather than feeding back to the grid). But in the developing markets, a battery pack could provide continuous and on-demand power for a home in quantity, as well as nighttime power allowing for studying, businesses and more. This is transformative, as people can then begin to operate outside of daylight hours and to use a broader range of appliances that can save time, increase safety in the home and improve quality of life.
Our industry is all about mobile and cloud. With the arrival of low-cost solar, it’s no surprise that the revolution taking place in developing markets these days is rooted in mobile-sun.
—Steven Sinofsky (@stevesi)
Photos by the author unless otherwise noted.