Environment / Society

Cheap, Clean Power for the Rural Poor

African woman cooking on coals

image courtesy Steve Evans

Which location do you think is better prepared for the transition to clean energy:  the wealthy, green-minded city of San Francisco, or the poor, rural villages of East Africa?  If you picked the African villages, believe it or not, you’re on to something.  An incredibly innovative startup called Off.grid:Electric has spent two years working to bring cheap, off-grid, solar power to the rural poor in Tanzania, and they expect to reach 10,000,000 Africans in the next 10 years.

An Innovative Model

Here’s how it works:   Customers, typically poor people located far from the electric grid, lease tiny solar power generators from the company.  The company, thanks to its investors, still owns the devices, which means the customers have no capital expenses: they just pay a few dollars to start, then $1 or so per week for the service, depending on how many lights and cell phone chargers they need to power.  The initial costs are low, the rental fees are affordable and the service can be stopped or started as needed.   All three of these are essential for very low-income customers.

Plus, of course, these solar generators are replacing kerosene-burning power sources.  That means fewer carbon emissions and less global climate change, but it also means fewer health problems for people who frequently use them indoors and breathe the fumes.

Thatched houses

image: Josef Stuefer

Different Places, Different Energy Issues

So if this is a model that has health, environmental and financial upsides for its customers, not to mention profits for the company, why wouldn’t this work everywhere?  Well, the problem with San Francisco (or any highly developed setting), of course, is that it’s so long established: its homes, businesses, and power systems were all built at different times and in different contexts.  Little of its infrastructure is optimized for today’s green-energy needs, but it can’t be completely scrapped or re-started because everyone’s still using it.  (Check out my article on “hacking” civilization for an exploration of the same problem on a grander scale).  The rural poor in the developing world, on the other hand, are more or less starting from scratch in terms of infrastructure, which may be a less pleasant way to live but offers fewer obstacles to new solutions.

The Future

In any case, the demand for Off.Grid’s services is enormous and appears to be growing.  If the trend continues and the business takes off, it could make an enormous dent in our future carbon emissions, likely at a much lower cost than retro-fitting power sources in the US or Europe.  An ounce of prevention, after all, is worth a pound of cure.

For in-depth reporting on this, see this Fast Company article.  For another similar device that works on the same principles but also adds in microfinancing opportunities for entrepreneurs, see my interview with Tony Cervone, founder of Green Energies LLC.

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