Africa has the opportunity to leapfrog the development paths pursued by the developed world – why bother with land line telephones when cell phone towers are easier to put up? If you can build local renewable energy networks, why build huge networks of power lines?The roadblocks to African development aren’t necessarily best-solved by new technology. For example, communications and health services are all adequately served with existing technologies (cell phones) or even low-tech solutions (bed nets to prevent malaria and condoms to prevent HIV transmission). The critical needs for innovation are in creating businesses that can effectively distribute needed goods and services.
If I had a million dollars to invest in a business in Africa that would meet financial and social goals (while providing jobs and job training), here are three things I would invest in developing and distributing.
- Better ways to charge mobile phones. Cell phones are already quite common throughout Africa – this articledescribes cellular penetration rates as high as 50%. Nokia makes models of cell phones designed for use in Africa, which have flashlights, low power demand and a rubber coating preventing dust from entering the keypad. Africans use phones not only for communication but for banking and access to local and global financial information.What’s needed to continue the growth of mobile communications technology is affordable and portable way to charge phones in the absence of electricity. People without electricity charge their phones with diesel generators or by taking their phone to be charged in the nearest town with electricity. This limits the utility of cell phones for commerce and slows the distribution of communication networks.
Investment in portable solar chargers or battery-based chargers could enable micro-entrepreneurs to travel through small villages providing convenient and affordable charging services.
- Solar electricity kits. Electricity is essential for communications and extremely useful for educational and medical facilities. It’s hard for kids to study by a fire and it’s hard to deliver a baby with a flashlight. Electricity supports communication and information networks that are essential for developing economic markets.As sun is abundant, solar energy is a great option for Africa. Schools, hospitals and other institutions are already creating their own solar generation systems in off-grid areas. You need a few things: affordable energy panels to collect the energy, affordable energy storage, and affordable electrical equipment. Here again, existing technology meets the need, but more rugged, affordable and portable solar panels would be useful.
- Water wheels & dams. Small (even tiny) dams and water wheels are another viable source of off-grid electricity generation and sequestering water for irrigation systems. Creating mass-production water wheels, dam components and dam designs would enable the rapid creation of small electricity networks.Small businesses could evolve to distribute components and build small installations to serve irrigation and electricity needs.
Any technical co-founders out there?