By Chad Maxwell
I was recently in Bonconto, Senegal, and I met with 12 commune mayors, representing over 200,000 people without electricity or Internet.
Globally, 1.2 billion people live without access to electricity with nearly half of them, 600 million people, residing in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly declared access to the Internet a universal human right, yet only 12 percent are connected in SSA today.
Imagine your life without electricity or doing business without a computer or the Internet. How do we expect to spur economic and rural development when children are attending schools without lights, computers or access to the greatest information source the world has ever known, the Internet?
Everyone talks about micro-grids, but the reality is that 70 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa still lives without electricity. This is not because the technology doesn’t exist or that we don’t know how to build and install it. It is because energy providers have not found a way to profitably connect them to the grid.
This does not mean that those without electricity do not desire the basics of electricity, such as lights at night or a charged cell phone. It is just that they cannot afford luxury electricity and mass consumption, which is required to make large village-level grids profitable. They not only can’t afford the cost of luxury electricity, but they also can’t afford the appliances required to consume this electricity like washers, driers, dish washers, multiple lights, fans, air conditioners, computers and televisions.
Personal renewable energy devices and cell phone coverage is rapidly advancing and fundamentally changing people’s access to energy, light and connectivity. There are several organizations focused on Internet access or laptops in schools. But the reality is that most of these efforts are singularly focused in their approach to solving a key issue and reliant on corporate KPIs or donor funding.
The challenge goes deeper than just access, as it must be affordable and sustainable access. Donating a computer to a school doesn’t ensure that it is charged and updated, or that the operator is trained. A micro-grid doesn’t pay for a vaccine refrigerator or the monthly electricity bill. You need to look no further than urban electrified areas, where often times you still have 50 percent of the population without electricity, or more challenging still are rural electrified areas, where people can’t afford or won’t pay for the $30 connection fee, much less the monthly minimum connection bill. They would rather spend a dollar here and a dollar there. Consequently, often times rural electrification becomes a single pole with a dead-end electrical line -- and nobody connected.
Thus, we need a new approach to deliver energy, connectivity and their associated benefits in an affordable fashion. We need to unlock the power of shared resources, and enable e-everything!
This is where startup DABADDO, a step-change, for-profit, shared value company, is trying to make an impact.
The company takes a systemic approach to solving both the digital and energy divide for limited/off-grid communities by focusing on solutions to meet the energy, technology and connectivity needs of people living at or just above the poverty level -- at a price they can afford. As an example, none of its services cost more than $1, with a price range starting from 10 cents for a rechargeable light at night (replacing dangerous candles, kerosene and throw-away batteries) to 90 cents for a computer and one hour of airtime.
The company's Connectivity Centers, are powered by renewable energy. This supports lights, 11 computers, Internet and Wi-Fi equipment, recharging station for battery devices, rented rechargeable lights and batteries, fans, projector, water purification, refrigerator, and general point of sale. The large footprint of these centers also allows room for SMEs to construct locations within the 4,300-square-foot facility to benefit from access to electricity and the Internet. This provides most of the electrical items required to cover the basics at a village level, without yet directly creating a grid.
The company strives to implement a two-phased development process: First – it builds solar-powered Connectivity Centers that focus on the basics (non-grid connecting). Second: It promotes the modular addition of solar energy (micro-grid) expansion to meet individual and business energy demands, one location at a time, and ensure power generation meets demand and the ability to pay for services.
This approach of providing the basics and a point of convergence for businesses and organizations enables shared services and resources with government and NGOs focused on rural development, e- and m-learning, e-health and e-government documents.
Simple examples: A private entity with an Internet connection and a computer can facilitate a tele-doctor visit via a Skype call for less than a $1, paid in part by the patient, and an NGO or Minister of Health program can provide a doctor. A daily group of students and teachers can have access to computers, the Internet and a projector, without the school needing to install or maintain any infrastructure supported by a community, NGO or government program.
At the end of the day, there is an enormous supply-demand gap to bridge the digital and energy divide, and plenty of room for multiple models, but thinking systemically is the key to sustainability. As I was told by a commune mayor from Linkering, Senegal, “We need you more than you need us and faster than you can get here!” Let’s leverage each other’s strengths and work together!
You can learn more about DABADDO’s approach by checking out the company's Kickstarter campaign here.
Chad Maxwell is the Founder of DABADDO. He has 20 years of experience and leadership in the fields of development, consulting, and sustainable agriculture, in Africa with a range of engagements from Peace Corps to Niman Ranch to BHP Billiton. He is an entrepreneur with record of success and challenge. Big picture focused on making life better for the masses by addressing needs and finding solutions. You can reach him at email@example.com Image credits: Chad Maxwell and Maurice Kupfer