In the post on Electranets, the idea of top down development, something synonymous with the Hippos (including the misguided hippo cheerleaders at Economist ;)) clashes with the idea of bottom -up development. For an example of just how these top-down initiatives can go awry, lets go to Senegal.
Thanks Emeka for the story.
This piece from IRIN news is instructive, especially since its a solar energy project. It describes an ambitious rural electrification project that was funded by the Japanese and Spanish governments in the form of grants and loans to the Senegalese government to set up Photo voltaic systems for a rural area far from the electricity grid.
The project had good intentions it appears, what with the powerful image of a hut with a solar panel on its roof. As reported on the article, the project is devolving into an unsustainable mess, with only 30% of the people paying the fees for the photovoltaic systems, and ongoing maintenance problems due to lack of money to change the batteries and keep the parts working properly. The article then goes on to describe other problems such as the high cost of fees for the PV systems. The contractors hired by the Senegalese government left in 2005 after their contract ended and the new contractor has 1 technician to service 10,000 home systems. 1. It becomes clear quite quickly that the development model that this project was based on was flawed. Not the technology behind it. I think that the project did not fully involve the community, these guys came in, ‘saved’ the village by installing the PV systems, but they did not think it through. Is the community involved in the maintenance? Nope.
The sad part is that the Senegalese government did not steer the project in a sustainable direction. There can be a partnership between governments that result in great projects (rural electrification using solar is still a superb idea), but the local government on the receiving end of the aid needs to tailor the aid to meet the needs of its people. Take the bottom up approach of training and equipping the community with the skills and this IMO is the most important part. It needs to be a market driven approach. Why would would anyone take ownership of maintaining a system if there wasn’t something in it for them? Rural development could use a few Gordon Gekko’s no? He’d probably shriek at stepping on cow dung and ruining his Johnston and murphy shoes…I am kidding! (filmmakers out there feel free to make a movie about him going to rural Africa to do his ‘greed is good’ speech. I know I would watch that, just invite me to the premiere) That aside, the idea of capitalism needs to be injected into a lot the development models if they are to be sustainable.
So how could this project have been done better? There are great models to follow. The first one that comes to the fore is the Barefoot College in India. Senegal and other countries in Africa can look at other developing countries such as India for models on how to use renewable energy in a viable manner.
The IRIN article points to the unnecessary perception that solar energy is not a viable solution for rural electrification, and that the ‘Donors are watching closely’
Individual and communal solar systems have brought electricity to over 170,000 people in Sine Saloum which lies south of Dakar near the border with The Gambia. The project is the largest of its kind in Senegal and experts say donors are watching it closely to gauge whether solar energy could be a practical means of electrifying other rural areas.
The point that the donors might be missing is, there is a red herring to watch out for. Simon Mwacharo pointed out at TED that solar and wind power systems got a bad rap in the past because the systems were not set up correctly. It appears from the situation in Senegal, that the follow-up plan to maintain the project was severely lacking. Confusing implementation and project model problems with the effectiveness of solar technology in providing power would be a mistake. A detailed article from refocus magazine, showing the obstacles and success conditions in developing countries is helpful in summarizing some of the issues in renewable energy. Projects such as the one in Senegal do require a different type of strategy.
So what practical things can we learn from all this?
From a consumer perspective, if you are out there looking for a solar powered solution for your energy needs, don’t skimp. i came across some good tips in Wired Mag January issue. Specifically
Choose the right system. Want a house that produces all of its own electricity? Opt for monocrystalline or polycrystalline panels. They’re the most efficient â?? and the most expensive. Amorphous photovoltaics are roughly half the price but only about half as efficient. If you can’t bear the appearance of those big black roof slabs, go with building-integrated photovoltaics (BIPV). Your normal-looking roof and windows become solar catchers.
From a larger country-type perspective, again,
- Don’t skimp on setting up a good quality system.
- Include a bottom-up strategy of involving entrepreneurs and invest in training for the people who will manage the systems.
In the Refocus magazine June Issue, there is a great interview by David Hopwood. In it he interviews Christoph Paradeis and Andrea Ocker of Solar Fabrik, they were discussing the future of solar as a viable market driven technology. In this bit they were talking about SA and its embracing of wind power. Specifically relating to this post (and the dont skimp bit)…
reFOCUS: South Africa appears to be on the verge of embracing windpower at least…
CP: They also started with solar in 2001, just after I joined the organization, but this project failed. They installed solar systems of course but the quality of them was so poor that many failed after two to three years. One of the requirements was that the systems be really cheap, but this caused problems with reliability. Yes, some of those regions are poor, but they should invest in good systems so that they don’t have to change them after several years; this is a false economy.
AO: And besides, people don’t trust the technology any longer if they first experience poor quality.
This post is getting too long so i shall stop here. Thank you for reading this far. How about we go listen to some Ghanaian highlife music over at Museke, or listen to Vusi Mahlasela, Habib Koite and Dobet Gnahore on Afropop?