Off-grid home solar systems are often held up as the answer to energy poverty in rural Africa. Small-scale solar systems, like a rooftop solar panel connected to a battery, are relatively cheap to install and can supply power for basic amenities like lighting, radio and charging a mobile phone.
The World Bank admitted in a 2017 blog that “the major downside of off-grid solar is that the relatively low amount of supplied electricity limits what those systems can do for the productive use of electricity.”
“However,” they continue, “electricity usage patterns in newly electrified areas in rural Africa are often such that solar is able to meet those demands.”
In other words, the poorest don’t need much electricity, so we only have to give them the bare minimum.
Here are 4 reasons why this muddled thinking is completely wrong.
1. Massive amounts of energy are needed to transform Africa’s rural economies
Africa currently spends $35 billion a year IMPORTING food from richer countries. This is because African farms lack the powered equipment and infrastructure to compete with the rest of the world.
As Akinwumi Adesina, President of the African Development Bank put it in a recent speech:
“Africa cannot develop in the dark. Farmers cannot store food, irrigation systems cannot function and food agribusiness and industries cannot operate for lack of power.”
Without a revolution in African agriculture – which in turn requires large energy inputs – Africa’s rural poor will stay poor.
2. The benefits of “leapfrogging” have been wildly overstated
Leapfrogging is the argument that poor countries can use technology to bypass certain stages of development. For example, using drones to fly medicine “leapfrogs” the need to build decent roads, while mobile phones “leapfrog” the need for a fixed telecoms infrastructure.
The same argument is made about energy, where off-grid solar supposedly bypasses the need for power stations and pylons.
But as recent paper by Harvard Kenny School’s Calestous Juma argues, “leapfrogging industrial development is not an option”.
Juma’s point is that while it may benefit individuals to have access to mobile phones, to create a tech industry there is no getting away from the need for fiber optic broadband and mobile phone masts. It’s the same with energy. The ability to charge a phone using off-grid solar is better than nothing, but you can’t use off-grid solar to power a mobile phone factory.
Not only that, large complex infrastructure projects like power stations give Africans the engineering skills they need to create future prosperity. Kenya’s geothermal industry, for example, has spurred a whole generation of expert Kenyan engineers.
3. Solar panels are cheap to install, but hard to maintain
Solar equipment requires regular maintenance to work properly. India’s experience is instructive. A massive government-sponsored drive to electrify rural villages in Maharashtra ended in failure when villagers found they couldn’t fix the solar panels when they broke down.
“Most of the equipment is either stolen or not working,” said the project manager. “Now we have decided that a majority of these villages will be electrified in the conventional way.”
4. Given a choice, most people would prefer the grid
Something often overlooked in this debate, are the preferences of Africans themselves.
Yet polling evidence from Ghana and Tanzania shows that when people who aren’t on the grid but do have other forms of electricity are asked if they’d like a grid connection, a clear majority say yes.
It’s completely unacceptable that we live in a world where the average American fridge consumes 9 times more power than the average Ethiopian. But by pushing off-grid solar as an alternative to grid electrification that’s how things are likely to stay.