As a child living in Lusaka, I used to visit my grandmother in a rural village in the Barotse flood plains in the Western Province of Zambia. We had to walk many miles to the village because the sand was so thick that it rendered even the highest performing 4×4 incapable of passing through the terrain.
One of the charming aspects of the village was that in the evenings, we would sit around a lit fire, listening to adults telling stories. However, being the suburban city child I was, I sometimes dozed off. In addition to being bothered by smoke, I was tired from collecting the firewood that was used to light our fire. This was an essential job as there was no other source of light or warmth in the village, even though it was the early 1990s. It was only when my grandmother was rendered too old to carry water and firewood that she moved in with us in our home in Lusaka. The necessity of women and children collecting firewood, by some accounts walking as far as 20 km a day, remains a reality for many.
Now that the Sustainable Development Goals have officially been adopted, we need to figure out how to pay for them, to prioritize them and which goals will achieved and by whom. The question of why life was so hard for children in our village has followed me as I have grown up. Having advised on large scale power projects in East Africa and having experienced the benefits of gaining power first hand, I am most interested in Goal 7 – ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all. Energy poverty exacerbates all other forms of poverty. This goal can provide the foundation to support all the others.
Over two decades since my childhood holidays, access to energy remains a problem in Zambia and other developing countries, especially in rural areas and in unplanned urban settlements. The distribution of power outside (and, indeed, inside) large cities remains low. In Lusaka, I am routinely left without power during outages. Additionally, the cost of power, especially for alternatives such as generators or some solar products, is often prohibitive for many. If you cannot afford such alternatives, you have to learn to adapt to life with irregular access to electricity, heating, cooling, and the internet and this greatly limits general productivity (for citizens and the nation at large).
Future generations in developing countries should not have to endure these difficulties. How can we solve this problem? One is to invest more money in research and development for renewable energy innovators in developing countries. Although universities have typically been the beacon for research and development, such monies should be invested in individuals and companies that are developing creative and applicable solutions to energy problems. Where will the funding and support come from for these kinds of investments? I suggest from the private sector, peer-to-peer lending sources, academia and governments. Collaborations and exchange of know-how is critical.
Here are some examples of the type of innovators who need our support. William Kamkwamba from Malawi made a windmill by following instructions in a book. Evans Wadongo of Kenya learned how to make a solar lamp. Akon in Mali, meanewhile has created a Solar Academy in Mali to train and harness innovators in renewable energy technologies. Legal systems also need to be updated to support modern technology development. Enforcement of intellectual property laws should be emphasized, but not to the degree that they stifle creativity. This kind of ingenuity support can foster global solutions if harnessed. These are some examples from Africa, but more exist in other developing countries.
Harnessing local innovation supports industrialization for developing countries. Rather than continuing the current system of exporting similarly priced raw materials from developing countries that later find their way back in developing markets as finished goods, we need to find ways to build products locally to further boost local manufacturing and capacity. The benefits for companies are numerous. They can boost manufacturing in developing countries, thereby creating jobs and new industries.
Local product development can assist them to better understand precise customer needs and give them more touchpoints for success. For example, Samsung is developing a phone that takes ten minutes to charge and cell phone companies are putting torches in the phones that they are distributing in developing nations. Many technologies are brought into developing countries, but they do not always work or if they do, local beneficiaries don’t have local know-how of how to fix it and so once they are in disrepair they are often disposed of. The water pumps supplied by PlayPumps is but one of many examples of good intentions with inadequate sustainable solutions for when something goes wrong.
It is critical that we invest in energy innovation in developing economies. It will not be the solution to broken education systems and it will not immediately provide jobs to the masses. Finding successful solutions will take time. What it will do is provide local solutions to global problems by changing people’s mindset and confidence that they too can innovate. The creation of M-Pesa in Kenya has done that with innovating fintech solutions. As was witnessed with the Millennium Development Goals, such ambitions can be difficult to achieve. Nevertheless, the benchmark is worth setting and aiming towards. With power, people will be able to realize other goals, live with more environmentally friendly energy solutions and stop spending time on back-breaking tasks as lifting firewood.
Author: Jacqueline Musiitwa is the Founder of Hoja Law Group, and a Young Global Leader
Image: A power official works on an electric pole along a street in Nigeria’s commercial capital Lagos October 3, 2012.REUTERS/Akintunde Akinleye