You often hear about the rapid technological developments in African countries like Kenya, South Africa, Nigeria, and others. CleanTechnica writer Remeredzai Joseph Kuhudzai keeps us updated on the potential of the electrical vehicle in the growing African middle class and the potential of microgrids in more rural areas. But the development is somewhat slower in terms of energy and information technology in very remote rural areas. Yes, things are slow, but things are happening. The pace of development has gone from extremely slow to very slow, but don’t be fooled by the seemingly flat end of an exponential curve, because the steep end will present the slow and fast end of the curve.
This story is about one single event in the history of a small school in rural Zambia called Chibwe: electrification. The event is eminent, but has in fact not happened yet. The school should have been connected to the local grid exactly one year ago, but these things take time. However, when this event finally happens, it will mark the “knee” of the exponential curve of development at Chibwe. The knee is the point on the curve where the tangent is 45 degrees steep. Before this point nothing seems to have happened. After this point, good luck keeping track.
In the mid 1950s, about a decade before Zambia became an independent country and the name of the then-colony was North Rhodesia, a small missionary school was built in the Chibwe village area just outside the Mapanza missionary station in the southern province. The school was handed over to the new Zambian government in 1964 and was expanded slightly to accommodate the surrounding village children as an elementary public school.
For several decades this place could only be reached by gravel road, and this is how I found it as a young boy in 1981. I attended school here for about a year, and I noticed that along the gravel road about 100 meters west of the school premises there were electrical power lines.
In 2014 I came back to visit, this time driving on a good quality tarmac road, but apart from that nothing had changed. The buildings looked almost the same. The sparse furniture inside was still the same. Electric power lines where still there along the road. The school was still not connected. I had brought 200 Solar Aid lights with me in the hope they would at least make a tiny difference.
Returning back to Denmark from this trip motivated me to create a website for the school, which was discovered by a Dutch-based foundation called Stiching Maanda, and it turns out that the founder, Brite Apuleni, had attended the neighboring Maanda Primary School as a young boy in the 1970s, and had worked for years to bring the school up to date in terms of energy and information connectivity. He said he would help do the same for Chibwe.
Last year in 2019 I came back again, and to my surprise, this time things had changed. A small library had been built, and on that building connectors where ready to embrace the miracle of electrons from the grid of opportunity. All classrooms had been wired up with switches and sockets for light bulbs, and all that remained was to pay a couple of thousand Kwacha (about $200) to get connected.
I stood there looking at the quote from the national electricity grid operator and decided to pay it right away. I was thrilled to have gotten the chance of finally help do this last thing and send the school flying into the future. We are approaching the knee of the curve! But remember, we are still just closing in on the knee, and things are still progressing very slowly…
Today it is exactly one year ago I visited Chibwe, and the school is still not connected. Last time any activity was seen was in February when the grid operator cleared the ground where the handful of poles will be placed from the main line. After that, they said: “Power will be connected as soon as materials are found.”
But what’s a year? No time at all. Let’s recap:
- 1950s: School built.
- 1980s: Grid established nearby.
- 2010s: Tarmac road nearby.
- 2019: Electric wiring ready in school.
- 2020?: Connection to grid.
The strange thing is that, being connected to the grid this late might have a much smaller impact than expected, because what I also witnessed in 2019 was something that was nowhere to be seen in 2014: solar photovoltaics.
Mobile phones have already completely penetrated the African continent, and these devices have been used by the vast majority of the population for communication, as well as things like payments, for at least a decade now. But phones need charging, and therefor small solar systems have flooded the continent. What I see now is these systems getting bigger. They now power televisions, small refrigerators, and laptop computers. I even got a tour at a local solar powered hammermill.
I suspect that the tech-explosion that has happened in decentralized energy and information systems in and around the larger cities of Africa will have reached all rural areas within this decade. If I go back to visit in 2025, I will probably be shocked as to how much change has happened as opposed to the many years before that. I am sure Chibwe will be connected by then.
I am also confident that the grid itself will have transformed from a weak and static entity to a dynamic and smart grid with new large solar PV plants connected to it along with the already existing hydro power plants and playing along with decentralized electricity generation and storage.
I will let you know.