ndile Ngcaba keeps an old, less power-hungry phone for use in rural Africa

Spread of mobile phones 'could drive African electrification'

A South African company aims to use the expansion of the cellular communications network to help bring electrification to the massive rural areas of the continent.

At the International Electronics Forum in Dublin, Ireland, organised by Future Horizons, Andile Ngcaba, chairman of venture-capital group Convergence Partners, said a key obstacle to making electricity widely available to rural users in Africa is the high cost of photovoltaic systems for solar generation.

“We monitor the price of polysilicon,” said Ngcaba, referring to the key raw material for silicon-based photovoltaics. “The price needs to fall below $10/kg. Only then can you have maximum penetration of solar panels as a way of providing electric power.”

While it has dropped from hundreds of dollars over a five-year period, the cost of polysilicon production remains in the range $20-$25/kg, although it has fallen below that in recent months as demand dried up.

“In rural areas how do you create an infrastructure where you can provide power to mobile devices?” Ngcaba asked. “Given that polysilicon is unaffordable for individuals, it has to be provided by an entrepreneur.”

Ngcaba said South African manufacturer Inala, in which Convergence has invested, has developed an energy management system for cellular basestations that could deliver excess power to nearby villages: “A basestation requires around 2.75kW of power. Mobile operators will use a combination of wind, solar and generators.”

He added: “We said to the operators, why not use the surplus as a way of powering the village and, in turn, the community can look after the basestation... I’m a strong believer that the way to provide electricity to the continent will be this model. It would provide not only power for mobile phones but other devices.”

Ngcaba said the lack of power is a key reason why African users choose limited feature phones over more energy-intensive smartphones. “People carry less-sophisticated phones not because they can’t afford smartphones, but because they want a phone that lasts longer. I carry a smartphone, but when I go to rural Africa I still have to keep this [old] phone in my bag.”

Although community generation could increase the usage of mobile phones among Africa’s one billion population, Ngcaba explained that cellular operators have been reluctant to try the model because they already outsource basestation management: “They are nervous about double-outsourcing. There is also a regulatory issue, as they would need permission to lay power cables into the villages.”

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