Technology Is Solving Some Energy Problems in Developing Countries

Sometimes there are benefits to being late to the modern world. Whereas developed countries have had telecommunications lines strung to serve nearly every inhabited location, Africa’s land mass was too large and its population too dispersed for that to have happened. Now technology has progressed to the point that Africa will never need that network. With nearly a billion people, Africa has almost 500 million mobile phone lines, but only 12 million land lines which typically provide service only in dense cities.


The story is the same for energy production and distribution. Africa’s major river systems could potentially provide enough hydroelectric power to meet the whole continent’s needs. Distributing the power to end users is a hurdle yet to be resolved. So locally generated electricity is the best option for scattered populations. Fortunately Africa is well-situated for other forms of renewable energy, notably solar energy. And distributed energy is key to development for Africa, improving education, medical care, communication, and on a larger scale, production.


A single solar panel can provide an LED light and replace a less-desirable and dangerous kerosene lantern. Two panels can charge a mobile phone, greatly reducing the cost below that currently paid for commercial charging services. Innovative ways of generating electricity go beyond solar panels. A group of Harvard students invented a soccer ball with power generation built into it. Thirty minutes of kicking the ball in soccer play generates enough electricity to power an LED light for three hours. The students have followed up with a jump rope with similar capabilities. The company is called Uncharted Play (


A French company manufactures a refrigerator, Freecold ( that operates with a photovoltaic panel. A U.S. company, BioLite, has developed a stove that uses wood but requires half the amount of an open fire and reduces smoke by 95% while generating electricity ( Along with waterless composting toilets, solar water heaters, portable, inexpensive medical devices, these are a tiny sampling of the innovation taking place to improve life for the poorest populations. For a long list of innovators and their products and services for addressing energy and sustainability, have a look at The Unreasonable Institute’s fellows at

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