How to Light An African Village

{ Posted on Nov 15 2008 by Bill Zimmerman }
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Categories : From the office

My housemates Connie and Johannes of Greenstep are getting involved in some very cool project work these days. After spending most days behind a computer, I find myself a bit envious of their trips to the remote village of M’muock (just getting there is an off-road adventure in itself) and of the time Johannes spends in our garage fabricating new gadgets to try out with their renewable energy project.

African continent at nightRecently, I found Johannes testing his prototype LED (light emitting diode) fixture made from a handful of components and a tuna can. The idea of using LEDs to illuminate African villages isn’t a new one. In May of this year an event called Lighting Africa drew more than 300 delegates from around the world to Accra, Ghana. An initiative of the World Bank Group and International Finance Corporation (IFC), Lighting Africa was geared toward brainstorming business opportunities for providing non-fuel based lighting services to the continent. A large focus was placed on the promise of bringing LED lighting to Africa’s rural communities.

In simple terms, an estimated half a billion people do not have any electricity whatsoever in Africa. Thus the majority of the continent’s inhabitants are dependent upon kerosene lamps and candles for lighting at night, with some spending as much as 10% of their income on lighting alone. I can testify to the fact that kerosene lamps often end up producing more smoke than light, and there’s the ever-present risk of a lamp getting knocked over and setting one’s house on fire.

By contrast, LEDs are highly efficient and relatively cheap. A typical LED light fixture uses only a very small amount of power. The model Johannes built consumes only about 0.8 watts, but produces enough light to read by. He estimates that the total cost to produce one of his fixtures is less than 2 Euros (about US $2.50). The LEDs and resistors are readily available from shops in Buea and Douala, and the remaining parts can be sourced from local (even scrap) materials. Built correctly by a trained craftsperson, they have a usable lifespan of 5-10 years.

These LED fixtures have the advantage of being recharged mechanically with hand cranks, pedal power or—in the case of Greenstep—an open source wind turbine design. An off-the-shelf car battery provides storage for the system.

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AfriGadget fans take note: Greenstep’s latest blog entry catalogs a half dozen or more Cameroonian renewable energy inventions built with local materials (scroll down to the bottom). Examples include an award-winning improved charcoal cookstove, a solar cooker, solar dryer, and both water and wind turbines.

I'm an engineer, ex-Microsoftie, founding board member of AfriLabs, co-founder of ActivSpaces in Cameroon and VC4Africa. Drawn to innovation, creativity & all things tech. More at splinter.me/billz