The Sahara – Powerhouse of Solar Energy

In my last week’s post, I wrote about the introduction and buildout of solar ovens in Africa which was one indicator of my today’s entry. I talked about the advantages and the sustainability of these tools, that surely have a big impact on the African population and ecology but if we take the sun as a source of energy, trust me, it can do way more than what I’ve talked about so far.

It’s based on the right concept that says “start small, grow as you go“. As I mentioned last week, the approach to implement solar ovens in the every day life of geographically remoted and electrically isolated farmers, has turned out to be a huge success, refering to the cost-benefit ratio as well as the added value. If we had to set up an equation for the poor it would be: a little=a lot.

Is Africa suited for Solar Energy?

The introduction of solar ovens is a microsocial and –economical aspect but what I’ve been wondering about for the last week is if solar energy is also applicable to macroeconomic and -social facets. How can countries and continents benefit from African  solar energy?

Have a look at the following graph.

This map indubitably reveals the potential of solar energy in Africa. As you can see irradiance of the African continent is one of the world’s highest. Meghan Simonds writes about “Africa’s abundance of solar energy“. Though the whole continent seems to face extremely high irradiance, there are two spots that stand out. It’s the deserts. Besides the Kalahari desert which marks the dark spot in the south, it’s predominantely the Sahara that could become Africa’s powerhouse for solar energy. Dr. Gerhard Knies, co-founder of TREC, believes in deserts:

“we could meet the entire world’s energy needs by covering a fraction of the world’s deserts — just 0.5 percent — with concentrated solar power plants.”

The Foundation of Desertec

Knies’ research and assumptions eventually resulted in a project called Desertec. It’s aiming for a massive network of wind and solar farms that could connect to Europe via high voltage direct current transmission cables. “These cables are supposed to only lose 3% of their electricity per 1000km“, Charis Michelsen states.

An Unattainable Dream?

While others still regard Desertec as an unattainable dream, big companies such as E.ON or Siemens have joined the project establishing the Desertec Industrial Initiative (Dii). Especially after Germany has announced to dismantle its nuclear power plants, the project seems like the perfect solution in order to gain energy. Is it a German project?

“Yes, the initiative came from Germany. But there are 15 different nationalities involved, including companies such as HSBC and Morgan Stanley. This is just the start”,

Paul van Son, Dii’s CEO, answers.

It’s not a Walk in the Park!

Due to the harsh weather conditions in the desert, maintaining the troughs turns out to be the biggest problem the project has to face. High winds and sandstorms let the scientists hit problems. Bodo Becker, the operations manager at Flagsol, declares tough numbers:

“Due to the dusty conditions, we are witnessing about 2% degradation every day in performance, so we need to clean them daily. We use about 39 cubic metres of demineralised water each day for cleaning across the whole site.”

39 cubic metres, that equals 10.300 gallons of water which is  38.989 liter of water each day. Taking into consideration the general lack of water in deserts, this number seems unimaginable.

Exploitation or Mutual Benefit?

Although the project could be seen as the solution of one of the world’s biggest problems, it encounters resistance, especially by Africans. Daniel Ayuk Mbi Egbe of the African Network for Solar Energy points out why:

“Many Africans are sceptical [about Desertec],” he said. “[Europeans] make promises, but at the end of the day, they bring their engineers, they bring their equipment, and they go. It’s a new form of resource exploitation, just like in the past.”

Despite all that, the truth is Europe does benefit from Desertec, but so does every African country. Since the plans include a massive network, it seeks after a fair distribution of energy.

This project, to me, seems finally like a great and effective approach to cover the world’s demand with natural, sustainable energy. With time, new improvements and methods will contribute to a more effective and efficient production of solar energy which will in fact result in less waste and destruction.

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Solar Ovens in Africa – A Shining Business

Africa, a Continent of Superlatives

With an increasing population of about 1 billion which equals 15% of the world population and an area of 30.3 million km², Africa is a highly important and big part of our earth. The “poor continent” copes with huge difficulties and is basically depending on our help. More than 10% of its population suffer from malnutrition and only 0,8% receive food aid.

Money Can’t Solve all Problems

Facts like these, urged countries/organizations/companies and citizens to donate money for Africa. Who doesn’t know the signs and advertisments that call on us to grasp the nettle and donate money for Africa, money that often does everything but help. Money, that is abused by certain groups and people, that supports corruption and that is used desultorily. And even if the donations are used appropriately, there is still one thing they bring in their wake: NOTHING!

Because most donations are unsustainable, they might help a regional group of people to have something to eat, but it’s all temporary. They don’t decrease government expenses and in fact lead to a dependency and a decline in autonomy. Africa needs Sustainability, Tyler Suiters believed and went on a trip to South Africa where a new, sustainable form of help has been introduced : Solar Ovens

A Lack of Alternatives

Solar Ovens…to inhabitants of a developed country, it sounds like another green, hippie-like project that some might buy in order to ease their conscience. To the people in Africa, the meaning is totally different because their lacking in alternatives. In a place without any accessability to electricity but 320 days of sun per year, people, mostly farmers in rural areas, need to find another way to cook their daily meals. Sibbuseso Mkhize, a local farmer in Umbumbulu, South Africa, explains :”I use too much the wood, I cut it from all my area.

What’s the goal?

The goals and targets are clearly defined. Provide poor people in remoted, electrically isolated  villages, with a way to cook food tapping an abundant source of energy. By introducing solar ovens to the population you can not only reduce emissions but also give people a sustainable and reliable solution, which is easy to operate and does not take any deeper technological knowledge.

On the first day, the womean walk to the nearest place where wood can be gathered. On the second das, they search for firewood. The third day is spent carrying the wood on their backs home to the village – from Chad, Africa


Solar Cookers International East Africa Office - Number of Ovens per Organization in East Africa 2005-2010

Helping is not easy

It all started out of problems. It’s no wonder that every human needs food to survive. In order to cook you need energy. If you have no accessability to electricity or whatsoever, you use chopped wood to inflame a fire. The demand for wood in areas with a high population density is enormously high, which leads to a continuously progressing deforestation that results in a desertification. Another problem is the financing. In order to supply the regions with ovens, it takes money. We’re not talking about a few thousand affected people but many millions, some might be able to pay a small price but the majority is too poor.

How to Solve these Problems

To encounter the deforestation as well as the desertification and to create a more efficient way of cooking(which does not only include the actual cooking but also the acquisition of needed resources, such as wood and stones), scientists tried to find a sustainable solution and eventually ended up with the solar oven. The ovens only need sun which will safe time and resources, that can now be spent on equally essential activities/work. The non-profit organizations undoubtably depend on donations, government support or fundraising in order to finance the ovens.

Ways to Finance Sustainability

Hope reposes on the manufacturing costs which are comparatively low. “The solar cooker can be made for a cost of about $17“, David Chandler writes and reveals that it surely doesn’t take much to achieve something big. In addition, the Solar Cookers International organization has established a so called marketplace where people can purchase a solar oven and by that help financing projects. Emily Heskey adds that everyone is welcome to help financing solar oven projects. He also mentiones something that truly helps non-profit organizations. It’s the fact that it’s nowadays inevitable to implement environmental activities and sustainable thinking in a company’s corporate culture. Emile writes:

Many companies are keen to show their environmental credentials, which will mean that financing a project such as yours will be an attractive option.

Success or Failure?

So far the distribution of the solar ovens has been quite successful. According to Radha Muthiah, Executive Director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, there has been between 2.5 and 3 million households, all over the world, that have adopted solar cookers. She discloses the desirable numbers for the future “We’ve set a goal of a hundred million households adopting clean cooking solutions by the year 2020.” Mrs. Muthiah knows that it’s still a long way to go but it’s a start.

What a great Invention!

I mean, seriously, it’s such a plain idea, you just take a little bit of metal, have it face the sun and guess what, there is fire to cook. Though I think the distribution and expansion of solar cookers could have already been started way earlier, it’s great to see that it finally picks up pace. I think the more these approaches succeed, the more publicity and attention they’ll get. A lot of aspects currently fit in the concept as “thinking green” is more important than ever before and these cheap tools unquestionably prove themselves. Especially since Africa is probably the sunniest continent on earth, it’s highly effective and sustainable. What we should keep in mind though is that invention such as these cookers don’t solve the actual problem of getting food aid. It’s absolutely senseless to have an oven but nothing to cook.

At this point I would like to again reference donations. Obviously, as I’ve mentioned before, there is no way around donations. Now that I’ve dug deeper into the topic I would like to correct my statement. Donations are important and effective but donators should always question the flow of money. Supporting organizations that use the donated money to establish sustainable tools and machines, is a great way to help creating a brighter future for other people.

To end my post I would like to quote the Audubon Magazine that once wrote:

“The world can choose sunlight or further deforestation,
solar cooking or widespread starvation.” 

Africa – “Garbage Chute” of Western Mobiles

Making Money off the Poor!

For my last post I was searching the web for alternatives that are tantamount to Apple’s latest success Siri. While we are wondering about which speech recognition program works best, some people that by the way make up about 15% of the world’s total population still live in a, as we would consider it, technological stone age. Never been in touch with phones or whatsoever they surely got different issues than looking for voice control applications. I’m talking about Africa, a “garbage chute” for old, technologically rewind mobile phones that are in our “developed” countries anything but a profitable business.

Africa’s Mobile Revolution

“Africa is at the center of a mobile revolution”, writes Kilian Fox in The Guardian. According to his statistics there were “fewer than four million mobiles on the continent in 1998” which has gone up to 500 million today and is still rapidly growing every year. Mike Kujawski sets these numbers in relation with the total population of the continent. Taking his numbers into account 30% of Africa’s total population is already in possession of mobile devices that were predominately manufactured at little cost. This is where it’s becoming interesting.

The Aspiration for Technological Benefit!

Apparently the majority of the Africans are unable to afford Laptops, computers and other modern devices as ca. 50% of Africa’s total population still lives below the poverty line. But just like us these people want to benefit from electronic systems that make interpersonal communication and accessibility much easier. Due to their technological pre-stage some businessmen have struck gold and started buying cheap, obsolete mobile phones in our countries to sell them for an affordable price to the African population. Ken Banks has already introduced Spice Mobile which built “The People’s Phone” for India and rolled it out in Europe. Such plain phones offer an extremely narrow profit margin but open bright markets.

An Example

An example: Let’s assume we produce very simple mobile phones for average costs of €10. We speculate that out of 1.2million Africans, 900.000 people will buy our phone which we sell for only €20. Considering these numbers we could expect earnings of €9.000.000 with the possibility to expand our production to other continents and countries. Since the electronic development is an ongoing process companies can steadily “recycle” outdated phones and sell them in technologically backward countries.

The Future Goldmine

This concept refers to the so called “Long Tail”. It basically describes that selling a couple high-priced devices to a particular group of customers is just as profitable as providing plain, cheap phones for a poor but huge target group. Fox writes about a “booming industry” and though countries like India as well as the African continent have already been introduced to such phones it’s still seen as a future goldmine.