How the Green Mobile Revolution Can Help Rural Africa

Developing Telecoms’ Africa blogger Tom Makau takes a look at how operators’ excess power can be used for the benefit of rural communities in Africa...

The African continent is endowed with numerous natural resources that can be used to generate electricity, such as big rivers, geothermal wells, strong year-round winds and sunshine. This would lead us to assume that the continent is able to meet its electric power needs by having in place enough generating capacity and an extensive electric power distribution grid. However, as this famous NASA photo of the continents at night shows, Africa is still a ‘dark’ continent as far as the availability and use of electric power is concerned.

The ongoing mobile telecommunication revolution in Africa is happening at a faster rate than the growth of the various national grids. This means that many mobile operators are using off-grid power sources to power their network growth in Africa. The majority of base stations run by mobile operators are primarily powered by diesel-fueled generators. Even in areas covered by the electric power grid - such as cities and major towns - the reliability and quality of electric power supplied is wanting, and operators still have to run standby generators to supplement the grid supplied power. The power situation is some cities such as Lagos is so bad that on average the backup generator runs over 40% of the time.

This situation makes African mobile operators some of the largest independent power generation entities in Africa, second only to power utility companies. The rapid expansion of mobile network coverage means that these operators have no time or money to consider the use of more efficient electricity sources such as solar and wind. The result is that the carbon foot print of a mobile user in Africa is larger than that of users in more developed countries - a one minute call on an African mobile network does more harm to the environment than a similar call from a network in a more developed region of the world such as the US and Europe.

The need for Africa operators to ‘go green’ is therefore paramount to reducing their operating costs in this age of ever decreasing ARPU.

Several operators in Africa have pledged to reduce their CO2 emissions by adopting more sustainable sources of power for their base stations.  The Vodafone group has said that it will reduce its CO2 emissions by about 50% by 2020 (from the 2006/07 baseline). Orange/France Telecom which has operations in several African countries has also announced something similar. The operator will reduce CO2 emissions for the group by 20% below its 2006 levels by 2020. South Africa’s MTN Group - which also has pan-African operations - is a signatory of the Copenhagen communiqué on climate change, and has released its first group carbon disclosure project report in 2010.

In addition to these initiatives, African operators can also now trade in carbon credits in exchange for adopting more environmentally friendly power sources for their base stations. Due to the complexity of trading in carbon credits, the South Africa-based Nedbank Capital has developed a simpler carbon credit scheme targeting African mobile operators who go green. This scheme will make it easier for the operators to make additional revenue through the credits and at the same time reduce their operating costs.

In addition to these initiatives, mobile operators that generate excess power in their rural base stations are being encouraged to distribute this power to the surrounding villages for lighting and mobile phone charging. During the 2011 EastAfricaCom conference, I sat on the same panel as Declan Murphy - the founder of the Ecology foundation, which is working with African mobile operators to find ways of going green.

Many mobile operators that generate excess power are working with NGOs to make a difference to the lives of local people. For example, one NGO partners with operators to store critical vaccines in a refrigerator situated at a base station – in much of rural Africa, this would be the only place with a reliable electricity supply. In this way, operators are able to aid the rural communities in which they are active.

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