Power and Bandwidth in Africa

africaThe Economist has issued an excellent report on technology in Africa, including the ways the continent may leapfrog traditional technologies in order to accelerate development.

A few sobering statistics from the report stand out. Around 2/3 of Africans have no reliable access to electricity. The UN estimates that 620 million Africans have no power. In many African countries having lights for schools or refrigeration for clinics is out of the question.  The World Bank estimates that lack of electricity costs the continent 2% in GDP growth per year.

The situation is equally challenging with respect to connectivity. In the poorest countries, less than 5% of the population has access to the internet. Data costs are still often ten times as expensive as in developed countries. Researchers estimate that every 10% of increase in connectivity could result in 1% per year growth in GDP.

As one Kenyan entrepreneur puts it, “You cannot have a 21st century economy without power and connectivity — but if you have those, you can do almost anything else”.

Fortunately, new technologies are making major inroads in Africa for both power and connectivity.

The falling cost of renewable energy has allowed small-scale solar to become more widely adopted, providing individual homes with light, a fan, and cell charger. New “paygo” financing schemes allow users to pay each day rather than investing in equipment up front. “Mini-grids” powering individual villages are also becoming more prevalent.

With respect to connectivity, new data cables are greatly lowering the cost of data on the continent. Smartphones continue to drop in price. New telecommunications approaches are also spreading, such as using wifi networks rather than cell networks to provide connectivity.

All of these trends promise to accelerate. Renewables continue to drop in price, and connectivity will expand greatly in coming years. Africa will witness remarkable changes in the coming decade.

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