Most people underestimate the size of Africa. Made up of 54 sovereign states, it’s the same size as China, India, Europe, and the US combined. But no single country is the same. It’s home to the longest river in the world (the Nile), the largest hot desert in the world (the Sahara) and over 2,000 different languages.
Siemens biggest work in Africa is power. Not just power plants, but all the many ways of generating and transmitting energy. Sabine Dall’Omo is the CEO of Siemens Southern and Eastern Africa, but she’s also responsible for Nigeria and Ghana in the west, Zimbabwe in the center, and islands off the coast such as Madagascar.
But while cities such as Cape Town in South Africa are modern, metropolitan places, other countries are still lacking much-needed infrastructure. In sub-Saharan Africa, in some places only two in five people have access to a reliable source of electricity. According to the World Bank, some countries are at a crisis point; without electricity, school children can’t read at night, hospitals can’t refrigerate medicines, and businesses can’t grow.
Why power generating microgrids help us to be human
Sabine has worked for the company for over 25 years, starting her career in Germany before moving to the US and China. “Look at anywhere in the world and you’ll find that whatever people do that makes them human is powered by electricity,” she says. “Development in Africa isn’t about GDP, it’s about humanly connected services. One thing people forget is that you need electricity to pump water, and that’s the next big issue facing Africans — the availability of water.”
There are solutions to Africa’s problem. Microgrids are a hot topic in Europe and America. Seen as the next step in renewable energy, they are small networks of people, business, and public services all hooked up to a source of power independent from the national grid. In Brooklyn, New York, Siemens in the US has been piloting a microgrid made up of solar panels, where consumers sell excess solar power to their neighbors. It’s seen as being cutting-edge and step away toward a localized supply of power.
Reliable and cheap energy is a high priority for the continent. Utilities are generally a state-run enterprise in many African countries and politicians often run for office by campaigning for greater access to electricity. “Electricity in whatever form is a winner in elections,” says Sabine. “Everybody wants it. Not just for cell phones and TVs, but for businesses, too. We live in a global world and in order for Africa to compete in a global market it needs to be part of the global chain.”
On a global scale, if you look at which countries trade with each other, Africa doesn’t play nearly as bigger role as it could. “For many, Africa is essentially used for resources but it doesn’t feed back into the lifecycle of products,” she says. “Minerals like oil are shipped off elsewhere and become part of the global value chain and come back as a finished product.”
Reliable electricity is unlocking Africa’s entrepreneurial spirit
The reason goods don’t always feed back into the chain isn’t ideological — it’s practical. Lack of reliable infrastructure makes investmenting in new businesses risky. Despite that, Africa is a hotbed of good ideas. In 2015, a British index named Africa as one of the world’s most entrepreneurial places. According to Harvard Business Review, one of the reasons for the continent’s entrepreneurial spirit goes right back to the Great Recession.
When Africans based in the US lost their jobs, many of them returned home with an incredible array of technical and managerial skills, as well as a wealth of global networks. Today, many of the continent’s governments are keen to invest in its young business opportunities. “Africa is 25% of the world’s population,” says Sabine. “And we have the youngest population.” This combination of creative-minded young people and potential could make Africa the next big business hub.
But none of that is possible without access to cheap, reliable electricity. And in Africa, that’s no easy feat. The main reason for the lack of power generating infrastructure comes down to geography. Transmitting electricity from a power station to remote areas isn’t just impractical, it’s pretty much impossible. “We’ve got long distances and very few customers residing along the lines,” explains Sabine. “But you need industry demand to make overhead lines feasible.”
Crossing a desert or cutting through a rainforest was never an option
Imagine overhead lines crossing the Sahara Desert, the Sahel belt (spanning the Atlantic to the Red Sea), the savannah, rainforest, great lakes and Ethiopian highlands. “If you wanted to have power coming from Lake Victoria coming down to Nairobi you would need to cross the Serengeti,” says Sabine. “Not only is this an incredible distance, but you also have conservation issues. You’d probably have to bypass certain areas, which would make the lines even longer.”
Distance doesn’t impact the quantity, it also affects the quality. Extreme heat, like the type faced in certain parts of Africa, can cause technical losses in overhead lines. Between thousands of miles of infrastructure and surplus loss through weather conditions, by the time electricity reaches the user it’s too expensive for them to afford. “In Africa, a lot of people live on under $1 to $2 per day,” says Sabine. “So they can’t always afford electricity. That means we had to find a solution that matches their needs.” On top of that, you also have to get different countries to work together on these large-scale projects. “A lot of African countries are defined by their beliefs,” says Sabine. “The 54 different main languages, customs and currencies don’t help when it comes to working with a globalized market.”
With all these issues a one-size-fits-all solution was never going to work, so Siemens had to think of a localized solution it could roll out across different countries. But the municipalities, utilities, and even governments can’t bankroll all the necessary infrastructure, so it had to come up with an alternative. “Electricity is something the people are willing to pay for,” says Sabine. “We just had to come up with a piece of technology that both businesses and individuals could finance.”
How Africa leapfrogged to the forefront of innovation
Thanks to an abundance of new technologies overhead lines aren’t the only solution to transmitting power. And Africans are some of the most receptive communities to new innovations. The continent was one of the first examples of leapfrogging; when an area uses technology in a totally new way because they’re not confined to an old technology. “Africa and mobile phones is a great example of leapfrogging. In Europe, you had landlines then cell phones. Everyone used cell phones just as they would landlines because that’s what they were used to. But in Africa, that’s totally different. We just went straight to cell phones. It meant we were quicker to adapt to things like mobile banking.”
It comes down to ensuring business, governments and people all work together
Just as Africa leapfrogged telephones lines to go mobile, it looks like the continent is set to do that same with power. “Microgrids are the ideal solution of Africans because they’re designed for a specific purpose, be it communities or industry,” says Sabine. “But it also means you can have diverse power supplies, such as part-solar or wind during the day, then switch over to diesel fire or biomass when the conditions for renewables are poor.”
Siemens provides all the technology around the transformers and the units that connect to the grid. It doesn’t require extra funds from the government because essentially, the consumers pay for it themselves. Every country has a different legal framework, but unlike governments elsewhere, the privatization of energy is seen as a welcome prospect. “A business might set one up to ensure it has a reliable source of power,” says Sabine. “But it also means local services and households can link up to the systems, creating a small-scale grid. If the government doesn’t have the funds to establish a larger power generator, this is a way for them do it.”