access to electricityA common joke in Nigeria is that the acronym NEPA, for the National Electric Power Authority, actually stands for “Never Expect Power Always.” Indeed, less than half of people in Nigeria have access to electricity, and even people who do have power frequently get it for only a few hours per day. The government has estimated that lack of access to electricity costs the economy more than $29 billion each year.

“I cannot help but wonder how many medical catastrophes have occurred in public hospitals because of ‘no light,’ how much agricultural produce has gone to waste, how many students forced to study in stuffy, hot air have failed exams, how many small businesses have foundered,” writes Booker Prize-winning Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. “What greatness have we lost, what brilliance stillborn?”

Post-Colonization and Lack of Electricity

Nigeria is not the only African nation to suffer from electricity shortages. In the last few months, Ethiopia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe have all rationed electricity due to shortages. Difficulties with providing access to electricity are common in post-colonial countries. Colonization made countries poorer in general, due to the exploitative relationships between colonized nations and their colonizers. For instance, on the eve of its independence from Britain in 1945, India’s GDP per capita was lower than it was in 1600. This theft of resources has made it more difficult for post-colonial nations to invest in electrification. And even when colonial powers did implement electric grids, they frequently only bothered to electrify areas populated by colonists and settlers, rather than the native population, according to a 2018 study by Ute Hasenöhrl, a professor of history at the University of Innsbruck.

Finding Solutions

Luckily, there are solutions to these problems. A study by a team of researchers, led by Dr. Samuel Ayokunle Olowosejeje, at University College Cork found that switching Nigeria’s electric grid to solar energy could make it significantly easier to distribute electricity by reducing costs. In particular, the study found that switching to solar could reduce costs by up to 132 percent.

Even if resources can’t be invested in traditional electric grids, new technology provides opportunities to electrify in new ways. Prof. Hasenöhrl gives the example of an initiative by the government of Bangladesh that has provided almost four million people in rural areas with home solar panel systems. These allow people to enjoy the benefits of electricity without requiring as much investment in infrastructure.

The initiative in Bangladesh, called Solar Home Systems (SHS), has had a big impact: 12 percent of the population – more than one out of every ten people in Bangladesh – have benefited from the plan, according to an evaluation of the program by the Centre for Public Impact. Before the beginning of SHS in 2003, a common method that some people in rural Bangladesh used to light their homes was kerosene lamps, which are expensive to power and produce relatively little light in comparison to electric lighting. The Centre for Public Impact report also highlighted how the program’s engagement with existing grassroots community organizations was key to providing legitimacy to the project. The organizations’ pedigree helped overcome initial skepticism on the part of many rural residents.

Harnessing the Sun

Dr. Olowosejeje also points to solar panels for individual households, in addition to more traditional grid-based solar energy, as a potentially beneficial move in Nigeria. “[S]olar-based power generation…is the most technically feasible and cost-effective solution to the challenge of extending electricity to 80 million people [in Nigeria] who are currently without access to energy,” he writes. In addition, solar panels could even be a source of income: “Renewable technologies could also help to develop an electricity market where those producing surplus energy can sell it to those who have a shortfall.”

The damage wrought by colonialism has made it difficult for many countries to create adequate electrical grids. The recent spate of electricity rationing in several African nations is just one example of this problem. However, the good news is that solutions exist. One of them is single-home solar electricity systems. These systems can provide access to electricity, overcome the limitations of traditional power grids, and even create an additional revenue stream to help struggling families by enabling them to sell electricity to others.

– Sean Ericson
Photo: Flickr