Out of Africa: Alternative lighting

The World Bank keeps raising the curtain on an unusual campaign to stimulate alternative and non-traditional sources of ''off-grid'' electricity for Africans. The World Bank''s ''Lighting Africa'' initiative held its first business development conference last week, in Accra Ghana. The conference is the latest move by the initiative to link private businesses with African partners in the area of ''off-grid'' electricity '' solar, small hydro, wind, geothermal and other self-contained systems.

The campaign is a big departure for the World Bank, which for decades has loaned money '' or helped back loans '' to national governments who built large generating capacity for national grid networks. These networks, by their nature, are large, centralized and relatively expensive. Even worse, in most African countries these networks have failed to reach large parts of the population.

Off-grid networks are potentially a boon for rural Africans, most of whom live so far from national electric grids that they have no hope of receiving a connection, ever. By building and managing their own small grids '' to create enough power for villages or even single schools or hospitals '' rural Africans can get a more secure supply of electricity '' and less expensively and more under their own control. The barrier is both financial, managerial and technical. Rural Africans and small communities often lack the money and expertise to run these systems (though many are simple enough to be easily maintained by locals.

Trying to mediate between rural Africans and their small community institutions, on the one, and the international market for alternative energy services, on the other, is new ground for the World Bank. Why far-flung alternative energy companies, interested in small projects in remote Africa, would do business with the World Bank is an open question. But the experiment is well conceived, responds to a huge need and has great potential as a learning experience, if nothing else. In short, this experiment is worth watching. If it succeeds '' or it other institutions can do the same thing more effectively '' the potential for rural Africa is staggering. No single technological input is more important in rural Africa than electricity; and because these communities are decentralized, the electricity solution can be too.

Worth noting also is the potential PR windfall for the World Bank. Usually to finance large-scale national grid systems, the bank must cozy up to authoritarian rulers in Africa. The ''Lighting Africa'' initiative helps burnish the World Bank''s ''green'' image and also presents this large bureaucratic institution as looking out for Africa''s little guys. So even the PR value alone of the initiative is substantial.


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