Powering Africa: It Takes a Smart Village

IEEE Foundation program helps entrepreneurs bring renewable energy to their communities

4 min read
Photo of a man standing near a solar panel.
IEEE Smart Village

Of the 20 countries with the lowest supplies of electricity in the world, 19 are in sub-Saharan Africa, where on average fewer than one in three people have electricity. Instead, for light, they use candles and kerosene lamps, which are harmful to their health. And once the wax or fuel runs out, they sit in darkness. According to a 2014 report from the International Energy Agency, growing the energy sector in that region would be the key to its prosperity.

IEEE Smart Village—formerly the IEEE Community Solutions Initiative—has some bold ideas on how to bring electricity to millions while also providing jobs to the community. It is a signature program of the IEEE Foundation, which provides funds for projects that can yield an immediate, and broad, impact and are sustainable over the long term.

Smart Village members work with local entrepreneurs in several countries, including Cameroon and Nigeria, to help them set up micro-utilities, using renewable energy technology like solar panels to power nearby homes, businesses, and schools. Depending on resources, they could serve dozens of customers or up to tens of thousands, charging them a monthly fee comparable to the cost of kerosene and candles.

IEEE grants the initial investment for buying the equipment, as well as providing mentoring and training. So far, since development of the micro-utilities began in 2011, the program has supplied electricity to some 15,000 people.

“Our goal is to provide electricity for 50 million people in 10 years, and that’s conservative,” says IEEE Fellow Robin Podmore, cofounder of IEEE Smart Village. He believes it’s doable because the right entrepreneurs and partners are out there. He adds that in the last few years, philanthropists and investors have realized that helping locals form their own businesses is the key to lifting them out of poverty, and is far more sustainable and effective than donations alone.


The earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 was the genesis for what was then IEEE’s Community Solutions Initiative. IEEE volunteers, moved by the disaster, worked to develop a reliable source of low-cost electricity there. They came up with the SunBlazer community charging stations.

Photo of children holding signs.Children in Nigeria show their appreciation for IEEE Smart Village, which has brought clean energy and electricity to their community.IEEE Smart Village

Using six silicon photovoltaic 250-watt solar panels, the trailer can collect more than 4 kilowatt-hours of energy per day, enough to charge 80 portable battery packs. These packs can then be used to power LED light bulbs and are equipped with USB ports to charge cellphones—which many in remote regions now depend on for exchanging money as well as for education and health services. Locals pay US $6.50 a month for unlimited charging.

Since then, community charging stations have been set up not only in Haiti but also in Cameroon, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Sudan. IEEE volunteers help train operators to install the technology and mentor them on how to run a profitable business, including managing payments from their customers. In Cameroon, for example, IEEE Smart Village formed a partnership with the Torchbearers Foundation, which provides electric systems to their communities. It is starting a school to train entrepreneurs on assembling the SunBlazer systems locally.

And in Nigeria, entrepreneurs have built microgrids, lighting up nearby homes and businesses from a single solar energy source. To accomplish this, they used traditional electrical wiring to connect multiple customers within a limited geographic area. They are all able to power their homes at the same time.

Another innovation being tested through IEEE Smart Village includes LightCycle, a pedal-powered generator that connects a bicycle to a 12-V DC generator. One hour of pedaling can produce 40 watt-hours of power and can be stored in portable battery packs for customers to use.

Currently, IEEE Smart Village is helping to support efforts in South Sudan with entrepreneur Mou Riiny, a former refugee from that war-torn country. Riiny was brought to the United States as a child and was raised by foster families. He earned an electrical engineering degree from the University of San Diego. He recently returned to his village, Thiou, where he is installing 13 community charging stations powered by solar panels. Each station will serve 100 portable battery kits. They will be up and running later this year.


Local entrepreneurs will be able to apply to get funding through the IEEE Smart Village website in late 2015. Applicants must submit a detailed business plan, which includes how they will make their utilities sustainable after IEEE’s initial contribution. They also must describe how their profits will be reinvested in the local communities and create jobs.

“Providing electricity can help others in the community to form businesses and allow existing ones to stay open longer, which will help shopkeepers and farmers sell goods into the evening,” Podmore says. “By creating jobs, we’re preventing people from having to leave their families and villages to make money.”

The tide is turning, he adds. Instead of leaving, people are now moving to remote regions in Africa to start businesses, particularly in the power and energy sector. “There is just far less competition and a lot of opportunity,” he says. “By changing people’s lives, it’s not unfair for entrepreneurs to make some profit.”

This article is part of our February 2015 special report on Global Development, which highlights IEEE’s efforts in using technology to help advance developing and underserved regions.

This article is also part of our September 2015 special report on startups, which highlights IEEE’s efforts to attract more entrepreneurial types to the organization.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.