Out of Africa: Giant air conditioners

For the first time in five year I'm back in Accra, Ghana, the pearl of Angolophone West Africa. The biggest change I see in Ghana's capital city is the proliferation of giant, seven-foot tall air conditioners.

That's right. Accra is the new Houston. Parts of the U.S. -- Vegas, Phoenix, Sacramento -- were only fully domesticated with the advent of relatively effective and efficient air conditioning. Yet the cooling technology that ignited the boom in the Sun Belt came during a long economic expansion in what once was the world's richest country. The arrival of super-duper air conditioners in Accra illustrates widening inequality in a relatively poor African country that is also home to a thin elite that wants creature comforts.

To be sure, Accra is hot, but the giant air conditioners are designed to do more than offer respite from tropical temperatures. The other night I ate dinner in Papaye, a marvelous local chicken-and-rice restaurant in the city's fashionable Osu district. Papaye has a posh clientele; main courses costs upwards of seven U.S. dollars. Five years ago, the restaurant relied on fans and small air conditioners. Now four large wall-size units blast out cool air, so aggressively that napkins blow off tables and hair styles wave in the wind.

The idea isn't to keep people cool but rather to send a message of opulence. These elite diners can afford irrationally powerful air conditioning.

Mega-AC may be limited to the top tier of Accra society, yet these are the very people who lead. By consuming so much electricity in pursuit of status cool, these new African rich are making harder the task of promoting energy efficiency in their countries. And Ghana, as well as most other African countries, face serious shortages of electricity.

There may be other subtle damage from super-cool AC. On Thursday, the day before I visited Papaye, I gave a lecture at the University of Ghana. As students and faculty filed into a long rectangular room, someone switched on the air conditioners. I suddenly felt a cold blast of air. Or rather two of them.

I was, I realized, caught between the crossfire of dueling air conditioners. Freezing,

Before I began my lecture, I asked that the AC go off.

People murmured and squirmed in their seats. There was silence. Then a single intrepid student rose and objected. He wanted to the AC to stay on.

I over-ruled him, the privilege of the visitor lecturer, I insisted.

When he complained again, I made my final comment on the matter. â''You will listen more carefully to me if you are hot and sweaty,â'' I said. â''Suffering concentrates the mind.â''

The room erupted in laughter â'' nervous laughter.

Thereâ''s a listen here about how social reality and human invention co-exist, and not always easily.


Tech Talk

IEEE Spectrum’s general technology blog, featuring news, analysis, and opinions about engineering, consumer electronics, and technology and society, from the editorial staff and freelance contributors.

Newsletter Sign Up

Sign up for the Tech Alert newsletter and receive ground-breaking technology and science news from IEEE Spectrum every Thursday.