Illuminating The Flow: Electricity & Water Access In Rural Africa

We live in an era in which electricity powers progress and connectivity, and as disheartening as it is to acknowledge, large areas of rural Africa remain cloaked in darkness, cut off from the transformative potential of electrification. However, there is hope in the form of renewable energy argues Asher Westropp-Evans, a communications specialist and innovation: Africa contributor.

In a hot, dimly lit room Deborah huddles around the flame of a small candle to illuminate her books. Living in a small village in rural Tanzania that has no electricity, Deborah spends the vast majority of her day walking for miles in the search for potable water. When she does find time to study it is often late at night, and exhausted, she must face the struggle of doing her schoolwork by candlelight. Sadly, her story is not unique. Young boys and girls in rural Tanzania join millions in communities across the continent where the absence of adequate resources and the inability to access infrastructure have a significant impact on lives. And yet, the situation is far from hopeless, as today there are solutions standing ready, along with those who have the power and resources to implement them.

Understanding the Subsistence Existence

While much of the world strides forward into a future lit by technological advancements, Sub-Saharan Africa is left grappling with the fundamental challenge of having no access to basic electricity. It is the world’s least electrified continent leaving nearly 600 million people in the dark. Nearly 60% of all healthcare facilities in Africa do not have access to reliable electricity for lights, essential medical equipment or vaccine refrigerators. In rural areas, a visit to a clinic often requires an arduous journey by foot.

A lack of electricity stifles economic growth, hinders educational opportunities, and perpetuates the cycle of poverty. Without electricity, children struggle to study after sunset, clinics are unable to provide necessary medical care, and critically, the capacity to access and maintain clean water is severely limited. All of which spreads the risk of preventable diseases, a challenge that has largely been overcome in the developed world but remains all too palpable for children like Deborah. 

While there is a clear need to address this fundamental issue so that people can fulfil their most basic needs and break free from a subsistence cycle, the means to do so are often characterized as fraught and unachievable without systemic, state-level change. Many times, efforts from governments, international organizations, and the private sector get choked in red tape and can take time to move forward, leading all too often to stagnation. 

Accordingly, the first step towards addressing this issue is recognizing that there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Each region presents unique challenges, from geographic barriers to

limited financial resources. However, despite these roadblocks, there are strategies and key resources that have proven effective across a range of contexts. 

Bridging the Energy Gap through Innovation

Scalable and affordable renewable energy sources, which make the most of one of Africa’s most ubiquitous and abundant resources – the Sun – are increasingly available. Solar power holds great promise for rural electrification. Africa’s abundant sunlight and wind patterns can be harnessed to provide reliable and sustainable energy and can be achieved without the need for substantial capital investments typically associated with these types of interventions. 

While many have spoken at length of the need for such projects for decades, today there are a select few that are actively implementing solutions that are having tangible impact on communities. Spearheading much of the development in this field is innovation: Africa, which has to date brought light and access to clean water to over 940 villages across 10 African countries, all of which has directly helped over 4.4 million people across the continent.

However, the real power of our solar project lies in our two-pronged approach which utilises both cutting edge technology and grassroots community empowerment as a solution to the underlying condition of rural poverty. We do not simply give communities access to solar; we manage a consistent and repeatable process of establishing a well, tapping into underground aquifers with solar powered pumps that provide ready access to clean, lifegiving water. And that solar capacity doesn’t end with water. We then further extend the use of that abundant, renewable solar energy to provide electricity to a medical center or school. The ripple effects of the installation are virtually limitless.

But simply establishing a project is not enough, as these facilities need to sustain a community long after they are established. Education and access to information is such a crucial aspect of ensuring long-term success and communities need to understand the significance of electricity and clean water and understand the transformative potential in enhancing their quality of life.   Knowledge dissemination, along with training programs to maintain and repair energy systems, can empower locals to take charge of their own electrification. 

The foundation of our approach is to establish a strong connection with the village leadership to foster collaboration. The community then identifies important facilities like schools and health centres that should be incorporated into the system design. From the placement of taps, to digging trenches, to security along the pipe pathway, community members are taught critical skills to become essential partners in completing the project and a sense of ownership is fostered, thereby enhancing the project’s long-term sustainability.

Having the local community involved in the installation of their own water system allows them to be familiar with it, be able to preserve it, manage its operation and perform simple maintenance work. This in turn ensures long term success and sustainability and increases the community’s sense of ownership over it. We can then walk away leaving an empowered community who are able to take their future into their own hands and create a sustainable and efficient ecosystem of growth.

The work we do proves that with a relatively small investment, these 19th century problems have 21st century solutions, and children like Deborah and millions of others will no longer be left in the dark. There are resources that quite literally empower communities at every level, and it is the responsibility of government to introduce policy frameworks that include the use of renewable energy. From there we can begin to create the sort of systemic change that was, until recently, thought to be only a pipe dream for those in these often-forgotten rural areas. 

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