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Lighting African households with smartphones

The Senegalese village of Niomoune
The Senegalese village of Niomoune Florian Coat

Households in Senegal could soon be able to light their homes using their mobile phones. Two French start-up companies have come up with a new streetlighting system using a smart card which will allow Africans to prepay their electricity. The product called the Nanogrid aims to wean Africans away from traditional polluting sources like kerosene to solar power on a continent where 900 million people don't have access to electricity. 


It doesn't yet exist, but already the Nanogrid is whipping up enthusiasm among tech geeks and pan-African companies. At its launch in Paris on Friday morning, it had already reached 18 per cent of the 100,000 euros needed to get it up and running.

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Nanogrid is a mini-electricity grid connected to a solar street lamp, able to wire up eight households at any one time.

Solar street lamps have been available for several years now and are mainly used in rural villlages cut off from the electricity grid.

So this product is not new. What is, is its prepaid system. Households will be provided with an electricity box with a smart card inside, enabling them to basically pay as they go.

"Each household will be equipped with LED [light emitting diode] bulbs - which will replace their recent way of lighting - which was candles, torch lights or kerosene that are very harmful and inefficient for the environment," says Thomas Samuel, creator of the project and head of the French start-up Sunna Design.

"We bring light in a more efficient manner,  furthermore what is very much needed, a way to recharge cell phones."

Cell phones are as common in South Africa and Nigeria as they are in the United States.

Some 80 per cent of Africans all have a mobile phone, particularly in rural areas, and many use their mobile phones to send and transfer money. So why not allow them to top up energy? That's the philosophy behind Sunna Design's Nanogrid.

But 100,000 euros is needed by the end of the year to enable the company to light up 500 households in Senegal.

The aim of the product launch on Friday was to encourage investors to participate. The startup, which is partnering up with leading Crowdlending company Lendosphere, is asking people to lend money to the project that it promises to repay with a six per cent interest rate.

Two hundred euros is needed to wire up one household over a three-year period. Families pay 20 cents per day - instead of the current 40 cents for kerosene gas lamps and other traditional energy sources - and by the end of the three years, investors get their money back.

For Charles Agueh, head of the renewable company Asper, off-the-grid projects such as Sunna Design are economic good sense.

“When you look at our rural areas, particularly in Senegal, you have more than 60 per cent of villages with less than 500 inhabitants," he says. "So the idea of installing a large power station and digging up power lines to connect the population to the grid is preposterous – economically it’s not viable and it’s incredibly expensive for the operator doing the job."

Africans stand to gain a lot from the project, according to Sud Solar System director Alpha Barry, who is in charge of commercialising the Nano grid.

"This project will permit Senegalese to have nice life," he says. "It will permit population to have light, have mobile phone, watch television. Without light it's not possible."

And if the price tag looks a bit steep, Fabrice Le Saché, head of Ecosur Afrique, suggests dipping into the carbon market to cover the shortfall.

"The street-lighting solar solution can benefit from carbon credits because it avoids the CO2 emissions released in the atmosphere," he insists. "The scenario before the implementation of the project is the use in most of households of kerosene. Kerosene is a source of CO2 emissions, so if we substitue the kerosene source with a solar solution we can get carbon credits, one carbon credit for each ton of CO2 avoided."

In these times of heightened environmental awareness with the Cop21 Paris climate conference just around the corner, innovative solutions like prepaid street lighting for Africans may find a willing audience.

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