The hidden digital divide: Energy consumption and infrastructure

By | April 29, 2012
Photocredit: Niti Bhan, Maua, Kenya Feb 2012

This is an ironbox. It is heated by placing glowing embers of charcoal inside and securing the lid. When hot, it is used to iron clothes. Variations of this design can be seen in use across India’s urban centers where the isteriwallah plies his trade, ironing clothes for a few paise a piece or available for sale in shops in Iloilo City, The Phillipines. The concept remains the same.

This ironbox caught my eye in the North Meru town of Maua in Kenya. It was available for sale at an electrical and electronics store which otherwise displayed colour television sets, home stereo systems and more. Why would a charcoal powered primitive device like this be sold in a modern store like that?

For one, the most common source of electricity to power the home are solar systems and the energy source is far too weak to run a regular iron. And if there’s electricity, then power consuming appliances like irons and immersion water heaters are avoided to save money on the bill.

I’ve covered this aspect of gaps in the infrastructure before but as a driver for innovation. Today, this scarcity acts as a barrier to growth for high tech innovation, an aspect better captured by this interview with a Ghanaian startup founder:

What are some of the challenges you face running a startup in Africa?

  1. Inadequate infrastructural base. For software startups, internet connectivity is inadequate compared to the U.S. This means entrepreneurs have to spend more time doing research and software programming. Even where there is internet, it’s expensive and comes with low bandwidth.
  2. Shortage in energy supply. Startups that can’t afford standby energy generators lose productive hours anytime there is power outage (which is consistent in most countries in Africa).
  3. Low capital investment. Bootstrapping in Africa is not easy and angel investor funding is non-existent. There are a few venture funds but they aren’t adequate enough to meet the demand of startups. In addition, the terms are not favorable for most startups who want to access these funds. Worst of all, financial institutions like the banks charge high interest rates for loans making it difficult for startups to have financial stability.

When something so basic as to be taken for granted by startup founders most everywhere else in the world is considered a challenging barrier for African entreprenuers, it may as well be a digital chasm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.