Africa Express: A Different Breed of Alternative Energy

Guest post by Rosie Spinks

Hear the words ‘alternative energy in Africa’ and you might think of a massive solar plant somewhere in the expanse of the Sahara desert, churning out electricity courtesy of the relentless African sun without a human being in sight.

While that image isn’t entirely inaccurate—construction on the behemoth North African Desertec project began last year in Morocco and is expected to supply 15% of European’s electricity by 2050—it doesn’t involve the group of people that stand to benefit most from alternative energy in Africa: citizens of the continent themselves.

A new project called Africa Express, being carried out by Frenchmen Jeremy Debreu and Claire Guibert with support from the UN Environment Programme (UNEP), is bringing attention to a different breed of alternative energy on the continent, one where Africans who lack access to energy are the main beneficiaries.

For a period of ten months, the pair are traveling 20,000 km through 23 countries using trains and buses to survey a range of alternative energy projects. From a community refrigeration project in northern Senegal to a massive hydroelectric dam in Morocco, the size and nature of the projects differ, though they all have one notable in common.

“Africa Express aims to promote energy projects with good practices that are intended to benefit Africans,” Guibert said. “We are not only talking about renewable energy, but with the access to energy to people at the base of the pyramid.”

The United Nations named 2012 as the year of International Sustainability for All, hence the organization’s support of the project, but it’s notable that some of the high profile sponsors of Africa Express are not exactly names you would associate with alternative energy. In addition to the non-industry sponsors of the UNEP and the African Development Bank, energy industry giants EDF energy and Schneider Electric are listed as main backers. Asked how he would respond to criticism from environmentalists on this point, Debreu explained the logic behind the involvement of such large energy corporations.

“It is true that part of the business model of Schneider Electric or EDF is based on fossil fuels and [conventional energy sources],” Debreu said. “But for them, access to energy is more and more linked to the development of sustainable energy and new development models. This is a strategic answer for them for different reasons.”

Guibert also added that the 18 projects they are visiting were chosen independently and without input from their sponsors. After mapping the train routes and existing transport networks they would use to get around the continent, the pair consulted a panel of experts to select roughly 20 projects from 100 potential options. The selection criteria was based on economic, social and environmental benefits, impact on biodiversity, and replicability.

Guibert and Debreu are planning to produce a documentary and a white paper outlining the findings of their trip, which they hope will show what kinds of projects are successful and fill a notable void of research about alternative energy on the continent. They also maintain that central to the ethos of their project is the idea that the model of NGOs and foreign aid fixing Africa’s problems is not effective.

The most successful projects so far, they say, are those that train the local population to become contributors to the project and not just beneficiaries, that have support of local authorities, and have a self-sustaining business plan rather than an expectation of long-term aid.

“The biggest challenge is actually to understand that a centralized electricity network over [a whole] country is not the solution everywhere, especially in countries where there are a lot of little rural villages,” Debreu said. “That is why we think that generally, projects developed by NGOs without any local implementation are going to fail.”

A highlight of the trip so far has been the “ecovillages program” initiated by the Senegalese government. Far from the tourist resort that the name suggests, the 21 villages already initiated in the scheme form de-centralized electricity networks, which are using small-scale solar charging stations and bio-digestors in rural areas which the national energy company can’t yet afford to electrify.

Debreu and Guibert are also excited about the level of social entrepreneurship they have seen, such as individuals engineering improved cookstoves and briquettes as an alternative to wood for fuel.

A rural cooperative they visited in Burkina Faso was able to meet local demand for energy just one year after opening by offering training to local technicians, which meant problems could be solved easily when they arose.

“It’s very important not only to consider that alternative energy is benefiting lives, but also to take into account individual and ongoing training before and after the installation.”

You can follow the progress of Africa Express on Facebook and Twitter.

* Rosie Spinks is a London-based freelance journalist. Her work has been featured in publications including Sierra magazine, GOOD magazine, The Ecologist, Urban Times, EcoSalon, Matador Network, and the Guardian Environment Network. You can follow her on Twitter and Tumblr.

Tom Devriendt

Tom Devriendt was an editor of Africa is a Country.

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