Can “Smart Villages” thrive in Africa and beyond?

Dr. Bernie Jones Infrastructure & Energy NEWS & ANALYSIS

Smart cities are on everyone’s lips. This development is understandable given that the last decade saw the momentous point in the history of our planet when more people lived in cities than in the countryside. Ever more people around the world are moving to cities, and 96% of urbanisation between now and 2030 will occur in developing countries (Developing Countries Need to Harness Urbanization to Achieve the MDGs; IMF-World Bank report, 2013).
But this focus on cities is also disturbing. Cities are referenced liberally in the new Sustainable Development Goals. And indeed, Goal 11 on human habitats (“Sustainable Cities and Communities”) refers to and targets almost exclusively urban objectives. Yet half the world’s population do not live in cities, and that includes more than 70% of the world’s poor.

Around 1.2 billion people – 17% of the global population – still lack access to electricity, while more than 2.7 billion people – 38% of the global population – lack clean cooking facilities. The vast majority – 95% – of people without access to electricity and clean cooking facilities live in sub-Saharan Africa and developing areas of Asia. 80% live in rural areas (IEA, “Energy Poverty”, 2016).

What is the solution? Must everyone migrate to a city for a better life? Is the flow of people from rural villages to urban centres inevitable? We all know that many people migrate to cities and, instead of finding a better life, they find low-level jobs, low wages, and few opportunities to advance in their jobs or access education and training. They find crowded and unhealthy accommodation, without access to clean water and sanitation. They have an unreliable supply of electricity and are food insecure, given the higher costs of food. They may be vulnerable to exploitation by unethical people who prey on newcomers. In other words, their lives may be the same or worse than in their original home.

One solution is to work ever harder to improve the conditions in cities and in peri-urban slums. But there is an alternative. We believe that the concept of “smart villages” can help to ensure that people in developing countries have options. Rather than moving to cities because there is no reasonable alternative, we believe that improving lives and livelihoods in villages and rural communities should be a starting point.

What is a smart village?

But what is a smart village? Each community needs to define this for themselves – what may be “smart” in one place may be less important in another. But the basic building blocks of “smartness” include access to services such as high-quality education, healthcare, finance, information and communication technologies, clean water and sanitation, and improved livelihoods, including entrepreneurial endeavours and value-addition by the villagers themselves.

What is missing from this list so far? Why do rural communities not already have access to these services and possibilities? Infrastructure and energy. We consider that energy has the potential to be a catalyst for rural development. In many cases, the first energy-related priority in rural villages is access to light and phone charging. While these are important developments, both for education and communication, a true smart village must go beyond these initial priorities.

A smart village, for example, will allow students (of whatever age) to access information about the wider world. We’ve seen examples of this, for example, in the work of Aleutia, a company that provides a “solar classroom in a box” in east and west Africa. In this solar classroom, students have access to computers pre-loaded with encyclopedias, maps and other educational information. Even without an internet connection, the world is much more open to them.

In healthcare, frequently the demand is also for light, but clinics require much more light than a home, for example. In this case, solar panels can help to give more powerful lights to help ensure that childbirth is safer. And beyond light, refrigeration is essential to clinics to help ensure that vaccines and other essential medications remain cool. And further, we can consider the possibility of technological innovations such as remote diagnostics and telemedicine, which have the capacity to harness local energy and communications availability to bring high-quality health expertise into the village from outside.

But I would like to emphasise that, even with these advances in education and healthcare, a village will not be self-sustaining and attractive to many of its own residents if it cannot improve the livelihoods of its inhabitants. Energy is essential for improving livelihoods. For example, we know that the vast majority of people in rural areas of the developing world are engaged in subsistence farming. But how can they move beyond solely subsistence farming and find ways to produce cash crops, cut post-harvest losses and add value to agricultural products to boost their incomes? Simple processing of crops, fish and other products at the village level can help them to improve their incomes. In one example, SNV Ghana has worked to design improved stoves used to smoke fish, adding to the villages’ productivity and also decreasing the adverse health impact of smoke on the women entrepreneurs who are smoking the fish.

In other examples, as in the case of Terrat village in Tanzania, the Maasai community was able to monetise the milk output of their traditional cattle by producing cheese and yogurt. Behind Terrat’s dairy production is energy: a village mini-grid distributes electricity generated from jatropha-derived biofuel. This powers the modified shipping container housing their micro-dairy and cools and ages their award-winning cheese while being prepared for the market.

Where there is one enterprise, there are usually others. As I mentioned earlier, entrepreneurship is an essential element to a smart village. In Terrat, one sees a vibrant and thriving culture of entrepreneurship, from barber shops and hairdressers, to furniture building, welding and smartphone charging (often at the barbers or hairdressers). Energy powers all of these small businesses, which make life much more livable for this remote community.

How are smart villages created?

So far, I’ve remained silent on several important elements that make energy for smart villages possible in the first place. These include financing and credit, policy and regulation, and standardisation and quality standards. Governments play a crucial role in all of these elements, alongside small and medium enterprises, venture capitalists, angel investors, development banks and other actors in the financial sector. One of the greatest challenges remains financing for energy and the communities’ ability (and sometimes willingness) to pay. In the case of solar home systems (SHS), a decentralised energy option for lighting, phone charging, fans and TV/radio, companies over the past five to ten years have made inroads, particularly when people see that they can “pay as you go” (PAYG) at similar or cheaper levels than they have been used to paying for weekly kerosene. PAYG helps to lift the burden of their ability to pay. Companies like Azuri, one of the original SHS companies in Africa, are also moving into PAYG off-grid irrigation products to help boost agricultural incomes.

But when we think of powering a whole village, and particularly businesses that add value to agricultural products, fishing cooperatives or other types of “productive use” of energy, solar home systems cannot reach the levels of power necessary for these activities. As in the case of Terrat, a system for powering local businesses is essential for helping people to have long-lasting livelihoods. Mini- and micro-grids can be powered by biodiesel or biofuels, solar energy, hydroelectric energy, wind energy, etc., at times combined with diesel generators in hybrid systems. But, despite the many options for powering a decentralised grid, this is the point at which financing becomes truly challenging, as the upfront capital cost for a mini-grid or micro-grid tends to be too high to attract investors, and the pay-back period too long. Governments shy away from such upfront costs and all too often do not recognise the importance of providing energy to catalyse development and sustainability in these rural communities which provide agricultural products to the rest of the country – or which could, if they had the right types of support initially.

What can governments do to encourage smart villages?

This is the point at which financing, policy and regulation intersect, as national, regional and local governments must prioritise the energy needs of rural residents as well as urban centres. All levels of government must reflect on and take actions to help people in rural areas to improve their lives as this will not only help those in rural areas – it can also help to increase the quality of life in crowded urban areas, as well as reducing the pressure from rural-urban migration. Policies need to be in place for off-grid rural electrification and improved cookstoves – and they must be implemented. Commitments are important, but actions to support those commitments must be taken. Governments also need to seek out opportunities to make their countries business-friendly to small- and medium-enterprises (SMEs) in the energy sector. Many businesses see opportunities across sub-Saharan African, and indeed in countries throughout the global south, yet they are dissuaded by government policies and regulations, including but not limited to import tariffs.

Moreover, counterfeiting remains a problem, particularly for solar technologies. In numerous cases, people have unknowingly purchased solar panels or solar lanterns, only to see them break after only a short time. The ease with which a counterfeiter can pretend to meet standards – or indeed, take advantage of the lack of standards—for solar panels and other technologies reduces consumer confidence and destroys potential markets. In each of these areas, governments need to become more active and improve consumer protection. This in turn supports SMEs in the energy sector which do not need to recreate consumer confidence from scratch.

We encourage Africa’s policy-makers to be ambitious in their goals for people in rural areas. By working closely with the private sector and removing red tape for energy entrepreneurs, they will help to create smart villages. And, by finding ways to support the creation of mini- and micro-grids in far-flung communities, they will also support the education, health and livelihoods of rural residents. But this needs to be part of a cross-cutting priority programme for development in rural areas, combining energy with education, healthcare, ICT and infrastructure. By making rural areas more livable and attractive, the flood to urban centres can be stemmed and rural areas can proudly demonstrate that they can be vibrant, attractive, productive and desirable places to live in. Rural or urban? This should be a choice, not an ultimatum.

Written by

Based in Oxfordshire, Bernie works on a number of projects in the science-policy development communications field. He was formerly Media Programme Director of Biosciences for Farming in Africa (B4FA) project. He has extensive experience of working with international academies of science, as Head of International Policy at the Royal Society, Executive Director of EASAC, and interim Executive Director of the InterAcademy Panel and InterAcademy Medical Panel.