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Renewable Power Bridging the Digital Divide in Off-grid Africa

We all know that wind energy can light homes and businesses, but how about powering "entrepreneurial spirit'" through education and information access?

Today's social and economic development is based on a "knowledge economy" in which access to knowledge is directly related to Information and Communications Technologies (ICTs). However, as ICTs rapidly advance, the gap between the "information-haves" and "have-nots" continues to widen. In many low-income countries, such as Tanzania, participation in even a full course of basic education is not universal.

In Tanzania, one of the poorest countries in the world, over 20 percent of the population are living on less than US$1 a day. The country is vulnerable to climate-related disasters, especially in drought-prone areas where there have been poor rains and where traditional coping strategies are breaking down as pressure on land increases. Crops have become harder to grow, meaning adults and children alike have to work longer, for ever-decreasing incomes.

Access to the knowledge economy can play an important role in increasing the capacity of a country like Tanzania to adapt to climate change. However, approximately 85 percent of the regional population are presently without grid-quality electricity and the limited access to education is a significant impediment to Tanzania's ability to cope effectively with climatic risks.

Songambele: Renewable World in East Africa

Renewable World, an international non-profit registered charity, is helping to bridge the digital divide in the country by supporting a wind-solar hybrid project in East Africa in Tanzania's Songambele village – where using renewable energy is making a tangible and sustainable difference to the lives of the community of vulnerable farmers in and around the village.

As official charity of EWEA, Renewable World's work in East Africa and the Songambele project in particular is the focus of the first action for Global Wind Day on 15 June, 2013.

The charity is working with a regional partner, the Arid Lands Information Network (ALIN), to develop an Information Centre (Maarifa Centre) for the vulnerable people of Songambele, located some 97 km from the town of Dodoma in northern Tanzania. The model is specifically seeking to reduce the digital divide, bringing opportunity to poor farmers affected by climate change through the provision of information technology, powered by renewable energy.

Local mother of three and community organiser Matilda Myambogi explains that before the Centre was developed "we had no way to access up-to-date information about developments in crop maintenance, or power for vital irrigation, so adults and children had to work long hours, for ever-decreasing reward."

The Maarifa Centre contains books, compact discs and, perhaps most vitally, computers with internet capability. It is used as a means to connect Songambele with its local region, with its country and with the rest of the world. It aims to increase educational participation and achievement to ensure that knowledge and skills are harnessed to improve health, raise incomes and sustain economic growth.

The Centre is managed by a Field Officer who offers technical services and enables communities to access information resources. The Field Officer is supported by two voluntary Community Knowledge Facilitators selected from the community, and an advisory committee. The Centre has an Information and Communications Technology trainer and a Technical Officer in charge of outreach activities on sustainable agriculture and natural resources management.

Business Skills and Entrepreneurial Spirit

Renewable World's overarching aim is to reduce the gap between poor potential consumers of energy and a functioning market. They build business skills and encourage entrepreneurial spirit in order to achieve the long-term success of changes propagated by access to affordable energy services.

The charity promotes building business planning skills to establish successful income-generating services at the Maarifa Centre, including the sale of solar and biogas lanterns, setting up a barber shop, establishment of mobile phone charging facilities and provision of business services.

ALIN has years of experience in building the capacity of remote rural farmers in East Africa through increased access to information. This assists poor farmers to share information and advice about resilient varieties of crops to grow in arid areas, and gives them access to market information so that they sell crops at fair rates.

Adults and children alike are given basic ICT skills. They have studied five modules: Introduction to Computers, Microsoft Word, Microsoft Excel, Microsoft Power Point, and Internet and E-mail. The students are able to use their training both to train others and to transform their own lives and those of the community around them. Many of the young people who have taken the course hope to pursue further studies online and seek internet-related work, or set up their own businesses.

"The ICT modules taught have been very useful to the community," said Herieth Sila, Maarifa Centre Field Officer. "They have started applying them in different areas of their lives. Some of the youth trainees have already been booked for employment."

Zawadi Michael is one of the first "graduates" from the Maarifa Centre, and uses her new Excel skills to catalogue the Maarifa Centre's information resources in her role as Community Knowledge Facilitator. She too sees the Maarifa Centre as a gateway to a new kind of future for local residents.

Renewable World is working with ALIN to promote sustainability across the whole Maarifa Centre network by establishing effective business models to achieve financial sustainability. They are aiming to bring their poverty alleviation, digital information access model to other isolated, off-grid communities.

The village chairman, the Ministry of Agriculture Officer and a representative of the Ministry of Education are all supportive of the Maarifa Centre. They believe that community members are benefitting most from information relating to farming, including livestock production, entrepreneurship, business management and environmental conservation.

Sustainable Renewable Energy Technology

Renewable World has supported the introduction of a wind-solar hybrid system to power the Information Centre. In addition to solar panels, a 1 kW wind turbine has been installed to provide additional power for productive uses. The 12 metre horizontal axis turbine is locally produced and is designed to cut in at low wind speeds. It produces an average of 3 kWh of energy per day.

Engineer Arthur Karomba of Windpower Serengeti installed the system's 1 kW wind turbine. "It's a good design, which can be built anywhere and helps people to understand all turbine systems," he said of the machine.

"All that was needed here was a turbine," he added. "This part of Tanzania is excellent for wind power. It is also good for solar power, and we were able to combine the two. We have a battery, to which the turbine is connected, and between the wind and solar power there is enough for the Maarifa Centre, and to be stored for use across the community.

"Because of its rotating blades, the turbine needs to be taken down once every six months for maintenance. It's guaranteed for a year, but we are also training local people to make and build turbines. This means Songambele's people will own and operate the system themselves. It also means that they can talk to others about how the turbines work and what they can do.

"We must get the message out that renewable energy technology is here, it delivers, and it is necessary," he concluded.

Making a Difference

Renewable energy is already making an important contribution to bridging the digital divide in Tanzania's Songambele village and changing the lives of the people there. But this project also has the potential to be replicated across East Africa, stimulating and enabling poor and extremely poor people in the region to both access information and derive development opportunities from affordable, reliable, sustainable, renewable energy services.

Fran Witt is communications and engagement manager at development charity Renewable World.

Lead image courtesy Renewable World

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