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ENERGY: World Bank in Bid to Light Off-Grid Africa

Abid Aslam

WASHINGTON, Sep 7 2007 (IPS) - The World Bank hopes to bring modern lighting to one-fourth of Africa&#39s people by developing markets for products not hostage to fossil fuels or the continent&#39s lamentable electricity grid.

The bank and its private investment arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC), say their "Lighting Africa" programme aims to bring light to 250 million sub-Saharan Africans cut off from existing power infrastructure by 2030.

"Modern lighting will mean improved air quality and safety for millions of people in Africa," S. Vijay Iyer, the bank&#39s energy sector manager for Africa, said in a statement. "It will mean longer reading hours for students and longer business hours for small shops."

Results remain to be seen but Iyer&#39s comments echoed the dreams, stated or reported at least since the 1970s, of countless people in remote regions of Africa and other parts of the world where power shortages are lamented as holding back development.

"Energy poor" Africans spend about 17 billion dollars a year on fuel-based lighting such as kerosene lamps, according to the bank. These are "costly, inefficient, and provide poor quality light while polluting and posing fire hazards."

Lighting often proves these consumers&#39 largest energy expense and typically accounts for 10-15 percent of household income.


Thus, there exists "a potentially huge market for modern lighting products that are safe and reliable, that provide higher-quality light, and that are cost-competitive with fuel-based lamps, and powered by renewable energy or mechanical sources," the bank added in its statement.

With backing from a number of donors, the new programme seeks to draw the international lighting industry to that market and thereby circumvent the mess of crumbling infrastructure, outdated technology, and corrupt entities that define the continent&#39s power grid.

Some 350 companies have expressed interest in Lighting Africa, the bank said.

Blackouts are common throughout Africa, where much of the power-generation and transmission infrastructure was built in the 1950s and 1960s. By the 1970s, a lack of investment in maintenance began to take its toll and many countries have suffered permanent setbacks as a result. Nigeria, sub-Saharan Africa&#39s most populous country, operates at about one-third of its installed capacity because of equipment problems, according to the United Nations.

Since the 1980s, numerous ambitious efforts to boost the quantity and reliability of the continent&#39s power supply – including major infrastructure projects backed by the bank and IFC and executed by international and domestic firms – appear to have had little effect: Africa is home to about one in six humans but generates about four percent of the world&#39s electricity.

Financial, political, and environmental disputes have plagued past efforts and have snarled undertakings such as Uganda&#39s Bujagali hydropower project.

In consequence, many governments have begun to look at smaller-scale alternatives, including wind- and water-mills, solar panels, and energy extracted from biomass – chiefly, agricultural and forestry waste.

The first phase of the new programme, launched Wednesday, features a competition for the design and delivery of innovative lighting products – those using fluorescent bulbs or light-emitting diodes (LEDs), among others – for low-income African consumers.

Research on consumer demand, behaviour, and preferences also is to be conducted in Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia.

IFC&#39s role will be to help develop business models to deliver the new products and services, said chief executive Lars Thunell.

Ten to 20 winners of the design competition will receive grant finance of up to 200,000 dollars, the bank said. The contest is open to private businesses, non-governmental organisations, universities, government entities, and individuals from any country. Proposals must be submitted by 23:00 GMT on Oct. 31, the bank said. It provided application information on the Web site www.lightingafrica.org.

 
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