On Thursday 28th July 2016 The Guardian’s sustainable business page carried an on-line debate on the question: “How can developing countries reach 100% renewables?” No developing country has expressed the intention of doing anything so daft, but since COP21 is promising them a hundred billion dollars a year to help them switch to renewable energy, the question is relevant – relevant that is to how a trillion dollars might get spent in the next decade. They fielded a team of six experts in renewable energy who answered four questions emailed in during the hour-long live “debate”.
There were also six comments, one from janeykins, a work colleague of one of the panellists; one from Selvak, a leftwing climate sceptic who joined the Guardian community a month ago and has published 27 comments in the past 2 days (He won’t last long); and one from Vaders, a leftwing rabid anti-Brexiter who calls Boris Johnson a “bloody foreigner” and a “spineless, racist xenophobic self interested prick.” (He’ll go far).
The questions came from:
Joe Rafalowicz: partnerships and mobilisation manager at Power for All;
Jamie Hartzell100: managing director and founder of the Ethical Property Company, the Ethical Property Foundation and Ethex, the new online ethical stock exchange for positive investments (slogan: Make Money Do Good)
Anna Leidreiter: Senior Programme Manager for Climate Energy, a subdivision of the World Future Council.
Emma Baker @EmmaBaker173 (“Budding traveller, eternal optimist and singer-songwriter.”) Emma is “a twenty-something Brit travelling and volunteering my way around Africa – ‘slowly slowly’ – in search of real experiences, deep relationships, inspiration and meaning.”
[Emma is so obviously a decent human being – like so many of the young people I came across when I was stalking at UKYCC here and here – that I did what no serious researcher would do and pressed the “like” button on her “About me” page. Gaia knows what she’ll think when she clicks on my leering satyr avatar to find out who is the first person to like her in 18 months.]
Edward Hanrahan, CEO of ClimateCare
Maite Pina, renewable energy specialist, Oikocredit International
Nico Tyabji, director of strategic partnerships, SunFunder
Henning Wuester, director of the IRENA Knowledge, Policy and Finance Centre, International Renewable Energy Agency
and Aly-Khan Jamal, partner at Dalberg Global Development Advisors
All these associations represented are involved in manufacturing, selling, and installing solar panels for Africans who are off-grid, or in providing the intellectual justification for so doing. The entire conversation, supposedly about how to revolutionise the energy provision for 70% of the world’s population in conformity with the conclusions of COP21, turned around providing solar panels for poor Africans to recharge their cellphones. There was no mention of industry, transport, agriculture, infrastructure, urban planning – it was all about rooftop solar panels in remote villages. And everyone asking or answering the questions was in the business. It’s as if you had a discussion on how to spend a trillion euros renovating Europe’s transport system in conformity with an EU directive and only invited cyclists, bicycle manufacturers and heart specialists.
An explanation for this strange little trillion dollar eco-circle jerk can be found in another article on the same day in another – unconnected – corner of the Guardian website. This one is on the “Tech Continent” page, (sponsored by Bill & Melinda Gates), and it’s worth quoting at length:
The Africans buying sunshine with their phones
Julie Njeri did not believe her son when he declared he no longer needed spectacles to read his books and complete his homework. She took him to the doctor and was told young Peter Mwangi no longer suffered the sharp irritation and redness in his eyes that had resulted in him being given glasses. Peter’s mum exclaimed: “It’s a miracle!”
The explanation was somewhat more tangible. In late 2013, Julie and her husband bought an M-Kopa solar power kit… The $200 (£150) device comes with two LED bulbs, an LED flashlight, a rechargeable battery, adaptors for charging phones, and it is all charged by a small solar panel that is propped on the roof.
More than 300,000 families in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania who are not connected to the electricity grid have purchased the unit which is linked to the mobile money transfer system M-Pesa. After paying a deposit of $35 or $25, depending on their M-Pesa credit history, customers are then able to settle the balance through daily mobile phone payments of 50 cents for a year until they own the device outright…
Chad Larson, one of the co-founders of M-Kopa, said the idea sprung from a talk that the Vodafone executive Nick Hughes gave at Oxford’s business school in 2007. Hughes, who is credited with the early research work that led to the introduction of M-Pesa in Kenya, told the audience that mobile phones could replace banks in much of the developing world…
A few years after finishing his studies, Larson and a fellow student, Jesse Moore, quit their jobs and moved to Nairobi with Hughes to join the mobile revolution that was taking hold in east Africa. After dabbling in a number of ventures including a mobile savings account product and a medical helpline where patients could consult doctors via mobile phone, they turned their attention to solar…
M-Pesa, through which customers settle their payments, serves as a virtual wallet on mobile phones into which subscribers deposit cash at an M-Pesa agent. They can then use it to pay bills or transfer the money to another customer…
Investors have piled in – a recent $19m investment round was joined by a number of big names including Generation Investment Management, a fund co-founded by the former US vice-president Al Gore, Virgin’s Richard Branson and the AOL co-founder Steve Case…
The beauty of the business plan is obvious. The solar panel charges the phone that is also the bank that enables the customer to pay his phone bills and the instalments on the payment for the panel, and for products and services advertised on the phone. It’s the 21st century version of the company store. And they throw in a LED torch so your kids can do do their homework in the evening.
There’s one little snag. The viability of the business plan (and therefore the security of the investments of Richard Branson, Al Gore, and thousands of other ethical investors) depends on these African villagers never ever being connected to the grid; never enjoying the quantities of coal- or gas-fired electricity which would power a fridge or a washing machine or a factory or a hospital in the neighbourhood; never emitting the quantities of CO2 which would destroy the planet.
Keep reading by torchlight, Africans. And don’t forget to keep up the payments. Al Gore and Richard Branson are counting on you.