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The Guardian: Sunny outlook for developing world: Brought to you in association with Shell

Solar power will be the clean, green key that can unlock Africa’s poverty trap, says Heather Stewart

In Jigawa state, northern Nigeria, just south of the Sahara, the hum of electric sewing machines and hair-clippers can be heard long into the afternoon, driven only by the power of the hot African sun.

This project, singled out by Christian Aid as an example of how renewable power can bring enormous benefits to the developing world, is being expanded from the three villages which have already been electrified to 30 more. The solar panels drive pumps to extract water from deep wells; allow classrooms to be lit so that teachers can give lessons in the evenings; and electrify a series of ‘micro-enterprise buildings’, where tailors, barbers and other small businesses can upgrade to electric equipment.

Nigerian President Olusegun Obasanjo gave his seal of approval by visiting the scheme, which was part-funded by the US government under the keen leadership of state governor Ibrahim Saminu Turaki.

Just as mobile phone firms have leapfrogged fixed-line technology in remote parts of Africa, and are bringing telephone links to people who have never before had the infrastructure, clean energy can sometimes reach areas unlikely ever to find their way on to the electricity grid.

‘Decentralisation’, a buzzword among green campaigners who believe that pumping energy around a vast grid is wasteful, could bring new opportunities to far-flung populations in rural areas. The Solar Electric Light Fund, the US-funded body which worked with the Jigawa state government on bringing light and energy to the Nigerian villages, has also carried out projects in West Africa, India and South America.

This is the positive face of clean, green energy in developing countries; but the prospect of rapid industrialisation and breakneck economic growth in countries such as China and India has raised fears about their increasing contribution to global warming.

However, campaigners say it is important to remember that many of the poorest countries barely register as polluters. As many as 28 African countries emit less than 0.1 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person each year. That compares with the 24 tonnes produced by the activities of a single American. The average African is only responsible for emissions equivalent to those of the average Briton in 1875.

But, as they become richer, their energy needs will multiply. The World Bank estimates that two-thirds of the increase in energy demand over the next 25 years will come from developing countries, including China and India, so tackling climate change will have to include all countries. That’s where projects such as the one in Jigawa state come in, combining economic benefits with environmental sustainability – though at a cost.

Insisting that developing countries play their part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions is politically controversial. Rich nations can be accused of imposing their own concerns on countries too poor to implement them – and the US, Britain and other developed countries have certainly made full use of polluting fuels in their own path to economic development.

Kurt Hoffman, the director of the Shell Foundation, which has supported a range of energy projects in poor countries, says it is important to avoid imposing the views of environmentalists on villagers in developing countries. ‘You always have to take into account the local environmental effects. But it becomes tricky when you factor in the global effects: there you have an overlay of northern environmental concerns.’

The upfront investments in clean technologies can be considerable: the World Bank estimated last month that poor countries would have to spend between $10bn and $40bn a year if they were to shift to a lower-carbon economy. It will try to help, by collecting data on what kinds of energy projects work and producing action plans for specific countries.

The Shell Foundation has helped banks in southern India to provide small loans for householders to buy solar panels for their roofs. That has helped to create a local market for suppliers of the panels and engineers to service them. And with most of the loans paid back, the banks have responded by making further loans themselves. ‘Previously, financing schemes had gone directly to the manufacturers. Now, vendors can bring their consumers to the bank to provide a line of credit,’ Hoffman says.

If the money for the initial investments can be found, research suggests that the potential is enormous: a project run with the UN Environment Programme is mapping the wind and solar resources waiting to be tapped in developing countries. The Solar Electric Light Fund points out that Africa receives an average of 365 days’ sunshine a year, so solar panels are a far more viable option than in the less reliable climate of Europe.

Despite the risks of being accused of hypocrisy, by imposing costly green technologies that the rich world itself has failed to adopt, many campaigners say converting poor countries to the merits of solar and wind power can bring enormous benefits on the ground. There are still 1.6 billion people worldwide without access to electricity and 2.4 billion who use basic (and dirty) fuels such as wood or biomass for heating and cooking.

Developing countries, keen to avoid the dependence on costly fossil fuels, which, as even George W Bush admits, leaves the richest nations beholden to oil producers, are carrying out their own research into alternative sources of fuel.

Brazil is pursuing the production of environmentally friendly ethanol, distilled from its sugar cane crop, which could drive cars and hopes to develop an export market in the fuel. China, blamed for much of the run-up in oil prices over the past year or so, is building the world’s biggest ‘eco-village’, where facilities will be run from green energy sources, in Dongtan, outside Shanghai. And China, Brazil and India are all researching the possibility of hydrogen fuel cells, another potential alternative, clean source of energy.

Green activists hope such initiatives will help developing countries to avoid reaching the pollution levels of their rich rivals and go through their own industrial revolution more cleanly. But, as the Nigerian project shows, sometimes the up-front costs will be high, and poor countries may need a helping hand from rich countries that have learnt from their own mistakes.

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