Development workers agree that access to energy is a game-changer. To a great extent, they are right. According to the World Bank, one in five people on the planet still have no regular access to electricity. They cannot study or work at night, face danger in unlit villages and cities and cannot access vital information technologies, such as phones and the internet.
To address this situation, a myriad of NGOs are occupying themselves with bringing electricity to poor and marginalised communities, or introducing gadgets that generate their own power. The last decade has seen the pay-as-you-go solar panel, the gravity lamp and the pee-powered toilet, to cite just a few examples. –
Yet, often the introduction of such innovations will not cause a development spurt. An event at the United Kingdom’s Royal Geographical Society on 24 February tried to find out why.
One of the speakers, Simon Bransfield-Garth, presented research on how households respond to getting access to electricity. Bransfield-Garth is the CEO of Azuri, a company specialising in providing solar power to poor households in sub-Saharan Africa.
Bransfield-Garth told the audience that the benefit of electricity is best measured in terms of what people do with it, not in terms of the amount of power that goes to each household.
According to his statistics, people with access to 5 watts of electricity will use it to charge their phones and power one or two lights. If they get access to 10 watts they will power an additional two lights and a radio.
If people get 60 watts of electricity, they will get a television set and a fan — to improve their quality of life. When they have access to at least 90 watts, people start to use electricity to power workshops, factories or farming equipment that helps them grow their business, for example.
“When people first get electricity it extends their working day by about three hours,” he said. “The real game-changer comes when people are able to step up from a position without any technology infrastructure to a point where they can essentially access the same technologies as people in developed countries.”
Sarah Best, a researcher at the International Institute for Environment and Development in the United Kingdom, pointed out that industrial growth is only possible when power supply is plentiful and secure.
“Governments measure access by looking at whether someone has a cook stove or a solar panel, but that’s not what it’s about,” she said. “It’s about whether it enables people to better their lives.”
As the event drew to a close, this was the final message for the audience. When it comes to electricity, size does count, and what you do with it matters even more.