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African human-powered lighting plan announced

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The BBC reports that the Freeplay Foundation - the organisation which distributes wind-up radios to Africans unable to obtain/afford batteries or mains power - is looking to offer wind-up home lighting solutions, too.

According to World Bank estimates, half a billion sub-Saharan Africans have no access to grid electricity. Their main options for lighting at night are kerosene lamps or fires, which are hugely expensive and polluting compared to grid 'leccy.

The idea is that African beneficiaries of the new Freeplay kit would charge up detachable lamps at a muscle-powered home base station. A solution like this would be of little use with normal filament lightbulbs - even well-fed, healthy people can only put out 75-150W using muscle power, so time on the charger would be repaid with dim lighting from a few 40W bulbs on a one-to-one basis at best.

However, the Freeplay folks plan to use white-light LEDs rather than ordinary bulbs. You can get enough light to read by from just a single watt using these, according to the Independent, so the new gear might be useful.

The Freeplay Foundation have applied for funding under the World Bank's Lighting Africa initiative, which aims to get light to those half-billion who have no grid access.

There are those however, who point out that muscle electricity is never going to be a viable way of lifting Africa out of poverty. Even domestic power requirements beyond the most basic level can never be achieved this way. If ordinary Africans are ever going to have computers - let alone fridges, TVs, dishwashers et al - they're going to need a lot more juice than 75W for part of the day.

And then there's the matter of business requirements. Professor Anton Eberhard of Cape Town told the Indie that running any kind of serious business in many African countries means purchasing and running expensive diesel generators, as the local grid is very unreliable even when it exists.

In Nigeria, apparently, only 15 power stations are still running, down from 79 thirty years ago. (Apparently the joke goes: "What did we do before we used candles? We had electricity.") Even in comparatively well-organised South Africa, it seems that diesel generators are a common household accessory in the wealthier Johannesburg suburbs.

"In my view, probably the most critical challenge is getting power to businesses so they can power the economy," said Eberhard.

Nobody seems to know where all the juice would come from, even if there was a working grid to put it on. Solar power is seen as expensive, and it would obviously not be available at night - which is just when the Africans want it. It's been calculated that the Congo river could deliver a massive 40 gigawatts of hydro power if fully exploited, but the dams would cost $40bn to build and probably require root-and-branch reform of the corrupt, wartorn Democratic Republic of Congo. Not to mention the distribution problems afterwards.

Anyway, that's only 80W per head for each currently powerless sub-Saharan, without anything over for biz and industry.

It could be that Africans will have to light their houses with pedal power for quite a while.

The Beeb report is here. ®

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