Africa's next 'leap frog': Five big impacts the Tesla battery could have on the continent in future

The solar battery might even have some unexpected consequences for African politics.

LAST week, California-based tech company Tesla announced the launch of a line of batteries for homes, businesses and utilities that will store solar and wind power for much longer than was possible so far.

Tesla’s Powerwall is a wall-mounted energy storage unit that can hold 10 Kilowatt hours (KWh) of electric energy, enough to power a home for up to five hours, assuming moderate to heavy use of appliances like the refrigerator, microwave and television.

The idea is that homes and businesses powered by solar panels could harvest and store much more energy during the day that could be used at night, or be used as a backup during a power outage, solving a fundamental problem of renewable energy. Though solar and wind power is abundant, it doesn’t flow continuously – the sun doesn’t shine at night, and the wind doesn’t blow year-round.

At a price of $3,500 for the 10KWh version, or $3,000 for a 7KWh version, it’s still relatively expensive, but within a few years, it is expected to be cheap enough to be cost-effective in the broad market.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk had Africa in mind when as he launched the Powerwall. Just like the mobile phone found a perfect storm of factors on the African continent that led to its astonishingly rapid adoption by Africans of all income groups (today, more Africans own mobile phones than have sewerage services), a battery pack that can power a home or business is the kind of disruptive innovation that could crack the continent’s energy poverty.

Africa is the world’s most energy-scarce continent. Sub-Sahara Africa has an installed capacity of just 90GW – equivalent to that of Spain; and half of it is in South Africa.

Even worse, the little electricity availably is erratic. Nigeria’s power is notoriously unreliable, but Ghana and South Africa have also been plunged into punishing load-shedding cycles recently, mainly because of lack of investment in the electricity grid.

But the bigger story in Africa’s gloomy energy narrative is that it should be the global centre for green energy. Thanks to the expansive Sahara desert, strong winds along its coasts and in its flat, arid interior, and geothermal reserves all along the Rift Valley, the continent has the world’s highest reserves of renewable energy resources. 

The five possible biggest impacts of the broad adoption of Tesla battery in Africa could be:

Lighting up homes

Sub-Saharan Africa has more people living without access to electricity than any other region – more than 620 million people - nearly half of the global total. Although the continent is home to 13% of the world’s population, it accounts for only 4% of global energy demand.

But that figure masks much “pent-up demand” – electricity is one of those commodities like the Internet or a mobile phone that you use more of when more of it is available.

Because electricity in Africa is so scarce, people live their lives without it, so their demand for it is suppressed – but only because they have learned to cope.

The Tesla battery thus provides the opportunity to leap-frog millions of consumers from no electricity at all straight to renewables, just like mobile phones in Africa bypassed the analogue age landline entirely.

Adios to noisy, expensive backup generators

On average, 5% of annual sales in Africa are lost due to electrical outages, with very high losses reported in the Central African Republic (CAR) and Nigeria – nearly a quarter of sales revenue is lost on account of blackouts.

In 2012, the cost of fuel for backup generation for businesses and households is estimated to have been at least $5 billion.

Nigeria is said to have the biggest concentration of generators per square kilometre in the world; the country accounts for almost three- quarters of electricity supply provided by back-up generators in Africa, according to the International Energy Agency – nearly 12 terawatt hours.

With a Tesla Powerwall currently able to supply five hours of power, an enterprising African engineer could hook up several of them and provide continuous power to a small trading centre or mall.

Guerrilla-style tech hubs

Today, technology hubs are springing up all over Africa’s cities. There are at least 90 tech hubs across the continent, and more than half of African countries have at least one.

Kenya is planning to build a $14.5 billion tech city from scratch, at Konza, 60km away from the capital in Nairobi. Ghana plans to build Hope City, a $10 billion high-tech hub outside Accra, aiming to turn Ghana into a major ICT player.

At the iHub in Nairobi, a technology incubator. (Photo: Erik Hersman/ Flickr).

Meanwhile, companies like Facebook and Google have ambitious plans to deploy wireless Internet to across the globe using drones or hot-air balloons to carry the signal.

With the combination of a solar panel-battery and drone/balloon Internet, it might only be a matter of time before the whole idea of a physical tech city itself becomes obsolete – a tech hub might be the kind of thing that springs up guerrilla-style anywhere in urban or rural Africa, kind of like a flash mob for techies.

Green cars, but dangerous for pedestrians

Out of the world’s 20 countries with the lowest numbers of cars per 1,000 inhabitants, 18 are in Africa. But demand is growing - with rising incomes and an expanding middle class, Africa is expected to see new two million car sales this year, and major players including General Motors, Toyota and Tata Motors are increasingly eyeing the continent as the final frontier market.

With cheaper, more powerful batteries, electric cars might similarly be an “African leap-frog” success story – from no cars to green cars. But a major problem in the African context is the silent engine of the electric car.

In low and middle-income countries, pedestrians make up the bulk of road accident fatalities – 64% in Kenya, and 75% in Cote d’Ivoire for example, compared to 10% in Netherlands and 13% in the USA.

It’s partly because many African urban centres are built with what seems to be an anti-pedestrian and anti-cyclist ethos, and if pedestrians can’t hear cars approaching, you can expect a spike in the death toll.

The “private social contract”, and even presidents-for-life

Traditionally, the relationship between a government and its people is one of bartering political support for the provision of certain services, such roads, schools, electricity, water and security. 

It used to be that politicians would carry around electricity and phone poles to their campaigns, and promise the voters they would get the services if they elected them. With the mobile phone, the phone line pole died long ago. The electricity pole could be next in line.

Increasingly, today, African life is characterised by an extensive retreat of the state from a range of functions.

In Kenya, for example, the number of private primary schools rose nearly 1,000% in just a decade, from in 2001 to 2011, while the number of government primary schools grew just 40%.

In Uganda, the percentage of university students attending private institutions jumped from 9% in 1999 to 74% in 2011. In South Africa, there are more private security guards than police and army combined.

Nairobi city senator Mike Sonko even recently launched a personally-funded fleet of ambulances, tow trucks, garbage collectors, water bowsers, and fire brigades to respond to citizen emergencies.

With the possibility of being entirely off-grid, the Tesla home battery could finalise the disconnection of African everyday life from the happenings in the political sphere. Already, studies show that the African middle-class deliberately disengages from politics as a form of protest, particularly if the government is authoritarian or a quasi-democracy.

What is needed from the government in that environment are things like investor- and business-friendly policies, predictability, and macroeconomic stability.

You might not think it, but the ultimate result might be not only more corrupt governments (because there is less pressure on the state to provide services, and so more opportunity to “eat” public funds), but elites who will support them, just to maintain the pro-business and pro-private status quo.

So as Africa gets richer and greener, it should get ready for more, not fewer, presidents-for-life, and only the occasional emergence of a full-blooded liberal democracy.

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