Net Impact conference 2017 – how technology is impacting Africa

Net Impact is an annual conference dedicated to helping students and professionals create careers that make a positive impact on the world. Thousands of people from across the US come together to for three days to learn and collaborate on topics ranging from social justice and clean energy to sustainable agriculture and civic engagement.

When I was invited to speak on one the conference’s themes, Technology as a Force for Good, I jumped at the opportunity to share some of what I’ve recently learned about solar-lighting in rural Africa.

I’ve copied my slides below along with a few comments.

Net Impact Slide 02


1.1 Billion people have no electricity at all

Net Impact Slide 03

  • Rural Africans spend 10-30% of their household income on dirty and dangerous kerosene lighting
  • People will walk 30-60 minutes a day just to charge their phones


The challenges with the traditional grid

Net Impact Slide 04

  • Extending the grid in Africa costs $7,000 to $25,000 per kilometer
  • Rwanda, arguably one of the most advanced African economies, is only expanding the grid at 2-3% per year – many people will wait 8-9 years
  • There is an initial connection fee ranging from $150 to $1,500
  • East African utilities are subsidizing electricity costs at more than $500 million per year


Energy Ladder

Net Impact Slide 05

The energy ladder is a widely used phrase describing how low-income families are able to progressively improve their lives as they get access to the benefits of electrification.


Solar Lanterns

Net Impact Slide 06


  • Lanterns lower household costs for lighting by reducing or eliminating more expensive kerosene light
  • Lanterns reduce toxic fumes and fire risk of kerosene
  • The number one use of solar lanterns is for children to study (nearly 100%)


  • The average price of a lantern has dropped from $50 in 2009 to $9 in 2017 – prices are expected to continue dropping
  • Price drops are fueled by plummeting costs of solar cells, LED lights and batteries
  • 30 million units sold worldwide


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Solar Home Systems

Net Impact Slide 07


  • Phone charging eliminates hours and hours of walking and save $1.00 – $2.00 per month in charge fees
  • Radio and, increasingly, television provide education, entertainment, and community


  • $100 – $250 costs add in radios, multiple lights, and phone charging
  • Daily payments via mobile phones minimize upfront costs – “Pay as you go” (PAYG)
  • Analytics help assess creditworthiness\


Net Impact Slide 08

Larger Solar Solutions


  • Agriculture – irrigation pumps means year-round growing season and more valuable crops
  • Refrigeration – more flexibility when food is consumed; also means storage for medicines


  • $500 – $1,000 provides complete well pump, solar panels, and drip irrigation solution
  • Financing technology from SHS market is a big enabler here
  • Refrigeration is another step in power and also in impact – look for this to emerge in 2018+


Net Impact Slide 09

Discussion Question

How should we advise a government minister from a low-income region to invest their limited funds to maximize energy access?

The Net Impact conference asks every speaker to include a provocative question on their topic and then help curate a follow-on discussion. One of the best and most out-of-the-box results of that discussion came from a Presidio MBA student. He realized that the economics of solar home systems are very compelling and that great products already exist in the market – he suggested that investing the money in education would be the best way to unlock the market by raising awareness that solar home systems truly work and they are not short-term of compromises.

The entire slideshow is below and you can download the PDF from here.

[slideshare id=81326574&doc=netimpact10-2017pdf-171028212203]



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