The problem of energy access in Africa is well understood with more than half the population, some 600 million people, in sub-Saharan Africa lacking access to the electricity grid. People off-grid have no easy way to charge phones and they are reliant on old-fashioned lamps for lighting with no services to power modern appliances.
In 2010, pay-as-you-go solar power began to emerge as a potential solution and while early systems were small and simply provided light and phone charging, it was a step-change for households that previously had to light homes with kerosene lamps or to travel to town to charge a phone.
Today, companies such as Azuri Technologies have made huge innovations in solar-powered solutions whereby off-grid households are not only able to charge phones and power lights, but they can now listen to the radio and watch TV – activities are taken for granted by on-grid households.
Access to information and technology should be universal
People who are off-grid want the same things as their grid-connected cousins and technology is once again providing an answer.
Just as LEDs provide very efficient lights, they can be used to create very efficient TVs.
A modern low power 32” TV takes less than a fifth of the power of a standard tungsten light bulb.
This means that TVs can now be readily powered by low-cost solar-power systems, allowing households to get access to a vast array of TV channels wherever they are in the country.
While TV has clearly demonstrated huge customer demand, some question the value of TV on enriching peoples’ lives. Lighting, they argue, is wholesome, but TV is frivolous and even might distract people who should otherwise be doing better things with their time.
But recent scientific data is countering that view.
In Kenya, studies have shown that a key social outcome of solar electrification is increased television use, the expansion of markets, more rural-urban communication and other processes that increase rural-urban connectivity.
Educational entertainment, such as the popular farming programme Shamba Shape-up in Kenya and Tanzania can improve access to information and has lead to viewers adapting new practices on their farms.
Similar programs have been effective in encouraging the adoption of agricultural practices in Vietnam and play a key role in increasing aspiration and motivation.
In a study in rural Ethiopia, people were shown short documentaries in which people from similar backgrounds described how they had independently achieved success. Just six months later, people who had seen the documentaries had higher numbers of children enrolled in school and spent more on school-related expenses than those that did not.
But what about the more everyday programming of movies, chat shows, sport and lifestyle programming? Does that add value?
92% of study respondents say watching TV has improved their communications skills
Azuri, a leading provider of PayGo solar-powered TV, recently undertook a study across its customers to understand the impact of solar TV on households.
The study revealed that on average, customers watched 5 hours of TV per day and reported a range of educational and social benefits from having access to modern media in the home.
In fact, 98% of customers with solar TV said they feel more aware of local and international affairs and that children feel more confident in discussing current topics in school.
It seems TV also impacts language capacity, with 92% saying watching television programs in their preferred language has improved their communications skills.
It does not seem to matter what the content is, it is simply exposure to language that helps people to improve their own skills.
Although many of the customers were relatively new to TV, about 60% with school-age children reported that their children had improved in their reading, writing and speaking skills since installing a solar TV system.
Solar is helping to break down the digital divide
The results from the Azuri survey are encouraging. The slogan “See the World Cup on Solar TV!”, is not just offering highly valued entertainment to areas of the country that previously have only had a radio for information and so enriching peoples’ lives.
It is now clear that simply having access to modern media has many other spin-off benefits in terms of increase in language skills, awareness of the political environment and motivation for self-development that perhaps consumers would not explicitly purchase but come as free benefits of access to modern media.
Moreover, it is helping eliminate the divide between the opportunities available to householders in off-grid (often rural) areas, compared to their grid-connected cousins.