Electromagnetic Savannah
Commentary on science, technology and economics in Nigeria and beyond

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Wind-up Lights for African Homes

Before I start, I should offer a quick apology for resting this blog for so long. I'll try to be a bit more frequent on updates from now on. :)

I'll start with this interesting story from the BBC about wind up lights for African homes. The idea of wind up lighting isn't new - the advent of white light emitting diodes (LEDs) which consume very little energy have made this a possibility, so that you can get wind up torches quite easily today. I suspect then that the lighting that is proposed is one that will function like lightbulbs so that an entire room can be illuminated (rather than just the concentrated spot that you get with torch lighting). Unfortunately, I can't find any further information on just what technology will be used for the lighting (whether a typical light will simply be a larger cluster of LEDs, or some newer technology).

I'm not quite sure how the lights will be distributed - the story talks of a plan to get women to sell them, but at what price I have no idea. If they are sold at too cheap a price (to cater for the poverty of those who need them), then I worry that there are those who will take advantage of this to resell them on at a higher price. I hope that Freeplay can find a way of using cheap enough technology that they shouldn't need to subsidise the sale of these lights.

One thing I like about this proposal is that there is some implicit technology transfer involved, as the women sellers will be trained to repair and maintain the lights. I think this is vital to ensure that the lights don't end up as ornaments (as happens with much technology directly imported from elsewhere). Of course, sometimes maintenance of imported technology could simply mean replacing expensive foreign parts with other expensive foreign parts. What I would like is for some home-grown whiz-kid to take the lights apart and see which bits he can source from local materials, thus making it even easier to maintain the lights.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Nigerian Federal Government Organises ICT Summit for LGs

From ThisDay comes a news story about an ICT/e-governance compliance summit being held next month for Nigerian local governments. The idea, according to Mrs. I. A. Akhigbe, Director of Local Government Affairs and a facilitator at this event is to enable Local Governments implement the SERVICOM dictates to the fullest, SERVICOM itself being a social contract between Nigerians and their government which gives them the right to demand good service.

Leaving aside whether SERVICOM itself is a realistic idea, my problem with this summit (as with so many summits involving technology) is that it seems about information delivered from the top rather than information requested from the bottom. Looking at the story in detail, I see the usual buzzwords about "e-governance" and "web portal" and I wonder whether the usual idea of technology as a silver bullet isn't rearing its ugly head again.

I know that information technology is a tremendous enabler - but there are many other things that need to be in place before the benefits can be felt. First of all, the local governments have to define exactly and in great detail what they want to achieve. Then they should define with the same exactness and detail the different kinds of activities they should be performing to achieve their goal, and they should concentrate on the activities where information is passed around or stored. Then they should look at all the possible ways of handling this information (including, of course, using information technology) and determine which is the best both on cost and efficiency. And cost isn't simply about buying computers - it includes training, it includes maintenance, it includes Building Your Own Infrastructure if the government hasn't yet been kind enough to supply you one. Given all this, IT will typically only justify itself if there are such large volumes of information being shunted around that it would be impossible to achieve anything with a manual system. But that is rarely the case with most Nigerian local governments.

But it's not just the cost of providing IT that makes me sceptical of its application in local government. I believe that the real problem is actually a management one. The staff suffer from low morale and don't really care about their work - so there's not much point in trying to improve the efficiency of an activity that nobody really cares about doing. However, when all that is weighed up against the opportunity to go a-junketing in Abuja, I think it's a no-brainer for local government bosses...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Biofuel plantations fuel strife in Uganda

I think it's great that people are waking up to the fact that it's unwise to rely excessively on non-renewable sources of energy, especially when we truly don't know exactly how much of these non-renewable sources are still left to be tapped. That's why more interest is being taken in biofuels - cleanly combusting fuel that is produced from biological matter such as dead plant material.

So you can be forgiven for thinking that on reading
this story from the New Scientist about the controversy surrounding the conversion of forests into sugar plantations for biofuels, I'd be taking the side of the plantation owners. In fact, I have a problem with the idea of converting a commodity like sugar that is already useful in other ways into raw fuel. I'm also not entirely convinced that converting sugar into ethanol will be commercially viable in Uganda - in Brazil, where ethanol is widely used, there has had to be a massive amount of government support (including subsidies and taxes) to get the ethanol production industry off ground so that it could become competitive. I don't know whether the knowledge on how to produce sugar and alcohol cheaply and efficiently will be available to the Sugar Corporation of Uganda which plans to run the Ugandan plantations.

I do know that there is
research going on on how to convert dead plant matter (such as stems and leaves after a harvest) into ethanol. I believe that it would be much better to use this technology once it matures, especially because it will not require any extra expansion of cultivated land and the destruction of forests with their ecosystems. And another good thing is that alcohol produced using this technology won't be susceptible to shortages of raw material due to the increase in the demand for refined sugar (which will divert some raw sugar cane away from alcohol production).