An edited version of this article was first published in Business Day South Africa.
Silicon Valley boasts hi-tech innovation so complex and fast-paced that it is often hard to comprehend from our African perspective. Many futurists and
scientists believe we are on the brink of the Technological Singularity, a point in the predicted near future when exponential growth in technology
will allow artificial intelligence to exceed human intellectual capacity. It is best described as an intelligence explosion and the possibilities
are boundless. But where does
Africa fit into this scenario? Most of our people’s basic needs are not yet met and, in the light of the challenges we face, talking about intelligent
robots seems frivolous.
Africa, a continent with plenty of sunshine, is believed to be home to the Cradle of Humankind, where humanity started shaping the landscape. Since
the first steps, the first paintings on cave walls and the first tools, mankind has evolved in unfathomable ways and continues to do so. We have
an energy crisis, despite the continent being endowed with resources and the availability of alternatives; but that is hopefully about to change.
Imagine if global equality was a real possibility. Imagine if, instead of the cold place depicted in futuristic films, the future was a time when people
could once again live with the seemingly simplistic beauty of
Africa but, with exponential growth in technology, to be a globally interconnected community with more power of knowledge than ever before. Imagine
a world where everyone can live in harmony with nature through the use of technological advances so sophisticated that there can be sufficient
nutritious food, energy, clean water, sanitation, education and shelter for everyone.
If we consider the reality of the dire circumstances in which most people in
Africa live, it seems like an unrealistic western dream exclusively applicable to the wealthy. There is, however, a glimmer of hope based on what we
see in growth curves. If we look at exponential growth curves, this should be possible, globally, much sooner than our linear thinking patterns
allow us to expect. It seems like
Africa was left behind, but will not be for much longer.
Unfortunately, for many people in
Africa little has changed in the past 100,000 years and many people still rely on fire for heating and cooking. Resources are running out. Paraffin
is also a very common energy source but is the cause of many deaths due to ingestion and fires. Renewable energy is the obvious solution, but are
these technologies a practical solution on a continent where a lack of financial resources and mismanagement of funds are a reality?
According to the International Energy Agency, 1.3-billion people worldwide live without electricity. Nearly 97% of those live in sub-Saharan
Africa and developing
Asia. The latest estimate for sub-Saharan
Africa has been revised upwards by 22-million. Rapid population growth continues to outpace the rate of electrification. Energy is arguably
the most important resource we have. With enough energy, we solve the issue of water scarcity, which also addresses most of our health
problems. Energy also brings light and internet connectivity, which facilitates education, which in turn reduces poverty. Energy aids in
the promotion of economic growth, improvement in agriculture, communication technology and industrialisation.
According to Ray Kurzweil, in his 2001 essay titled The Law of Accelerating Returns, whenever a technology approaches some kind of barrier, a new technology
will be invented to allow us to cross that barrier. He predicted that this will become increasingly common, leading to technological change so rapid
and profound that it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history. When it comes to our lack of financial resources, exponential growth curves
also show that the price of technology is decreasing and that innovators are finding ways of overcoming challenges in more cost-effective ways. The
solutions are within our reach.
We may have no urgent need for intelligent robots on the continent, but in the light of 3D-printed organs and the promise of immortality, solving
Africa’s energy problems seems quite simple on a continent with so much sunshine, deserts and wind.
The lack of infrastructure and development in large parts of
Africa may not be as problematic as we might believe.
Africa may just be able to skip years of technological practices that put much strain on the environment and move straight into sophisticated and
In a few short years, mobile-phone networks transformed communication in
Africa. It allowed many Africans to skip the landline stage of development and jump straight to into digital communication.
Kenya became the midwife of mobile money transfer using a technology it did not invent.
Africa can do for renewable energy what it did for mobile communication. With our lack of existing energy infrastructures, it makes sense that
renewable energy, like mobile education, will become a priority on the continent. We have insight and a deep understanding of the challenges
we face. This insight can make sustainable solutions on the continent a reality.
“The exponential-technology train has left the old station and is rapidly running towards a world of infinite possibilities. Let’s not be left behind. It’s time for
Africa to jump on the exponential-technology train,” says Dr Kwame Amuah, a respected Johannesburg-based academic and entrepreneur.
Dr Amuah is an alumnus of the University of Cape Coast Ghana and hosted a delegation from the university during their recent visit to
Johannesburg. I had the pleasure of facilitating, on behalf of Dr Amuah’s latest initiative, Singularity Institute Africa, meetings between the delegation
of the University Cape Coast Ghana and various universities in and around
The aim was for the University Cape Coast Ghana to explore the possibility of collaborations and to draw inspiration and motivation from innovation happening
at these leading academic and research institutions in
South Africa. I was astounded to find that the South African universities have most definitely jumped on the exponential technology train.
“I believe you have an energy crisis in
South Africa,” Vice-Chancellor Domwini Kuupole said to me on the steps of the
Johannesburg’s impressive Madibeng building. “Yes,” I replied, “sometimes our power outages last for up to four hours.” Prof Kuupole and Prof Samuel Annim exchanged glances and chuckled. “I suspect that I’m being completely ignorant, please tell me about the energy situation in
Ghana,” I said.
Ghana experiences blackouts that last for up to 12 hours at a time and urgently needs alternative sources of energy to cut costs. The electricity supply
Ghana and many African countries is erratic and, apart from the negative effects on their economies, it affects critical infrastructures such as
telecommunication networks, financial services, water supplies, hospitals and academic institutions. Generators are among the greatest expense
at the University of Cape Coast and renewable energy technology is among its top priorities.
We paid a visit to the Faculty of Engineering on the Potchefstroom Campus of
University. Nothing could have prepared us for the day ahead. The university has a clear vision for research and innovation. Its aim is to
move from being a tuition-based institution that does focused research towards being a balanced teaching-learning and research university.
This sounds great on paper, but seeing it in practice exceeded my already high expectations.
Our first visit on a tour of the faculty was the impressive Solar Training Centre, which was installed as a partnership project between Sunfarming
Germany and Suncybernetics in
South Africa to provide practical training opportunities at
University. Sunfarming focuses on large-scale renewable energy generation, energy training and, as a by-product, crop growing underneath
the solar panels. The solar training facility on the campus comprises several grid-tied solar photovoltaic systems and a photovoltaic
solar island system that charges electric scooters a
nd electric bicycles used as transport on the campus.
The aim of the training centre is to establish sustainable knowledge by teaching comprehensive theoretical as well as practical knowledge related to photovoltaic
energy solutions. Students, electricians and installers trained at this facility are able to plan, install, maintain and operate photovoltaic plants.
Apart from becoming independent of fossil energy, solar energy is a key driver in job creation.
The training courses operated by Sunfarming for professors, doctors and masters students provide qualified personnel with the latest developments in photovoltaic
solutions. The training modules have been developed to South African requirements by Sunfarming
Germany and the train-the-trainer programme ensures that the skills remain in
Our last stop is a visit to HySA Infrastructure. SA’s Department of Science and Technology developed the National Hydrogen and Fuel CellsTechnologies Research,
Development and Innovation Strategy, which was branded Hydrogen South
Africa (HySA). The overall goal is to develop and guide innovation in hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies in
South Africa.It is co-hosted by
University and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. HySA director Dr. Dmitri Bessarabov took us on a tour of
HySA is mandated to deliver cost-effective technologies for renewable hydrogen production, storage and distribution. Its goal is to develop and guide innovation
in hydrogen and fuel-cell technologies in
South Africa and create jobs through the initiation of new hi-technology industries based on minerals found in
South Africa, especially platinum group metals.
The team consists of more than 30 people, including students. They are renowned for their international expertise in electrolysis, renewable energy, power
management, membranes and fuel cells.
The facilities are world class and include state-of-the-art electrochemical analytical equipment, fully automated test stations for single-cell electrolysis
benchmarking, a triple-volume laboratory for hydrogen pilot-plant operation and a 15 kilowatt peak photovoltaic expendable research plant for renewable
HySA focuses on technologies such as hydrogen storage materials, hydrogen reticulation and delivery, systems integration for hydrogen production and delivery,
and platinum group metal recycling. Fuel cells that use a catalyst such as platinum use hydrogen, which has little or no polluting emissions. Chemical
energy is converted into electrical energy. Hydrogen is a clean and efficient fuel, but the challenge is to develop infrastructure to produce, store
and make hydrogen available for these applications, as well as cost-effective replacement catalysts.
HySA aims to develop cost-effective ways of local hydrogen generation, focusing on using renewable energy and is taking steps to take solar-hydrogen to
commercialisation. They believe we can look forward to a great revolution in hydrogen technology.
Advances in technology that seemed to apply only to developed countries are becoming real possibilities and many life-changing projects are already in
place on African soil, specifically as seen at the universities during the Ghanaian visit. The price of technology is decreasing and scientists, academics
and civilians are inventing ways of overcoming our greatest challenges in cost-effective ways that will benefit everyone.
Visiting the universities and witnessing inspiring deliberations showed that African research institutions are participating in and contributing to the
global technological evolution on a practical level. It is time for
Africa to become an integral part of the process and to speed up and lead technological evolution on the continent. It is within our reach to start
an energy revolution on the continent. The technology to solve our energy problems exists. The challenge is to convince our governments to think
like our academics and entrepreneurs.
Renewable energy cannot be relatively small-scale or long-term projects. To achieve rapid change, it has to be regarded a top priority of African governments.
Constructive debate and collaborations on innovation between African universities, innovators, entrepreneurs and enthusiasts will spark communication on
the continent in a broader sense.