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Mobile Communications

Kui Kinyanjui (Africa) - Improving the Mobile Sector in Africa

Bob Collymore takes off his glasses, wipes his face and then sighs. It's a difficult subject that has flustered the normally cool and collected CEO of Safaricom, one of sub-Saharan Africa's biggest mobile operators, but it's also a problem that many network operators in Africa are grappling with on a daily basis.

How do you keep operational costs down while running base stations that need to be fuelled with fossil fuels?

Fuel prices have already reached a record high of $106 a barrel, and many analysts believe that prices are set to continue to hover above the $100 mark for the next few months.

For Africa' mobile sector, this is a serious problem.

Many African states are in the process of expanding their networks, and several are heavily reliant on fuel-powered base stations to reach rural populations.

According to statistics from the GSM Association, around 640,000 base stations will be rolled out across emerging markets by 2012.

In order to counter growing expenditure on fuel, many operators are turning to sustainable energy solutions to allow them to continue with the fast roll-out of stations across the continent.

In response to this changing trend, the GSM Association has set a target for 118,000 of the proposed base stations to be powered by renewable energy.

With over 96 % of operations in Africa running on diesel, identifying how best to manage spiraling costs has become a key focal point for many technology firms.
Companies who spend up to $1 million maintaining a single base station using more traditional power sources such as diesel fuel can save up to 70 % of those costs by switching to renewable energies such as solar and wind power.

For answers, operators may want to turn to a small village in north-eastern Kenya, where a sustainable renewable energy project is literally powering a town.
In Dertu, having no access to infrastructural basics such as power and water meant the locals had to improvise.

Using a Community Power solution developed in a partnership between Ericsson and Swedish green site solution specialist company Flexenclosure, the product combines an off-grid base-station site that is powered mainly by renewable energy sources such as sun and wind.

The result?

A base station that fuels itself, and which has the additional benefit of passing on the excess power it produces to village residents to use.

The Community Power solution allows subscribers to recharge their mobile phones with excess power generated from the station, which in turn drives network usage and thereby revenue.

It also provides access to various government, health and educational services previously only accessible by going to the closest city - Garissa - some 100 kilometres away via dirt road.

In short, the solution has brought the world to Dertu.

But its creators have even bigger ambitions for the solution.

They hope to up-scale the project by featuring more mature and large-scale deployments, several sites can be combined to create a mini-grid to power services such as streetlights, clinics and schools for an entire community.

It could even be possible to feed power from the base station into the national power grid which can help to alleviate power shortages.

Access to these mobile services has transformed Dertu into a centre of economic activity in the region, with demand for second-hand cellular handsets, charging facilities, sim cards and accessories increasing. Apart from trade directly related to the mobile industry, other economic benefits include the ability to order goods and services, notify authorities of water shortages, or sharing information about weather and crops by telephone.

With more than 3,000 call minutes being logged daily, proof of the demand for such services among Africa's poorest communities is evident.

Kui Kinyanjui is one of Africa's most experienced ICT analysts, and currently works with Business Daily, a leading East African business paper. When she's not dissecting annual results, she likes to put on her evangelical hat to preach to anyone who will listen about growth opportunities in Africa's exciting technology space.

 

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