The rapid expansion of mobile telephony is having unexpected effect: rising cost of burning diesel to power cellular base stations.
Because of the unreliability of electricity grids throughout the region, mobile phone operators depend on diesel-powered base stations to insure smooth operation. According to a new study on power sources for cell stations from the Balancing Act newsletter, few operators are making anything more than cursory searches for alternative sources, such as solar, despite the rising cost of diesel.
Since mobile operators in sub-Saharan Africa are likely to be the most profitable in the world, the incentives for reducing operating costs for essential equipment is rather low. Balancing Act reports that operators aren’t likely to raise prices either in response to higher diesel costs, but simply absorb the costs.
The resignation by operators is understandable. Base stations are the crucial link in the telephony network. They are also expensive. Unreliable electricity doesn’t only disrupt the network service (costing operators money in lost calls made) but also can harm equipment.
So the reliance on an “off-grid” power solution is pragmatic. And while solar-powered base stations are coming on line, they require higher up-front costs for operators, and more unpredictable maintenance issues. Adoption has been slow. In short, solar is sexy but the expedient choice is diesel, which has the added benefit of being readily available becuase the fuel supports a wide range of power generators throughout the region.
But expedience may benefit mobile telephony providers in the short-run, but not African people in the long run. Mobile providers would do a service to society if they worked harder to support widerangng efforts to improve electricity grids in the countries in which they operate. Electricity remains the essential technology that African societies have yet to master on an operational level.
For mobile operators, opting out of the grid is too easy. To be sure, nobile telephone service is also essential and should not be held hostage to the vagaries of African grid-electricity supplies. Yet if mobile operators simply opt out of the grid for convenience, then inevitably the grid loses one of its biggest potential supporters. After all, mobile-telephony providers are now among the largest organizations in every African country – and often the highest tax-payers. A thriving national electricity grid is ultimately in their own interest too.
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Chinua Achebe’s refusal to accept an award from Nigeria’s president is the latest example of the great writer’s ambivalence towards his homeland. The author of Things Fall Apart, the most acclaimed novel ever written in English by an African, Achebe has long disapproved over government, governance and public affairs in his beloved Nigeria.
The 80-year-old Achebe, who was paralysed from the waist down after a car accident in 1990, won the Man Booker International Prize in 2007 for his literary career. Two years later he visited Nigeria for the first time in a decade as part of celebrations to mark the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart.
In analyzing he failures of an independent Nigeria, Achebe has stopped short of blaming the victim. Along with criticizing contemporary leaders of Nigeria, he also blames colonialism — and its legacy — for some of Nigeria’s ills. As I wrote last year, in a review of Achebe’s newest volume of collected essays, Achebe is at heart a storyteller, not a policy analyst. While he helps to identify the sources of various pathologies in Nigeria today and in Africa generally, he refrains from presenting cures, which makes his refusal to accept an award from President Goodluck Jonathan harder to swallow for some proud Nigerians.
“I am not an apologist for Africa’s many failings,” Achebe has wrote in The Education of a British-Protected Child (Knopf, 2010) but he believes these African solutions will be created by and for fellow Africans. In the final essay of this collection, “Africa is People,” Achebe invokes the powerful Bantu declaration, “Umuntu ngumuntu ngabantu.” (“A human is a human because of other humans.”) Africa’s future, Achebe insists, depends on a new appreciation for the value of “an African communal aspiration.”
Apparently, Nigeria’s current government has yet to show sufficient appreciation for the communal.
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The writing of African history underwent a revolution in the 1960s, culminating an outpouring of fresh interpretations of the African past which continue to exert a powerful influence today. The summation of the new scholarship on Africa, which was nourished by the wave of decolonization that reshaped the region, came in a 1971 coffee table book, published by the venerable American Heritage house, on the African past. The two volume, lavishly illustrated, hardback repudiated a century of popular racist and imperalistic notions. Writing in a lucid introduction to volume, Philip D. Curtin, one of the grand masters of the new African history, wrote in language that still rouses and inspires me:
“History has all too often been an ethnocentric subject written (often intentionally) to foster patriotism by emphasizing the deeds of ancestors. In Europe and North America this tendency has led historians to concentrate on national history, looking only secondly at the broader developments of Western civilization. Cultures beyond the West were either left out altogether or relegated to a minor place. The crucial and organizing question was “How do we come to be as we are?” – not “How did the modern world come to be as it is?” or “How do human societies change through time? African history fell under this blight, as did the histories of pre-Colombian America and of Asia.”
Curtin, who died in 2009, provides a reminder that the past is prologue and that no analyst of Africa’s present can ignore the past. Yesterday is closer than we usually imagine.
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