In places around the world where the grid hasn’t been extended, they’re still figuring out ways to power phones, lights, and other gadgets requiring an electric charge. We can learn a thing or two.

6.8 billion mobile phone subscribers number almost as high as the number of people on the planet Tweet This Quote

Globally, the 6.8 billion mobile phone subscribers number almost as high as the number of people on the planet, but according to Green Power For Mobile by The GSMA Development Fund, nearly 500 million people worldwide do not have the means of charging a mobile phone at home. These statistics demonstrate how traditional infrastructure models have not kept up with the technology of the future. Providing a place for the 500 million under-electrified to charge their phones is an enormous wealth-generating opportunity for ambitious entrepreneurs. It will also produce new innovations in electricity infrastructure.

Entrepreneurs are finding ways to deploy electricity infrastructure that works for the under-electrified Tweet This Quote

Some entrepreneurs are already capitalizing on this opportunity. Juabar is leasing wheeled, solar-powered phone-charging kiosks across Tanzania. While the engineering design is creative, the most important aspect of Juabar’s business model is the financing. Many people in the developing world pay far more to use diesel or other fossil fuel generators than they would spend over the lifetime of a solar system. However, they do not have enough savings to pay for the upfront investment in a solar system. Through financed products like Juabar’s mobile kiosk, entrepreneurs are finding ways to deploy electricity infrastructure that works for the under-electrified.

To service the 500 million cell phone users without access to electricity, entrepreneurs are shunning the large, centralized models of the past and embracing small, distributed technology.

Can we find solutions to charge mobile phones with no grid? Tweet This Quote

In the developed world, when we think about charging a mobile phone, most of us picture a plug-in. Yet, as we move from landlines to mobile phones, the cost of extending the grid to all of the citizens in emerging markets will never be cost effective. Mobiles phones connect rural people in a way landlines never could; the same story is playing out as new energy sources like solar are triumphing over the traditional grid.

Innovating upon the traditional grid model is challenging for developed countries because it is so easy to settle for the existing status quo. The grid works well enough and so there is little incentive to experiment with something better. This is not the case in many developing countries. Distributed micro-grids powered by renewables like wind and solar are the only way for many rural villages to receive cheap power.

Large solar companies from SunEdison to Solar City have already created micro-grid solutions for these markets, but the 1.3 billion people across the world without access to electricity is a market too big for just a few companies to capture.

Small-scale solutions like solar phones, mobile charging kiosks, and village micro-grids are real and viable—in fact, they are cheaper than both the grid and the diesel power that feeds it.

Can we provide electricity to a new home subdivision without extending the existing grid? Tweet This Quote

In the developed world, we like to think big. But we might be better off thinking small and asking these questions: Can we find cost-effective solutions to charge mobile phones with no grid? Can we provide electricity to a new home subdivision without extending the existing grid? Can we tap electricity stored in electric vehicles and stationary battery banks to help light a city? The answer to every one of these questions is “yes.”

Living laboratories like Africa and Southeast Asia are developing new innovations in distributed and renewable electrical infrastructure. The developed world should start paying attention.

About the author

Jigar Shah

Jigar Shah

Jigar Shah is the co-founder and President of Generate Capital and the author of Creating Climate Wealth: Unlocking the Impact Economy. He founded SunEdison, the world’s largest solar services company, and was the founding CEO of the Carbon War Room.

  • brucycle

    I absolutely agree. It seems that we should be studying these places where solar has already started enabling the economies (like in East Africa) and document the tangible examples of improvement. It seems that a layer of additional products and services will come along soon (already there are 12V DC TVs, etc.) and of course the improvements in education for the kids. These places are also laboratories for capitalism, so hopefully the benefits will grow and influence investors and political leaders.

  • Jigar Shah

    These are exciting times. There is also so much money now being invested in the space.

    I am anxious to see what we learn from the Nepal Earthquake and how folks leverage the money flowing in to support permanent electricity solutions.

  • SKYNETISHERE

    Great points Jigar. Another huge area for innovation in developing countries is around overcoming last-mile distribution. While innovation in financing to reduce the cost of capital component of LCOE for renewables is the major focus in the developed world, innovation around customer acquisition, “virtual” maintenance, and last-mile distribution reducing the other soft cost components of LCOE has/will be the focus in developing countries. Lots of great entrepreneurs across South Asia and SS-Africa are developing business processes to crack the last-mile distribution nut – and the developed world would be wise to watch.

  • Pauline Lefeuvre

    Thank you very much for this article! I strongly agree with you when you say that “Distributed micro-grids powered by renewables like wind and solar are the only way for many rural villages to receive cheap power”. I think renewable energies are the future of developing countries and as citizens of developed countries we should encourage them to go in this direction to avoid reproducing our mistakes in terms of energy consumption. However, even if I do agree that improving grids in developing countries is a good thing, I can not help but think that there are more basic needs to be fulfilled in those countries than being able to plug a phone : solar and wind energies can be used to do so much basic stuff and I do not think that being able to plug a phone is one of the more important things for people living in developing countries.

  • Nate Adams

    If populations making $3-5/day can do it, there are interesting applications in the first world.

  • SKYNETISHERE

    Phones are one of the most important assets for all people – developed and developing country alike. It’s your lifeline to friends/family, source of entertainment, source of news, and increasingly your wallet. In off-grid environments, it’s also a flashlight, and your only tool for security. I’ve seen villagers in rural India walk miles to find a phone charging point every other day, just as they do to find a water pump. The behavior isn’t irrational, but it isn’t necessary either. For now, the poor need power for lighting and phone-charging – and as Jigar mentioned, they pay a lot for it. As incomes rise, here’s hoping the world can provide them with affordable temperature control (namely fans), basic refrigeration and more advanced communication. And yes, even televisions. The poor enjoy soap operas and MTV too – who are we to say/judge otherwise.