Note From Editor: This is the first article in a series of essays examining electricity, cell phones and subsistence farming. Here is how the digital cycle is gaining traction in the poorest regions of the world. The Second installment analyzes cell phones in Ukraine.
Burkina Faso is a landlocked West African country that experiences droughts and desertification. The country has very limited fossil fuels, so its realistic options for electricity are hydro-power, biomass and solar energy. There are three rivers, white, red and black Volta River, but the Savanna geography and recurring droughts make hydro-electricity undependable. The only viable electric technology for most of the country is solar energy. And that electricity is particularly important for cell phone use in rural places where these phone are making a big difference.
The Electric Grid
This is a poor country with very little agriculture. The national electric grid, SONABEL, was established in 1995, and is located in the largest city, Ouagadougou, at the center of the country. Over two million people live in Ouangadougou out of a country wide population of just under eighteen million people. About a quarter of Burkina Faso’s population are urban. The rest of the population are involved in subsistence agriculture; cotton is the primary cash crop. Gold mining is an expanding industry and gold is the main source of export revenue. Gold, cotton and livestock are the three primary export products.
Electricity from two fossil fuel generation plants are the foundation of the Ouagadougou electric grid, and represents 87 percent of the country’s electricity, 13 percent coming from hydro-power. In the southern part of the country electricity is imported from Ghana, which extends part of its grid over the border to Burkina Faso.
Communication is mostly reliant on cell phones. In the cities there are land line phones, some remaining from when this was a French colonial country named Upper Volta. Internet use is very low; just under five percent of the population have access to internet and internet growth is slow due to lack of electricity. Here is where solar power offers opportunity. There are several photo voltaic (PV) investment programs underway in Burkina Faso. The reason to watch the electric grid and communications situation in Burkina Faso is to learn how a poor country can adapt technology and also see if changing technology benefits a subsistence economy.
Cell phone penetration is at 64 percent at the end of 2013, while fixed land lines are lower than one percent. There are mobile operating companies entering the internet sector by offering mobile data services. Third generation, or 3G broadband for cell phones has not yet been introduced, so the level of technology is several years behind leading global markets where fourth generation (4G) is now becoming common.
One of the ways internet connection is available in Burkina Faso is through neighboring countries. Ghana plays an important role for regional internet in Western Africa. Four submarine fiber optic cables landing along the Ghana coast, mean there is access to the world;s online networks for the entire West African region. Without connections to neighboring internet cables, Burkina Faso has been dependent upon satellite links, which are expensive. To gain the cost advantage of using cable there are now transit fiber optic cable links which connect Burkina cities with Ghana’s fiber optic international connections, as well as with other neighboring countries.
Farming By Phone
Without electricity broadly available, the growth of cell phone use and internet access using cell phones all becomes a problem. In 2012 only 15 percent of Burkina Faso’s population had access to electricity. Being a poor country that relies on internet use over cell phones means solar energy projects will have to provide electricity in small cities, towns and rural areas. In 2012 the European Union along with the French Development Agency committed to invest financing for a solar power array in Zagtouli, Burkina Faso, on the outskirts of the capital, Ouagadougou. The facility is scheduled for completion in late 2013 or early 2014 and will generate 32 gigawatts of power (about 6% of Burkina Faso’s current power generation) and have 96,000 solar panels. In a sub-Saharan location solar is very effective for three quarters of the year but less effective during the rainy season. This solar plant will provide electricity for about 400,000 people.
If there is any way technology can break the subsistence agricultural system in Burkina Faso, internet access and cell phones are one possible way. Since 2003 a federation of 12,000 agricultural producers in south-central Burkina Faso have focused on how they can use cell phones to help exchange farming information in rural areas. The group began by training 20 local farmers to advise other farmers in their region. By using the digital camera in their phones they can show visual comparisons of what is working and what causes problems in fields. The digital cell phone images allow trainers to show images from far away and then discuss the causes of success and failure in the fields by using their phones.
One of the trainers pointed out that previously “it was difficult to convince farmers about crop varieties by telling them that their neighbors in other villages produce more per hectare, but with cell phones people can actually see the improvements and that is persuasive.” The advisers have used videos and photos to train new production and food processing methods, marketing skills, how to use organic fertilizers and sustainable management of water use. In a region prone to drought these new skills are critical in boosting production and expanding the economy.