Imagine a classroom packed with the latest educational technology, such as high-end networked computers, projectors and digital whiteboards. And then imagine what happens when the lights go out and the screens go blank. In fact, power cuts are still a common problem on the African content. eLearning Africa addressed this issue and presented some impressive ideas regarding alternative energy sources. Presentations covered the potential of the abundant source of sunlight as a source of energy and also turned to a little-known plant called Jatropha, which could play an important role in the future energy mix of the Continent.
By Brenda Zulu
Power outages occur quite regularly in Africa, especially in rural areas, denying millions of people access to all kinds of electrical devices and appliances. Persistent power outages also add to the high cost of investment on the African continent, as most businesses are forced to use expensive alternative power sources, such as generators.
Africa as a whole, and especially those parts involved in the Information and Communication Technology (ITC) sector, need alternatives, such as solar energy, biofuels and biogas.
Solar panels on a camel’s back
Given that Africa is generally blessed with sunlight all year round, the continent is the ideal candidate for solar energy.
Several interesting innovations in this field were presented at eLearning Africa – for example, a solar power generator system for use in schools. Prof Tony Rest of Southampton University, United Kingdom, presented this system, which can be used in the most remote parts of rural Africa – its low cost solar energy panels can even be mounted on a camel’s back.
“We have designed and field-tested several solar energy generators which can be linked to laptop computers and data and video projectors”, said Rest. “Using these systems students can benefit from instruction, stimulation and knowledge via CD-ROMs and DVDs which have been produced in other countries and adapted according to national curricula.”
The projector which Rest recommends is the Dell M109S – a genuine laptop feed projector requiring only 47 watts, compared with most other models which require two to three hundred watts. He said that the low-power Dell model made solar-charged, battery-powered classroom projection feasible.
He recommended the use of portable generators to provide electricity for schools: “Petrol generators have been around for many years but there are drawbacks owing to difficulties in obtaining supplies of petrol as well as safety hazards. Very recently, solar energy generators have become available at very reasonable prices and these promise to provide a ‘greener’ alternative, since rural schools have an abundance of the basic energy source: sunlight.”
Jatropha seeds to fuel Africa’s energy supply?
As for the production of biofuels, the Biofuels Association of Zambia explained the potential of the Jatropha plant. Its seeds are not only used in the manufacture of candles, soap and mosquito repellents, but can also be crushed to make crude Jatropha oil. Once refined, this oil can power electric generators and cars. Jatropha has now been planted on a large scale in Zambia.
Prof Thomson Sinkala, Chairman of the Biofuels Association and also a member of the eLearning Zambia National Development Committee, said that in order to improve the standard of living, it will be important to switch from low-quality energy sources such as firewood and charcoal to better quality energy sources such as biofuels and biogas. These products could also be used as household fuels or to supply electricity for computers or laptops in schools and community centres.
However, there are difficulties in producing Jatropha biofuels, as Tyson Bruno Chisambo of the Zambian Biofuels Association explained. One challenge is the lack of available loans, even though the government has approved the implementation of biofuels.
“The Jatropha plant takes three years before it starts bearing fruit. Which commercial bank is prepared to wait for three years before they can get their money?” Chisambo said.
He called for a fund to help farmers grow and process Jatropha. In addition, governments should provide incentives, such as duty-free imports for industrial refinery equipment for crushing Jatropha seeds.
The discussion at eLearning Africa revealed that, in future, bio-oil could be supplied for use in rural school generators for heavy duty work, whilst solar and wind energy sources could be used for lighting and powering appliances which do not emit heat.
The “solar projector system” was originally developed to enhance student learning in science. A range of videos showing good laboratory practice in chemistry is freely available here: