|To: Glenn Petersen who wrote (1192)||6/11/2017 4:08:59 PM|
|Im with you guys .. UAV could be a very big deal|
About Robert Lefebvre
Mr. Lefebvre is a mechanical engineer with a degree from the University of Ottawa and has a diverse set of skills derived from experience in automotive engineering and industrial controls. He has significant practical experience that ranges from CAD design and operating machine tools to electronics assembly and computer programming.
He has been involved with the development of Ardupilot, the world's leading open-source UAV/drone operating system, since 2011. He has been the lead developer of the helicopter branch for several years and in that role he previously helped other companies deploy Ardupilot on their commercial systems. He subsequently returned to his core strength of mechanical engineering, which led to the development of the Procyon system and the creation of NOVAerial.
He has become very well respected in the field of robotic aviation, having been invited to give technical workshops at several commercial UAV conventions. Mr. Lefebvre is currently a mentor for Google's well-regarded Summer Of Code program, where he is acting as a mentor to an international engineering student who is developing a large gas-powered tandem-rotor helicopter for delivery of humanitarian aid.
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|From: Glenn Petersen||7/9/2017 3:26:54 PM|
|The Race to Solar-Power Africa|
American startups are competing to bring electricity to communities that remain off the grid.
By Bill McKibben
The New Yorker
June 26, 2017 Issue
In eighteen months, entrepreneurs brought electricity to hundreds of thousands of people in places that the grid failed to reach.
Illustration by Oliver Munday / Photographs courtesy Mathieu Young / Off-Grid Electric
The cacao-farming community of Daban, in Ghana, is seven degrees north of the equator, and it’s always hot. In May, I met with several elders there to talk about the electricity that had come to the town a few months earlier, when an American startup installed a solar microgrid nearby. Daban could now safely store the vaccine for yellow fever; residents could charge their cell phones at home rather than walking to a bigger town to do it. As we talked, one of the old men handed me a small plastic bag of water, the kind street venders sell across West Africa—you just bite off a corner and drink. The water was ice-cold and refreshing, but it took me an embarrassingly long moment to understand the pleasure with which he offered it: cold water was now available in this hot place. There was enough power to run a couple of refrigerators, and so coldness was, for the first time, a possibility.
I’d come to Daban to learn about the boom in solar power in sub-Saharan Africa. The spread of cell phones in the region has made it possible for residents to pay daily or weekly bills using mobile money, and now the hope is that, just as cell phones bypassed the network of telephone lines, solar panels will enable many rural consumers to bypass the electric grid. From Ghana, I travelled to Ivory Coast, and then to Tanzania, and along the way I encountered a variety of new solar ventures, most of them American-led. Some, such as Ghana’s Black Star Energy, which had electrified Daban, install solar microgrids, small-scale versions of the giant grid Americans are familiar with. Others, such as Off-Grid Electric, in Tanzania and Ivory Coast, market home-based solar systems that run on a panel installed on each individual house. These home-based systems can’t produce enough current for a fridge, but they can supply each home with a few lights, a mobile-phone charger, and, if the household can afford it, a small, super-efficient flat-screen TV.
In another farming town, in Ivory Coast, I talked to a man named Abou Traoré, who put his television out in a courtyard most nights, so that neighbors could come by to watch. He said that they tuned in for soccer matches—the village tilts Liverpool, but has a large pocket of Manchester United supporters. What else did he watch? Traoré considered. “I like the National Geographic channel,” he replied—that is, the broadcast arm of the institution that became famous showing Westerners pictures of remote parts of Africa.
There are about as many people living without electricity today as there were when Thomas Edison lit his first light bulb. More than half are in sub-Saharan Africa. Europe and the Americas are almost fully electrified, and Asia is quickly catching up, but the absolute number of Africans without power remains steady. A World Bank report, released in May, predicted that, given current trends, there could still be half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa without power by 2040. Even those with electricity can’t rely on it: the report noted that in Tanzania power outages were so common in 2013 that they cost businesses fifteen per cent of their annual sales. Ghanaians call their flickering power dum/sor, or “off/on.” Vivian Tsadzi, a businesswoman who lives not far from the Akosombo Dam, which provides about a third of the nation’s power, said that most of the time “it’s dum dum dum dum.” The dam’s head of hydropower generation, Kwesi Amoako, who retired last year, told me that he is proud of the structure, which created the world’s largest man-made lake. But there isn’t an easy way to increase the country’s hydropower capacity, and drought, caused by climate change, has made the system inconsistent, meaning that Ghana will have to look elsewhere for electricity. “I’ve always had the feeling that one of the main thrusts should be domestic solar,” Amoako said. “And I think we should put the off-grid stuff first, because the consumer wants it so badly.”
Electrifying Africa is one of the largest development challenges on earth. Until recently, most people assumed that the continent would electrify in the same manner as the rest of the globe. “The belief was, you’d eventually build the U.S. grid here,” Xavier Helgesen, the American co-founder and C.E.O. of Off-Grid Electric, told me. “But the U.S. is the richest country on earth, and it wasn’t fully electrified until the nineteen-forties, and that was in an era of cheap copper for wires, cheap timber for poles, cheap coal, and cheap capital. None of that is so cheap anymore, at least not over here.”
Solar electricity, on the other hand, has become inexpensive, in part because the price of solar panels has fallen at the same time that the efficiency of light bulbs and appliances has dramatically increased. In 2009, a single compact fluorescent bulb and a lead-acid battery cost about forty dollars; now, using L.E.D. bulbs and lithium-ion batteries, you can get four times as much light for the same price. In 2009, a radio, a mobile-phone charger, and a solar system big enough to provide four hours of light and television a day would have cost a Kenyan a thousand dollars; now it’s three hundred and fifty dollars.
President Trump has derided renewable energy as “really just an expensive way of making the tree huggers feel good about themselves.” But many Western entrepreneurs see solar power in Africa as a chance to reach a large market and make a substantial profit. This is a nascent industry, which, at the moment, represents a small percentage of the electrification in the region, and is mostly in rural areas. There’s plenty of uncertainty about its future, and no guarantee that it will spread at the pace of cell phones. Still, in the past eighteen months, these businesses have brought electricity to hundreds of thousands of consumers—many of them in places that the grid failed to reach, despite a hundred-year head start. Funding, much of it from private investors based in Silicon Valley or Europe, is flowing into this sector—more than two hundred million dollars in venture capital last year, up from nineteen million in 2013—and companies are rapidly expanding their operations with the new money. M-Kopa, an American startup that launched in Kenya, in 2011, now has half a million pay-as-you-go solar customers; d.light, a competitor with offices in California, Kenya, China, and India, says that it is adding eight hundred new households a day. Nicole Poindexter, the founder and C.E.O. of Black Star, told me that every million dollars the company raises in venture capital delivers power to seven thousand people. She expects Black Star to be profitable within the next three years.
Like many of the American entrepreneurs I met in Africa, Poindexter has a background in finance. A graduate of Harvard Business School, she worked as a derivatives trader before leading business development at Opower, a software platform for utilities customers that was acquired by Oracle last year. (Unlike many of these entrepreneurs, who tend to skew white and male, Poindexter is African-American.) She decided to start the company in 2015, after she began to learn about energy poverty. She recalled watching TV coverage of the Ebola epidemic in Liberia. “There was a lot of coughing in the background, and I was thinking, That’s someone with Ebola,” she said. “But it wasn’t. It was from the smoke in the room from the fire.” Last year, in the Ghanaian community of Kofihuikrom, one of the first towns that Black Star served, the company erected twenty-two solar panels. Today, the local clinic no longer has to deliver babies by flashlight. The town chief, Nana Kwaku Appiah, said that he was so excited that he initially left his lights on inside all night. “Our relatives from the city used to not come here to visit,” he said. “Now they do.”
When I visited the Tanzanian headquarters of Off-Grid Electric, in the city of Arusha, the atmosphere was reminiscent of Palo Alto or Mountain View, with standing desks and glassed-in conference rooms for impromptu meetings. Erick Donasian, the company’s head of service in Tanzania, grew up in a powerless house three miles from the office and joined the company in 2013; he said that, along with his enthusiasm for the company’s goals, one attraction of working there is that it is far less formal than many Tanzanian businesses, where “you have to tuck your shirt in, which I hate the most.” Off-Grid’s Silicon Valley influence was clearest in the T-shirt Helgesen wore. It read “Make something people want,” and sported the logo for Y Combinator, Silicon Valley’s most famous incubator, where Helgesen’s wife had recently developed a bartering app.
Helgesen, who is thirty-eight years old and lanky, with hair that he regularly brushes out of his eyes, grew up in Silver Bay, Minnesota, a small town on the shore of Lake Superior. At fourteen, he came up with the idea of leasing the municipal mini-golf course for a summer, and tripled revenues by offering season passes and putting on special promotions for visiting hockey teams. As a sophomore at Notre Dame, in 1999, he set up a Web site that posted the college’s freshman register online, so that, as he put it, “you’d actually know who that cute girl you saw in anthro class was.” Helgesen started similar sites at other colleges, but, he told me, “I wasn’t as good a programmer as Zuckerberg. Even if I’d gotten it completely right, it would have been more Friendster than Facebook.” His first major company, Better World Books, founded in 2002, took the model of charity used-book drives and moved it online. It’s now one of the biggest sellers of used books on Amazon, and has helped raise twenty-five million dollars for literacy organizations, including Books for Africa.
Helgesen made his first trip to Tanzania in 2006, to visit recipients of Better World’s funding and to go on safari. “I was staying at a fancy lodge near Kilimanjaro, and I remember thinking, How do things really work around here?” Helgesen said. He paid a local man to take him to the nearest village. “I was peppering him with questions: ‘Do young people go to the city?’ ‘How much does coffee sell for?’ ” The experience, he said, “flipped my mind-set from ‘People in Africa are poor and they need our help and our donated books’ to ‘This is what an emerging economy looks like. This is young people, this is entrepreneurialism, this is where growth will be.’ ” During a second trip to Africa, he went scuba diving in Lake Malawi (“to see the cichlid fish, which keep their babies in their mouths”), and was invited to dinner by his scuba instructor. “It was a decent-sized town, maybe twenty thousand people, but absolutely no electricity,” Helgesen said. “It was all narrow alleys—they were bustling, but they were pitch-black.”
In 2010, Helgesen won a Skoll Scholarship to Oxford, for M.B.A. students seeking “entrepreneurial solutions for urgent social and environmental challenges,” and spent the year researching the renewables market. He found two like-minded business partners, and, in 2012, they set up shop in Arusha. At first, they planned to build solar microgrids to power cell-phone towers and sell the excess electricity to locals, but, Helgesen said, “it became clear that that was a pretty expensive way to go.” So they visited customers in their homes to ask them what they wanted. “Those conversations were the smartest thing we ever did,” Helgesen said. “I remember this one customer, she had a baby, and she would keep the kerosene lamp on low all night, as a night-light. It was costing thirty dollars a month in kerosene. And I was, like, Wow, for thirty dollars a month I could do a lot better.”
Helgesen decided to “start with the customer, and the price point they could pay, and build the business behind that.” Matt Schiller, the thirty-two-year-old vice-president of business operations, said that, in some ways, it is an easy sell. “If we talk to a hundred customers, not one says, ‘I’d rather have kerosene,’ ” he told me. “Not one says, ‘I’d like the warm glow of the kerosene lights.’ In fact, when we were designing the L.E.D.s, we focus-grouped lights. And the engineers assumed they’d want a warmer light, because that’s what they were used to. But, no, they picked the bluest, hardest light you can imagine. That’s modernity. That’s clean.”
There were solar panels in sub-Saharan Africa before companies like Off-Grid arrived, but customers generally had to pay for them up front, a forbidding prospect for many. “Cost is important to the customer at the bottom, but risk is even more important,” Helgesen told me. “A bad decision when you’re that poor can mean your kids don’t eat or go to school, which is why people tend to be conservative. And which is why kerosene was winning. There was no risk. You could buy it a tiny bit at a time.”
Off-Grid, like several of its competitors, finances the panels, so that people can pay the same small monthly amounts they were paying for kerosene. Customers in Tanzania put down about thirteen dollars to buy Off-Grid’s cheapest starter kit: a panel, a battery, a few L.E.D. lights, a phone charger, and a radio. Then they pay about eight dollars a month for three years, after which they own the products outright. The most popular system adds a few more lights and a flat-screen TV, for a higher down payment and about twice the monthly price. Customers pay their bill by phone; if they don’t pay, the system stops working, and after a while it is repossessed. That scenario, it turns out, is uncommon: less than two per cent of the loans in Tanzania have gone bad.
Despite Off-Grid’s Silicon Valley vibe, it faces challenges unfamiliar to software companies. Aidan Leonard, Off-Grid’s Arusha-based general counsel, told me that the company “requires a lot of people walking around selling things and installing things and fixing things. There’s a lot of hardware—someone’s got a physical box in their house, and a panel on the roof, and they have to pay for it on a monthly basis.” Poindexter, of Black Star, put the problem more bluntly. “We’re a utility company,” she told me, and utilities are a difficult business.
In America, utilities are burdened with infrastructure, such as the endless poles and wires that come down in storms. Off-Grid doesn’t have to worry about poles, and the wires only run a few feet, from panel to battery to appliance. Still, the company is working with technology that is brand-new and needs to be made cheaply in order to be affordable. When solar energy first came to Africa, it was expensive and unreliable. Arne Jacobson, a professor of environmental-resources engineering at Humboldt State University, in California, is a couple of decades older than most of the entrepreneurs I met in Africa. He got his doctorate studying the first generation of home solar in Kenya, in the late nineteen-nineties. “In Kenya, I was trying to understand the quality of the panels that had started to flood the market,” he said. Much of the technology had “big troubles. Chinese panels, panels from the U.K., all this low-quality junk coming in. Later, L.E.D.s that failed in hours or days instead of lasting thousands of hours, as they should. People’s first experiences were often really bad.”
Jacobson has spent his career in renewable energy; he helped build the world’s first street-legal hydrogen-fuel-cell vehicle, in 1998. He now runs Humboldt’s Schatz Energy Research Center. (“You want to know why a lot of early solar research happened in Humboldt?” he asked me. “Because there were a lot of back-to-the-land types here, and they had cash because they were growing dope.”) After seeing the unpredictability of solar technology, he created, in 2007, what he calls a “de facto consumer-protection bureau for this nascent industry.” The program, Lighting Global, which is run under the umbrella of the World Bank Group, tests and certifies panels, bulbs, and appliances to make sure that they work as promised. Jacobson credits this innovation with making investors more willing to put their money into companies such as Off-Grid, which has now raised more than fifty-five million dollars. His main testing lab is in Shenzhen, China, near most of the solar-panel manufacturers. He also has facilities in Nairobi, New Delhi, and Addis Ababa, and some of the work is still done in the basement of his building at Humboldt, where there’s an “integrating sphere” for measuring light output from a bulb, and a machine that switches radios on and off to see if they’ll eventually break.
Because many of Off-Grid’s potential customers have experience with bad products, or know someone who has, the company takes extra steps to build trust with its clients. After an Off-Grid installer shows up on his motorbike, he opens the product carton with great solemnity; in an Ivorian village, I watched along with seventeen neighbors, who nodded as the young man held up each component, one by one. He then climbed onto the roof of the house, nailed on a solar panel about the size of a placemat, and used a crowbar to lift up the corrugated-tin roof to run the wire inside. He screwed the battery box to the cement-block wall and walked the customer through the process of switching lights on and off several times, something the man had never done before. The company also offers a service guarantee: as long as customers are making their payments, they can call a number on the box and a repairman will arrive within three days. These LightRiders, as the company calls them, are trained to trouble-shoot small problems. They travel by motorcycle, and if they can’t make repairs easily they replace the system with a new one and haul the old unit back to headquarters.
This sales-and-installation system presents some engineering challenges. When the company expanded into Ivory Coast, last year, it had to redesign its packaging to fit on the smaller motorcycles used there. It also runs into problems coördinating coverage across a vast area where most houses don’t have conventional addresses. “We had to build our own internal software to make it possible,” Kim Schreiber, who runs Off-Grid’s marketing operations in Africa, said. “We optimize, via G.P.S. coördinates, the best routes for our riders to take. The LightRider turns on his phone every morning, and he has a list of his tasks for the day, so he knows what parts to take with him.”
Solar companies also contend with the complexity of the mobile-payment systems. In Ghana, where many customers don’t use mobile money, Poindexter’s Black Star team instead sells scratch cards from kiosks, which give customers a code they need to enter on their meter box to top up their account. Off-Grid delivers these codes over the phone, but the company still needs a call center, manned by fifteen people, to help customers with the mechanics of paying. Nena Sanderson, who runs Off-Grid’s Tanzanian operation, showed me the steps entailed in paying a bill through a ubiquitous mobile-money system called M-Pesa. There are ten screens, and the process ends with the input of a sixteen-digit code. “And I have a smartphone,” she said. “Now, imagine a feature phone, and imagine you may not know how to read, and the screen is a lot smaller, and it’s probably scratched up. Mobile money is a great enabler, but it’s not frictionless.” One of Off-Grid’s competitors, PEGAfrica, has printed the whole sequence on a wristband, which it gives to customers.
Because one of the biggest obstacles to the growth of solar power in the region is the lack of available cash, many of these companies are essentially banks as well as utilities, providing loans to customers who may have no credit history. That can make it hard to figure out what to charge people. “What you see in this space is at least eight to ten decent-sized pay-as-you-go solar companies, all trying to parse through what the actual end price to the customer really is,” Peter Bladin, who spent many years in leadership roles at Microsoft and now invests in several of these firms, told me. Bladin first started studying distributed solar—solar electricity produced near where it is used—in Bangladesh, where the Nobel Prize winner Muhammad Yunus used his Grameen microcredit network to finance and distribute panels and batteries. Lacking that established financial architecture, companies in sub-Saharan Africa are constantly experimenting with different plans: Off-Grid began by offering ten-year leases, but found that customers wanted to own their systems more quickly, and so the payments are now spread out over three years. PEGAfrica customers buy their system in twelve months, but the company gives them hospitalization insurance as a bonus. Black Star is a true utility: the customers in the communities where it builds microgrids will always pay bills, but the charges start at only two dollars a month. (The business model depends on customers steadily increasing the amount of energy they buy, as they move from powering televisions to powering small businesses.) Companies like Burro—a Ghanaian outfit launched by Whit Alexander, the Seattle entrepreneur who founded Cranium games—sell lamps and chargers and panels outright, saving customers credit fees but limiting the number of people who can afford the products.
This uncertainty about the most practical financial model reflects the fact that in sub-Saharan Africa there is a great deal of economic diversity, both between countries and within them. One morning, I found myself walking down a line of houses in the Arushan suburb of Morombo. At the first house, a two-room cinder-block structure with a broken piece of mirror on one wall, a woman talked with me as we sat on the floor. The home represented a big step up for her, she said—she and her husband had rented a place for years, until they were able to buy this plot of land and build this house. She had a solar lantern the size of a hockey puck in her courtyard, soaking up rays. (Aid groups have distributed more than a million of these little lamps across the continent.) She assured me that she planned to get a larger solar system soon, but, for many of Africa’s poorest people, buying a lantern is the only possible step toward electrification.
Next door, a twenty-six-year-old student named Nehemiah Klimba shared a more solidly built house with his mother. It had a corrugated-iron roof on a truss that let hot air escape, and we sat on a sofa. Klimba said that, as soon as he finished paying off the windows, he was going to electrify. He and his mother were already spending fifteen dollars a month on kerosene and another four dollars charging their cell phones at a local store, so they knew they’d be able to afford the twenty dollars a month for a solar system with a TV.
One door down was the fanciest house I’d seen in weeks. It belonged to a soldier who worked as a U.N. peacekeeper, and the floors were made of polished stone. There was an Off-Grid solar system on the roof, but it was providing only backup power. The owner had paid a hefty fee to connect to the local electric grid, so he faced none of the limitations of a battery replenished by the sun. In his living room, he had a huge TV and speakers; a stainless-steel Samsung refrigerator gleamed in the kitchen.
“This is how the solar revolution happens—one hot sales meeting at a time,” Off-Grid’s Kim Schreiber whispered to me as we watched one of the company’s salesmen, an Ivorian named Seko Serge Lewis, at work. We were visiting the village of Grand Zattry with Off-Grid’s Ivory Coast sales director, Max-Marc Fossouo. A couple of dogs tussled nearby; a motorbike rolled past with six people on board. In the courtyard next to us, a woman was doing the day’s laundry in a bucket with a washboard. Her husband listened to the sales pitch from Lewis, who was showing him pictures on his cell phone of other customers in the village.
“That’s to build up trust,” Fossouo said. He’d been providing a play-by-play throughout the hour-long sales call. “This customer is on a big fence,” he said. “He’s stuck in the trust place. And I’m pretty sure the decision-maker is over there washing the clothes anyway.” Fossouo was born in Cameroon and went to school in Paris. In his twenties, he spent seven summers in the U.S., selling books for Southwestern Publishing, a Nashville-based titan of door-to-door marketing. (Rick Perry is another company alum; so is Kenneth Starr.) “I did L.A. for years,” he told me. “ ‘Hi, my name is Max. I’m a crazy college student from France, and I’m helping families with their kids’ education. I’ve been talking to your neighbors A, B, and C, and I’d like to talk to you. Do you have a place where I can come in and sit down?’ ” All selling, he said, is the same: “It starts with a person understanding they have a problem. Someone might live in the dark but not understand that it’s a problem. So you have to show them. And then you have to create a sense of urgency to spend the money to solve the problem now.”
The man turned down Lewis’s pitch. He was worried that he wouldn’t be able to make the monthly payments in the lean stretch before the next cacao harvest. “That’s crap,” Fossouo whispered, pointing again to the man’s wife. “He loves this woman, he can move the world for her.” When we went to the next house, Fossouo took over. This prospect was a farmer and schoolteacher, and they talked in his classroom, which had a few low desks with shards of slate on top. Fossouo had the man catalogue everything that he was spending on energy: money for kerosene, flashlight batteries, even the gas for the scooter that he borrowed when he needed to charge his phone. Then Fossouo showed him what he had to offer: a radio and four lights, each with a dimmer switch. “Where would you put the lamp?” he asked. “In front of the door? Of course! And the big light in the middle of the room, so when you have a party everyone could see. Now, tell me, if you went to the market to buy all of this, how much would it cost?” Fossouo tried angle after angle. “You have to think big here,” he said. “When I talked to your chief, he said, ‘Don’t think small.’ If your kid could see the news on TV, he might say, ‘I, too, could be President.’ ”
“This is great,” the man said. “I know you’re trying to help us. I just don’t have the money. Life is hard, things are expensive. Sometimes we’re hungry.”
Fossouo nodded. “What if I gave you a way to pay for it?” he asked. “So the dollar wouldn’t even come from your pocket? If you get a system, people will pay you to charge their phones. Or, if you had a TV, you could charge people to come watch the football games.”
“I couldn’t charge a person for coming in to watch a game,” the man said. “We’re all one big family. If someone is wealthy enough to have a TV, everyone is welcome to it.”
The hour ended without a sale, but Fossouo wasn’t worried. “It takes two or three approaches on average,” he said. “You always have to leave the person in a good place, where he loves you stopping by. This guy wants to finish building his house right now—his house is heavy on him—but it won’t be long.” As we talked, the first prospect came over, asking for a leaflet and a phone number. His wife, he said, was very interested.
The arrival of electricity is hard for today’s Westerners to imagine. Light means differences in sleeping and eating patterns and an increased sense of safety. I talked with one Tanzanian near Arusha who had traded in a kerosene lamp for five Off-Grid bulbs, including a security light outside his door that went on automatically when it got dark. “Crime is here,” he said, “but also dangerous animals. Especially snakes. So it’s good to have lights.” Everywhere I went, I met parents who said that their children could study at night. “You can feel the effects with their grades now at school,” one Ivorian father said. Several town chiefs told me that they hoped to get classroom computers, and one planned to mechanize the well so that townspeople would no longer need to pump water by hand. Farmers in West Africa were getting daily weather reports from Farmerline, a Ghanaian information service that uses G.P.S. to customize the forecasts. “If a farmer puts fertilizer on the field and then it rains, he loses the fertilizer—it washes away,” Alloysius Attah, a young Ghanaian entrepreneur who co-founded the service, told me. “And the farmers say they can’t tell the rain anymore. My auntie could read the clouds, the birds flying by, but the usual rainfall pattern has shifted.”
“Our killer app is definitely the television,” Off-Grid’s Schreiber said. “If the twenty-four-inch is out of stock, lots of people won’t buy.” Wandering through newly electrified towns, I saw teen-agers watching action movies. Black Star’s Poindexter told me, “There was a kid in town that I liked, Samuel, and when I came back after the power was turned on his arm was in a cast. He’d watched a karate show on TV, and he and his friends were playing it, and he broke his arm. I was horrified—I was, like, society is not prepared for this. And then I remembered that I did the same thing after I watched ‘Popeye’ as a kid. I ran right into the hedge and had to get twenty stitches. That’s kids and TV.”
In Daban, after I asked what the most popular program was, everyone began laughing and nodding. “ ‘Kumkum’!” people shouted. “Kumkum Bhagya,” an Indian soap opera set in a marriage hall and loosely based on Jane Austen’s “Sense and Sensibility,” airs every night from seven-thirty to eight-thirty, during which time village life comes to a standstill. “All the chiefs have advocated for everyone to watch, because it’s about how relationships are built,” the local chief, Nana Oti Awere, said. Of course, the changes brought about by electrification will affect local communities in unpredictable ways that will play out over many years. One mother I spoke to explained that the TV “keeps the children at home at night, instead of roaming around.” The Ivorian farmer who told me about the effects on his children’s grades went on to say, “In the old time, you had to go outside and talk. Now my neighbor has his TV, I have my TV, and we stay inside.”
A decade ago, most experts would have predicted that foreign aid, rather than venture capital, would play a central role in bringing power to sub-Saharan Africa. Off-Grid Electric has been funded by sources including Tesla and Paul Allen’s venture fund, Vulcan. Allen, one of the world’s richest men, is worth twenty billion dollars, or roughly half of the G.D.P. of Tanzania, a country of almost fifty-four million people. Should he be able to make yet more money off the electrification of African huts? There’s more than a whiff of colonialism about the rush of Westerners and Western money into Africa. As Attah, the young Ghanaian who helped found Farmerline, put it, “There are a lot of Ivy Leaguers coming to Africa to say, ‘I can solve this problem, snap, snap, snap.’ They’re doing good work, but little investment goes to community leaders who are doing the same work on the ground.”
The Westerners I spoke to, though they pledged to hire more local executives, didn’t think that the drive to help was incompatible with the desire to make money. As Poindexter put it, “There is a level of responsibility that I feel, and that I think any appropriate investor needs to have, about extraction versus contribution. I am not willing to be an extractive capitalist here, but I think that capitalism has an extremely important role to play in these communities.” Helgesen—who, despite his occasional oblivious tech-dudishness, spends most of his time in very remote places trying to provide power—is unapologetic about his company’s funding sources. Billionaires, he says, have the capital to make companies grow fast enough to matter. “Paul Allen didn’t invest because he thought it was the easiest way to make more money,” Helgesen said. “I got an awful lot of ‘no’s along the way from people who wanted easier money.” In any event, it’s not clear that other sources of funding are available, at least from the U.S.: Trump, pulling out of the Paris climate accord earlier this month, said that the country would not meet its pledge to help poor nations develop renewable energy, dismissing the plan as “yet another scheme to redistribute wealth out of the United States through the so-called Green Climate Fund—nice name.”
Even when aid agencies are well funded, they haven’t always delivered. Over the last decade, a strong critique of aid, ranging from William Easterly’s “The White Man’s Burden” to Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid,” has laid much of the blame for Africa’s continued underdevelopment on the weaknesses of sweeping programs planned from afar. Still, aid agencies and global-development banks have a useful role to play in the energy transition. It will be years before it makes financial sense for solar companies to expand to the most remote and challenging regions of the continent. As new companies launch, they will need an infusion of what Helgesen calls “ultra-high-risk capital.” Private investors will supply it, he says, “but they want forty per cent of your company in return, which makes it hard to raise capital later on, because you’ve already sold off such a big chunk.” Some aid agencies have funded private ventures in the early stages, to help them get off the ground or reach new geographic areas. U.S.A.I.D. gave Off-Grid five million dollars toward its early costs, and, over the past few years, a Dutch development agency has given the company several hundred thousand euros as it has extended into the impoverished lakes region of Tanzania, where it otherwise wouldn’t have been profitable to go. Currency risks pose another problem: Poindexter told me that when she builds a Ghanaian microgrid she has invested in an asset with a twenty-year life span in a country where inflation is highly unpredictable. “We just had an election in the U.S. with huge consequences for policy,” she said. “But over here every election is potentially like that.” And, like anywhere in the world, national governments can make things easier by establishing clear policies. Rwanda’s leaders, for instance, specified the regions in which the rapidly developing country planned to extend its grid, thereby delineating where solar would be needed most.
“African leaders used to think solar was being pushed on them,” Clare Sierawski, who works on renewable energy with the U.S. Trade and Development Agency in Accra, said. “But now they all want solar. It’s a confluence of things. Mostly, it’s getting cheaper. And governments were tuned in to it by the Paris accord.” Ananth Chikkatur, who runs a U.S.A.I.D. project in the city, had just returned from taking thirteen high-ranking Ghanaians on a trip to study solar power in California. “Renewable energy should not be considered an alternative technology,” he said. “It’s becoming a conventional technology now.” Rwanda is not the only nation expanding its grid, and many countries are turning to large solar farms to generate power. Burkina Faso, for instance, has plans for solar arrays across its desert regions.
Distributed generation, however, is especially essential in rural areas, and it is growing fast—maybe, according to some observers, too fast. The investor Peter Bladin told me that the push for quick returns on investment could lead some companies to try to “squeeze more out of poor households” and warned about “mission drift, trying to make money off the backs of the poor in a dubious way.” Earlier this year, three principals from the impact-investment firm Ceniarth, which had put money into Off-Grid and similar companies, said that it was backing out of the industry for the time being. In an open letter, they wrote that the hype of venture capitalists and the lack of government regulation “puts consumers at risk and places a great deal of responsibility on vendors to self-police.” The gush of money, they cautioned, “may be too much, too fast for a sector that still has not fully solved core business model issues and may struggle under the high growth expectations and misaligned incentives of many venture capitalists.” Helgesen, unsurprisingly, disagreed with their analysis of investor over-exuberance. “It’s like looking at a Palm Pilot and saying, ‘This is not so great,’ ” he said. “Or even an iPhone 1. The iPhone 1 was a necessary step to the iPhone 7. People who have raised real money have not raised it on the premise that we’ll be selling the same stuff in ten years.” But he wasn’t waiting for the technology to mature. “We have to think about the future, and we have to sell something people want today,” he said.
Most customers I met had little interest in the fact that their power came from the sun, or that it was environmentally friendly. Since these communities weren’t using power previously, their solar panels fight climate change only in the sense that they decrease pressure to build power plants that consume fossil fuel. But some observers hope that the experience in Africa—which today has more off-the-grid solar homes than the U.S.—could help drive transformation elsewhere. Already, a few dozen American cities have pledged to become one-hundred-per-cent renewable. (Pittsburgh did so the day after Trump held up its theoretically beleaguered citizens as a reason for leaving the climate accord.) The U.S. has already sunk a fortune into building its electric grid, and it may seem far-fetched to think that users will disconnect from it entirely. But, as Helgesen told me, “As batteries get better, it’s going to be a lot more realistic for people to stop depending on their utility.” He thinks that, in an ideal world, technological change could lead to cultural change. “The average American has no concept of electrical constraint,” he said. “If we accept some modest restrictions on our power availability, we can go off-grid very quickly.”
For many people in the countries I visited, solar power is creating a new hope: for electric fans. When I was there, Off-Grid Electric was expanding from the relatively cool highlands around Mt. Kilimanjaro to the scorching, humid lowlands of West Africa, and in every village we visited the message was the same: The TV is great, the light bulb is great, but can I please have a fan? Many homes are poorly ventilated; windows are expensive, and can attract burglars. Fans, however, draw a comparatively large amount of current, threatening to quickly drain the battery that a solar panel has spent the day filling. And, unlike light bulbs or televisions, fans have moving parts that easily break. “Our customers tend to make heavy use of their equipment,” Off-Grid’s Schreiber said. Still, she promised one village after another that fans were coming soon.
Shea Hughes, Off-Grid’s product manager, is one of the employees charged with delivering on that promise. Hughes told me that he hopes to someday make Off-Grid’s product powerful enough to perform industrial tasks: pumping water for irrigation, milling cacao, and so on. “I’m confident solar is capable of doing that,” he said. “You just add more panels and you get to the power requirements you need. And as the price drops, well . . . ” He had recently been to a consumer-electronics fair in China. “I was amazed to see the prices,” he said.
For the moment, though, a workable fan would be nice. “We’d always thought a fan would take too much power for the current systems we’re selling,” Hughes said. “But the people in Ivory Coast were so insistent that we went back and looked at it.” Because of the emerging market for super-efficient appliances, in the U.S. and elsewhere, some manufacturers had a product that, as long as you kept it set to medium, drew only eight and a half watts. (The standard incandescent light bulb that hung in American hallways for generations drew sixty.) “We’ve told the manufacturer to eliminate the high-speed option,” Hughes said. “Now medium is high. And in our tests people are satisfied with the air speed. But they say the battery tends to run out at 3 or 4 A.M., and they typically sleep till 6 A.M. So it’s not perfect, but it’s getting there.” ?
This article appears in other versions of the June 26, 2017, issue, with the headline “Power Brokers.”
Bill McKibben, a former New Yorker staff writer, is the founder of the grassroots climate campaign 350.org and the Schumann Distinguished Scholar in environmental studies at Middlebury College.
|RecommendKeepReplyMark as Last Read|
|From: Glenn Petersen||8/7/2017 10:35:22 PM|
|A GiveDirectly update from NPR:|
How To Fix Poverty: Why Not Just Give People Money?
(GP: NPR podcast at link below)
August 7, 20172:42 PM ET
Heard on All Things Considered
Denis Otieno is one of the villagers getting $22 each month from the charity GiveDirectly. He and his wife have used some of the money to buy cypress saplings. They hope to sell the trees for lumber in a few years to pay for their children's education. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Young guys in dusty polo shirts. New moms holding their babies. Grandmas in bright head wraps. They've all gathered in a clearing for one of the village meetings when something remarkable happens. Practically every person's cellphone starts tinkling.
In this series, NPR explores an emerging idea in the fight against global poverty. Instead of offering poor people traditional aid — seeds or goats or job training — what if you just give cash? Join the conversation with the hashtag #NoStringsCash or tweet us @NPRGoatsAndSoda
It's a text alert from an American charity called GiveDirectly. Last fall, GiveDirectly announced that it will give every adult in this impoverished village in Kenya an extra $22 each month for the next 12 years — with no strings attached. The money is wired to bank accounts linked to each villager's phone. The alert is the signal that the latest payment has posted. Everyone starts cheering. Some of the younger women break into song.
The payouts are part of a grand and unprecedented experiment that is motivated by an equally sweeping question: What if our entire approach to helping the world's poorest people is fundamentally flawed?
Otieno withdraws money from his M-PESA account, a widely used banking system linked to people's phones. GiveDirectly wires its monthly payouts to the villagers through M-PESA. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Dancan Odero checks his phone to confirm that the GiveDirectly transfer has been made. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Today practically all aid is given as "in-kind" donations — whether that's food, an asset like a cow, job training or schoolbooks. And this means that, in effect, it's the providers of aid — governments, donor organizations, even private individuals donating to a charity — who decide what poor people need most. But what if you just gave poor people cash with no strings attached? Let them decide how best to use it?
GiveDirectly has actually been advocating for this kind of cash aid for the past decade. Founded by four grad students in economics who wanted to challenge traditional aid, the charity has already given $65 million to people across Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda, provided by a mix of Silicon Valley foundations and ordinary citizens who contribute through GiveDirectly's website. And GiveDirectly has shown through rigorous, independent study that people don't waste the money.
Still, those cash grants were relatively modest one-time payouts. With this experiment, GiveDirectly wants to see what happens when you give extremely poor people a much longer runway — a guaranteed "basic income" they can count on for years. Michael Faye, the chairman of GiveDirectly, says they've chosen to set the payment at $22 because in Kenya $22 per person per month is "the food poverty line — the amount of money it would take to afford a basic basket of food for yourself."
This hamlet, near Lake Victoria, is the first to participate in the cash distribution experiment. GiveDirectly plans to expand the payouts to 200 villages and compare them to 100 other villages that don't get the cash. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
This hamlet near Lake Victoria — about 400 residents living on less than $2 a day in mud-brick huts with no running water — is just the beginning. (GiveDirectly has asked that NPR not disclose the name of the village to protect residents' privacy.) This coming fall, GiveDirectly wants to extend the monthly payments to every adult in 200 similar villages across Kenya, then compare them to 100 "control" villages that don't get the cash. To do this they need $30 million, of which they've raised $25 million.
Some of the world's foremost researchers of anti-poverty strategies will be doing an independent study of the data that emerges — including Alan Krueger, professor of economics at Princeton University, and Abhijit Banerjee, a professor of economics at MIT and director of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab.
It will take more than a decade to determine the impact. But just a few months in you can get a hint from two cousins at the village meeting, who are grinning and clapping as the women finish their song
All his life, Denis Otieno has been striving to climb out of poverty only to find himself blocked by a lack of funds. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Denis Otieno is a father of four in his late 30s. He holds up his phone to show his new balance. "I got it!" he exults.
Standing next to him is 30-year-old Dancan Odero, who is single and more soft-spoken, but looking just as pleased as he clicks through his phone.
"I'm more happy," he mumbles. "I'm more happy. I'm more happy."
For each of them the money has already proved life-changing but — and this is the key — in totally different ways.
Otieno: "I'm thinking of putting up a forest"We'll start with Otieno. I meet up with him one morning in a field by his house as he slashes off tree branches with a machete. He's going to burn the wood to make charcoal.
What you need to know about Otieno is that he's an entrepreneurial sort of guy who all his life has been striving to climb out of poverty — only to find himself blocked by a lack of funds.
Despite a tough start in life — he was orphaned at age 16 — straight out of high school he got himself into a training program for mechanics. He managed to land a job repairing cars, thanks to a relative who worked at the same company in one of Kenya's cities. Then that company closed. Since then, Otieno says, he has found it impossible to find another position. "I've applied! I've applied so many times and it doesn't work," he sighs.
Part of the problem, he explains, is that the person doing the hiring at a company often requests a bribe. "They'll say, 'OK, I want half your salary, before you start.' " Otieno doesn't have that kind of money.
Otieno and two waitresses go over the accounts at his lakeside bar. To start the business he had to take out a loan. Now the payments are crushing him. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
He has also tried starting various small businesses — including a kind of bar, selling drinks to fishermen out of a gazebo on the shore of Lake Victoria. The trouble: To get the bar off the ground, Otieno had to take out a loan of about a thousand dollars at an interest rate of nearly 25 percent. Now the payments are crushing him. "Each day, whatever sales I make I just send to the bank," Otieno says. "You end up working for the bank."
Then there's this charcoal making. Ideally, Otieno says, he would buy the rights to harvest one of the tall, thick trees that grow on some people's property, then rent a chainsaw to cut it up. But that would require money up front, which, again, he doesn't have. Instead, he has to make do with the thinner shrubs on his own land, hacking off each limb by hand.
Source: Nichole Sobecki for NPR. Otieno prepares the ground to burn wood for charcoal.
Sweat pours off him as he hoists the pieces onto his shoulder and lugs them over to the burn pile. It will take hours to chop the wood. Then he has to cut leaves to cover the pile. Light a fire at the bottom. Shovel dirt on top. The process will take two days — after which he'll have enough charcoal to sell for, at best, $5.
So the combined $44 a month Otieno and his wife have been getting from GiveDirectly is boosting their income by as much as 50 percent many months.
The benefits are already visible, most notably in the case of Otieno's 2-year-old daughter Gloria, who is looking healthy and full of pep as she toddles behind him. "My Daddy's girl," he calls her, because she follows him everywhere. She picks up a stick and pretends it's a machete, thwacking at branches alongside her dad.
Otieno's 2-year-old daughter, Gloria, follows him everywhere. "She's my Daddy's girl," he says. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Gloria used to cry all the time, Otieno says, because she was hungry. Before the GiveDirectly payments started there were many days each month when he couldn't afford to buy his children breakfast or lunch. Sometimes there wasn't even dinner apart from what Otieno calls "porridge" — water mixed with flour and sugar, "just to fill the stomach." On those nights, he recalled, "you feel so ashamed as a father."
Otieno and his wife, Bentah, laugh as Gloria munches on some bread. Gloria used to cry all the time because she was hungry. Now Otieno can guarantee her solid food every day. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
He still wishes he could feed his children more meat and fish. But with the extra charity money, now he can at least guarantee them solid food for both lunch and dinner. And for breakfast they're getting milk from several goats that are chomping on shrubbery nearby. The family used to own just two. With the charity money they've bought three more. They hope to breed them — then sell the offspring. Maybe upgrade to a cow.
Otieno and his oldest daughter plant one of the cypress saplings. He says he'll designate a different section of the grove for each child to help him tend. "It's going to be like their bank account." Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Longer term Otieno has an even more ambitious plan: "I'm thinking of putting up a forest," he says. Specifically, a grove of eucalyptus and cypress trees. They're used as lumber in construction. Every month Otieno has been setting aside $10 of the charity money to save up for saplings. They should be tall enough to sell in five years. He wants to use the money to put all four of his children through high school. He'll designate a different section of the grove for each child to help him tend. "It's going to be like their bank account," he says, laughing.
Otieno is hoping that his tree venture will be the one that finally boosts his family out of poverty. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
And maybe something more. Otieno is hoping this venture will be the one that finally boosts his family out of poverty. Because this time, for the first time, Otieno doesn't just have an idea. He has the capital to make a proper go of it. So that 12 years from now when the money from GiveDirectly stops flowing, he won't need it.
Odero: The power of a sofa set
Now to Otieno's cousin, Dancan Odero — the 30-year-old single guy. He's had a different experience.
Odero lives just a 10-minute walk away from his cousin's house along a red dirt path. When I catch up with him he's also hacking at branches. The field belongs to his elderly aunt. He's clearing underbrush while he chats with her.
Dancan Odero at his family's compound. He has epilepsy, which makes it hard for him to work. His family says he's constantly trying to prove he can be useful. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
She looks worried. Odero has epilepsy. Working in this sun is risky. "I'm scared he could have a seizure right here," she confides in a low voice. She's seen it happen before, she adds. "Many times." But Odero insisted on helping.
His family says he's constantly trying to prove he can be useful — be independent. But people hesitate to hire him for even odd jobs. He'll go out with the other young guys to look for work. Then watch as everyone gets picked but him. Back at his house he says that when that happens, "it makes me so frustrated I start shaking and I feel like crying. But I just keep it inside."
What makes it all worse, he adds, is that he didn't used to be this way. Back in elementary school he was a top student. One of his cousins, Isaac Oguti, remembers how Odero even used to get a little cheeky with teachers, bombarding them with questions. But Oguti says they'd let it slide because "he was so bright, the teachers loved him."
Then, when Odero was in the eighth grade, the seizures started. By the end of the year he had to drop out. He's clearly still intelligent. He loves to read. And he speaks English at a remarkably high level for someone who had to stop studying in middle school. But his family says over the years the attacks seem to have taken a toll on his brain. His speech has become slow and halting. And he often falls into a sort of fog, becoming confused about what's going on around him.
With no real income, he's had to rely on his mother and siblings to pay for practically everything, including food and medicine. His oldest sister Betty says he so hates having to keep asking for money that there were times he wouldn't even tell them he was out of epilepsy drugs. They would just notice that his seizures were becoming more frequent. "Then we'd realize, 'Argh! he's got no medicine.' "
Odero with his mother, Pamela. With no income of his own, he's had to rely on her and other relatives. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
But these days, Odero says, he can use the new GiveDirectly money to buy his meds. He takes them out, handling them very carefully. They eat up a third of his monthly payment.
Still, he's had enough cash left over to save up for something just as precious to him: a sofa and two armchairs. He explains that in the village, when a guy reaches adulthood, it's traditional for him to build himself a house on his parents' land — a mud hut with a living area and sleeping nook. But Odero never had the money. It wasn't until a year ago that his brothers built a hut for him. Even then he had no furniture. Buying that sofa set was so important he says, "so that when guests came to visit I wouldn't be ashamed."
Source: Nichole Sobecki for NPR. Odero lives in this hut, which his family built for him.
His mother, Pamela, remembers the afternoon when a little white taxi with the new sofa set strapped on top pulled up to Odero's hut. He carried in one of the armchairs and just sank into it, she says, laughing. Then, she says, he started calling over all his friends, saying "Come! Come have a seat!"
"Yes," he agrees. "I couldn't stop smiling."\
Odero's pride and joy is his new sofa set. He bought it using money from the payouts "so when guests came to visit I wouldn't be ashamed." Nichole Sobecki for NPR
There was a hitch, though: It turned out the set only consisted of the wood frame. Cushions for the seat and backrest must be purchased separately, and there wasn't enough money to cover that. So since then, Odero has been carefully husbanding his GiveDirectly payouts to complete the set, buying one or two cushions each month.
As for any planning beyond that? There's not much, he admits. Unlike his cousin Denis Otieno, Odero has no scheme for how to use the charity income to make more money. No strategy for the day the money will stop coming.
I ask him, "Do you worry that at that point you will be back to where you were before?"
"Yes," he says, casting his eyes downward. "I think I might."
Odero has no long-term strategy for how to use the charity income to make more money. But the money has clearly changed his life for the better. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Dignity and a rekindled love
So would this make GiveDirectly's grand experiment a failure?
Faye, the charity's chairman, says not necessarily. "There's a lot of talk about this magic bullet that you can apply once and people will no longer be poor," he says. "I think we all hope that to be true. We would obviously hope cash has the long-term impact."
But he points out that this is an unfair standard. Every month that GiveDirectly provides the villagers with $22 the charity is, by definition, lifting them out of extreme poverty. So on some level, it's just a different version of the billions in relief aid that the world currently spends annually to provide desperately poor people with food and other forms of in-kind help. No one expects that type of aid to permanently lift people out of poverty. So it would be enough for this experiment to show that just giving poor people cash is more efficient and effective.
"Let them make the choices," says Faye. "Because the poor are pretty good at making them."
Only they can know the damage that poverty does to each individual. And it's not just the tangible deprivations.
For Odero, what poverty really stole from him was his dignity. And the couch set is what has given it back. He no longer feels like the village invalid, the guy who always has to depend on everyone else, who can't ever be the host. Now he can invite people over — and offer them a place to sit.
"I feel like now I can be counted as a person," he says.
And even practical, go-getter Otieno says the most profound benefits go beyond the material. It's late afternoon. Otieno and his wife, Bentah, are sitting in their hut — heads bent over a notepad as they calculate their budget for the month. Otieno tallies some figures with a pencil, then looks up and says, "I was thinking that since last time we weren't able to give your mother any grain, we should get her some this time."
Otieno and his wife, Bentah, calculate their budget for the month. They never used to talk about money. It was too stressful. Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Bentah purses her lips. "Hmm, how much do we have?"
Both of them say a conversation like this would have been out of the question before the GiveDirectly payments started. Otieno worried Bentah wouldn't agree with how he was spending their earnings. As the eldest of four siblings, and with his parents long dead, he felt a duty to help his younger brothers and sister with a little cash during tough times, even when he and Bentah were just as hard up. And Otieno felt all the more awkward about it because he has yet to pay Bentah's parents the traditional dowry a groom owes his in-laws — generally two or three cows, a goat and some cash. The in-laws let the marriage go forward on the understanding that Otieno was good for the dowry down the line. But as the years have passed it's become an unspoken point of contention.
For her part, Bentah says she would often put unrealistic demands on Otieno. "We would have our needs as a family, and honestly he wouldn't have enough for it. But I would sometimes fail to understand that and that would bring friction."
So Otieno kept the family finances to himself — doling out pocket money to Bentah so she could buy the groceries but keeping her in the dark about the bigger picture. "I would be like, 'OK wife, do your work. I'm the man. Let me do my part. I'll just bring the money and here's what you should do with it.' "
And the silence over money seeped into the rest of their relationship, says Otieno. "I would come home. If there was a meal, I'd eat the meal. Then go to bed. No talk."
Figuring out how to spend the charity windfall has become a hopeful, joint project for Otieno and his wife, Bentah. And it's brought the fun back into their marriage, says Otieno. "It's like we're married the other day." Nichole Sobecki for NPR
Yes, agrees Bentah. "It was a little bit gloomy."
But now, figuring out how to spend the charity windfall has become a hopeful, joint project. Adding up their budget has become a monthly ritual. And it's got them doing other fun stuff together. Going on shopping excursions to the market. And, says Otieno, strolling around the village, hand-in-hand.
"It's not normal in our village for couples to walk this way," he adds, grinning a little sheepishly. "But it's like we're married the other day."
"You mean like newlyweds?" I ask.
"Yes," he says, laughing. "You're right."
|RecommendKeepReplyMark as Last Read|
|From: Glenn Petersen||9/13/2017 8:31:29 PM|
|Africa’s Delivery Drones Are Zipping Past the US|
Author: Jeremy Hsu Jeremy Hsu
A Zipline drone releases a blood package in southern Rwanda.
CYRIL NDEGEYA/AFP/GETTY IMAGES
Tech visionaries may tantalize us with visions of instant gratification via drone delivery, but Silicon Valley has yet to deliver on such promises. Meanwhile, halfway around the globe in an African country barely the size of Maryland, drone deliveries have already taken flight—with more serious cargo than burritos.
In October 2016, Rwandan crowds cheered the launch and landing of delivery drones developed and operated by Zipline, a San Francisco-based startup. The locals call the Zipline drones “sky ambulances” as they soar overhead and swoop in low to drop off lifesaving blood supplies by parachute to remote hospitals and clinics located hours outside the Rwandan capital of Kigali. That may sound very different from the PR circus surrounding Google drones testing delivery of Chipotle fare to Virginia Tech college students—and it is. But Zipline and similar delivery drone pioneers have also learned some valuable lessons about what a large-scale delivery drone operation can look like—and whether Silicon Valley can ever realize the dream of drone delivery to your doorstep.
“Countries like Rwanda can make decisions fast and can implement new technologies in concert with new regulations fast, so we’re now in a position where the US is trying to follow Rwanda,” says Keller Rinaudo, CEO and co-founder of Zipline. “They’re not trying to catch up to US infrastructure. They’re just leapfrogging roads and trucks and motorcycles and going to a new type of infrastructure.”
In early 2018, Zipline will officially kick off the world’s largest delivery drone service in Tanzania, Rwanda’s much larger neighbor. The Tanzanian government aims to use Zipline’s delivery drones to make up to 2,000 deliveries of medical supplies per day. Those deliveries of supplies such as blood products, medicines, and snake antivenom will go to more than 1,000 hospitals and clinics serving 10 million people. An operation at this scale will dwarf anything previously attempted in the drone-delivery universe.
The Tanzania launch will fulfill the dream that led Rinaudo to found Zipline in the first place. In 2014, he met a graduate student named Zac Mtema while visiting the Ifakara Health Institute in Tanzania. Mtema had created a mobile alert system that could help doctors and nurses text emergency requests for medicines and vaccines to the government. There was just one problem: The government had no way of quickly delivering those medicines and vaccines via the country’s existing roads and distribution networks.
Today, Mtema is helping the Ifakara Health Institute evaluate how Zipline’s service affects health outcomes in Tanzania. Quantifying lives saved and medical conditions treated could go a long way toward convincing Zipline’s deep-pocketed backers in the international aid and development community—such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation—that delivery drones can become a global force for humanitarian good. The for-profit startup has already raised at least $41 million in funding from investors.
By focusing on carrying critical medical supplies, Zipline has gotten off the ground faster and in a bigger way than other, more mundane delivery pioneers. It’s a lot easier to convince regulators to tolerate the potential safety risks of delivery drones falling out of the sky when those aircraft are making lifesaving deliveries to hospitals rather than carrying shoes or pizza.
Zipline isn’t the only delivery drone startup to latch onto the idea of carrying high-value packages in difficult terrain. Matternet, a startup in North Fair Oaks, CA, plans to launch a partnership with the Swiss Post before the end of 2017, carrying healthcare supplies between hospitals and labs in Switzerland. “In healthcare we’re targeting over 1,000 hospital groups with three or more facilities in our target markets, which include the main European Union markets, the United States, and Japan,” says Andreas Raptopoulos, Matternet’s CEO. “For the applications we’re pursuing in health care, [delivery drones] are clearly profitable for us while giving a 50 percent saving to hospital systems over the on-demand ground delivery methods they use currently.”
These drone pioneers have learned that if you’re going to provide reliable service delivering essential, life-saving goods, you may end up with technology that looks very different from the familiar demo videos of consumer delivery by air. All drones must contend with limited battery life or fuel tanks. But many early experiments with delivery drone services used quadcopters or other multi-rotor drone models similar to those available online or on retail store shelves. These designs usually have limited delivery range and speed; their less-than-aerodynamic shapes and vertical lift rotors limit the efficiency of forward flight.
For example, Amazon and Google have been testing delivery drones that usually top out at ranges of 15 miles or less. Shorter delivery ranges limit the number of customers drones can reach, and may also limit the profitability of future delivery drone services. Still, these short-ranged multi-rotor drones are by far the most common choice for drone-delivery innovators, even as some companies have tried creating hybrid drones with both vertical and horizontal rotors to improve flight efficiency. Most delivery drone prototypes still tend to hover like helicopters as they lower a package by cable or take the time to actually land.
A Zipline technician installs a small cardboard box with a paper parachute in a drone prior to its launch in October 2016.
STEPHANIE AGLIETTI/AFP/Getty Images
That may work for the big city or suburbia. But Zipline needed to provide timely delivery of medical supplies across dozens of miles in Rwanda and Tanzania. So the company’s San Francisco team of engineers—drawn from organizations such as SpaceX, Google, Boeing, and NASA—decided to create the equivalent of small drone airplanes with wings. The current “Zips” in Rwanda can fly at speeds of up to 62 miles per hour and reach destinations within a 46-mile delivery radius.
Zipline’s airplane-style drones don’t waste time or battery power landing at their destinations. Instead, they simply swoop in low to drop off supplies by parachute before winging their way home. That’s easier done in the open grassy areas near remote Rwandan clinics and hospitals than in densely populated city blocks. Still, Amazon alone has several patent ideas around the concept of midair package drops or even folding parachutes within package shipping labels. Both Amazon and rival Walmart have even envisioned the possibility of someday using giant airships as flying warehouses that could deploy glider drones with packages.
It’s easy for almost anyone to create a slick video showing a drone perfectly delivering snacks or tech gadgets for a smiling customer on a sunny day. But when lives hang in the balance, drone deliverers must meet a higher service standard—one more like the US Post Office’s: “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds.” Mostly, quadcopter-style drones won’t cut it here. Matternet’s Raptopoulos says that a “key challenge is designing a platform that can handle dynamic wind loads during take-off and landing.” The Amazon Prime Air website currently states: “We are currently permitted to operate during daylight hours when there are low winds and good visibility, but not in rain, snow, or icy conditions.”
By comparison, Zipline’s rugged, fixed-wing drones have already made over 1,400 flights and delivered 2,600 units of blood, even during bad weather conditions involving heavy rain or wind in Rwanda. “Everybody and their grandma has bought an off-the-shelf quadcopter and in perfect weather flown three to four kilometers to deliver something under ideal test conditions,” Rinaudo says. “It’s hard to distinguish between that and a national-scale operation that can fly in any weather.”
An additional challenge is limiting the human staff needed to oversee the drone swarm. After all, every human engineer or drone operator on staff is another person on salary, points out Gerald Van Hoy, senior research analyst at Gartner. And the promise of delivery drones hinges in large part upon delivering packages more cheaply than today’s hordes of human bike messengers and delivery van drivers. “With delivery drones, if you’re not flying them automated, then it’s probably costing too much,” Van Hoy says.
The most obvious solution is for drones to mostly fly themselves instead of relying upon a human operator. But automation gets complicated quickly when you’re aiming to deliver to the doorsteps of individual home and business addresses. That could require a drone’s computer brain to track other flying objects in order to avoid midair collisions, fly to a random drop-off point where a given customer lives, and avoid getting entangled in tree branches or power lines when landing or lowering a package for delivery.
It’s possible that better artificial intelligence and the growing trend of edge computing could eventually make for smart drones capable of delivering anywhere without human supervision. But until then, delivery drone services will likely have the best luck sticking with pre-planned flight paths and deliveries to set locations. For example, Flytrex, a startup focused on cloud solutions for drone operations, recently started a delivery drone service involving one or two drones making up to 20 flights per day between two set points separated by a large bay in Reykjavik, Iceland. But Yariv Bash, Flytrex’s co-founder and CEO, says his company is working with the Icelandic Ministry Transportation on a next phase that could involve drone deliveries to Reykjavik street corners before the end of the year.
The point-to-point delivery drone system is also being used by JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce and logistics giant that is already living Amazon’s dream of owning its last-mile delivery. Beyond operating an online marketplace, JD.com has more than 70,000 delivery people getting those packages to paying customers in China. Since 2016, the Chinese company has also operated a fleet of 40 drones that have made “thousands of runs that have packages going to customers,” says Josh Gartner, vice president of international corporate affairs at JD.com.
JD.com currently uses delivery drones in the rural areas of four Chinese provinces. Those drones are “fully automated” and fly “fixed routes” between warehouses or to the backyards of certain “village promoters” employed by JD.com in each country village, Gartner explains. The village promoters then distribute the packages on foot to customers within each village.
A Zipline technician launches a drone in Muhanga, 31 miles west of Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.
STEPHANIE AGLIETTI/AFP/Getty Images
Zipline employs a similar logic of using automated drones to boost the productivity of individual human workers. Zipline’s Rwandan distribution center can operate with just three to four human flight operators potentially handling hundreds of drone flights per day. The flight operators spend their days loading packages onto the Zips, placing the drones in the launch catapult, and then recovering the returning drones that land by using a tailhook to snag onto a line so that they can plop safely onto a giant cushion. (Rinaudo proudly points out that the Rwandan operation runs entirely on Rwandan engineers and flight operators rather than outsourced foreign labor.)
The predictability of automated delivery drones’ flight paths also helps them pass muster with safety regulators. For example, Zipline has provided air traffic controllers at Kigali International Airport with heads-up displays that allow them to track each Zipline drone with centimeter-level accuracy using advanced GPS. That has ensured smooth daily operations, even as the number of flights increases. In fact, Zipline’s Rwandan delivery drone operation is on track to become one of the busiest “airports” in the world based on flight volume by the end of 2018, Rinaudo says.
Still, the upcoming Zipline launch in Tanzania will push the company’s current model to its limits. Tanzania’s sprawling land area—including geographic highlights such as Mount Kilimanjaro and the Serengeti National Park—is 36 times larger than Rwanda’s. That means Zipline will need both more distribution centers and more capable delivery drones to cover a country that is bigger than any US state except for Alaska.
For Tanzania, Zipline eventually plans to roll out four distribution centers each equipped with fleets of up to 30 drones capable of making up to 500 deliveries per day from each center. The startup’s engineers have also been developing an upgraded drone that can carry up to 4.4 pounds, fly at 68 miles per hour, and deliver within a 99-mile radius. That system would enable healthcare workers to simply place orders by text message and receive their packages within half an hour.
Don’t expect to see a Rwanda- or Tanzania-style national-scale delivery drone service coming to the US anytime soon. For one thing, the US Federal Aviation Administration has suggested regulations for delivery drones will not be ready until 2020 at the earliest. By that time, delivery drone operations may only account for one percent of the global commercial drone market, according to a report by Gartner.
Another factor is that the economics of delivery drones make less sense in cities already crowded with many competing delivery services and where safety concerns are more abundant, says Josh Gartner of JD.com (no relation to the Gartner research firm). Indeed, the Chinese company is considering ground-based delivery robots for Chinese cities instead of delivery drones. Similar delivery robots have already been rolling around certain cities in the US and European countries, where delivery drone services mostly remain grounded.
Some companies may seek a middle ground in suburban or rural areas by testing delivery drones as robotic partners for delivery van drivers. In February 2017, UPS—the world’s largest package delivery company—joined forces with the Ohio-based company Workhorse Group to conduct a much-publicized test of a delivery drone deployment from the top of a “Big Brown” van. “Our HorseFly delivery drone can handle packages of 10 pounds and under,” says Mike Dektas, a representative for Workhorse Group. “With the truck and drone delivery system this is a good weight limit, and the 30-mile [drone] range works as well.”
Similarly, Matternet has teamed up with Mercedes-Benz to try out the combination of delivery drones and vans. Matternet’s CEO Raptopoulos also envisions solo delivery drones as becoming profitable for both his startup and logistics companies such as FedEx or UPS, with a price point of around $5 for delivery within an hour. He adds that a company such as Amazon could make the delivery drone service even cheaper or potentially free for customers who have already signed up for the $99 Amazon Prime subscription.
Silicon Valley’s magical vision of delivery drones—Harry Potter-style owl messengers for each of us Muggles—remains seductive as ever. But it’s worth paying attention to what has already been accomplished in the more remote parts of the world—lessons likely to be applied as delivery drone services slowly take off in developed countries. By the time 2018 rolls around, Zipline will surely have more insights to offer would-be winners in the game of drones.
“The vast majority of people thought this was crazy and stupid and there was no chance it would happen in Africa,” says Zipline’s CEO Rinaudo. “Now our entire distribution center is run by a totally driven and brilliant team of Rwandan operators and engineers who are not only working 12 hours a day and 7 days a week, but [also] doing things that the richest tech companies in the world haven’t figured out how to do yet.”
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|From: Glenn Petersen||10/11/2017 7:03:57 AM|
|Start-Up Bets on Tech Talent Pipeline From Africa|
By STEVE LOHR
New York Times
OCT. 10, 2017
Seni Sulyman, Andela’s country director in Nigeria, joining colleagues for a video call in Lagos. He said the company “is a platform for giving people who want to learn and succeed access and opportunity.” Credit Tom Saater for The New York Times
When Tolulope Komolafe first heard the pitch, she was skeptical. A fledgling company in Lagos, Nigeria, would pay her to learn how to write modern computer code and then offer her a good job in the high-tech economy.
“I thought it was a con,” she recalled. “Too good to be true.”
After inquiring, Ms. Komolafe found the offer was real. Today, she is a software developer, working remotely from Lagos for a start-up in New York, and she dreams of starting her own tech company someday.
Ms. Komolafe, a 27-year-old Nigerian, is one of hundreds of young Africans who have joined Andela, a fast-growing start-up based in New York that has attracted the attention and money of people like the Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and works with blue-chip companies like Mastercard.
The company’s ambitious agenda spans education, economic development and moneymaking. It is betting on its ability to build out a talent pipeline of African software developers to the United States and elsewhere, tapping into a continent eager to connect to the global digital economy.
Jeremy Johnson, Andela’s chief executive, says the company offers “a very different model for unlocking human potential.”
Olufunmilade Oshodi, left, and Tolulope Komolafe are among hundreds of Africans working for Andela as software developers. Credit Axel Dupeux for The New York Times
The animating idea behind Andela, founded in 2014, is that Africa has plenty of smart people, but that they too often lack the preparation for and pathways to gainful jobs — the missing ingredients that Andela can provide in the field of software development.
Not only does Andela instruct people in person, but 20,000 aspiring programmers across Africa have used its free online learning and training tools. By 2024, Andela hopes to have helped prepare 100,000 software developers in Africa for jobs, including thousands working for Andela.
After six months of paid training, the Andela employees become remote members of software development teams at companies. The current roster of 112 customers includes Viacom, Mastercard Labs, GitHub and SeatGeek in the United States, and clients in 10 other countries.
“This is a platform for giving people who want to learn and succeed access and opportunity,” said Seni Sulyman, a 32-year-old graduate of Harvard Business School, who is the country director for Andela in Nigeria.
The challenge for Andela will be expanding its model to meet its lofty growth targets. “Andela has delivered on its promise so far, but can it keep finding high-quality talent and finding relevant employment for them as it gets bigger?” asked Aniedi Udo-Obong, a Google program manager who works with software developers in Africa.
Andela’s growth plans got an enthusiastic endorsement this week from its financial backers, with a $40 million round of venture funding that lifts the total the company has raised to $80 million. The new investment was announced on Tuesday.
The start-up has attracted a group of top investors that find both its business model and its mission appealing, including GV (formerly Google Ventures) and Spark Capital.
It was also the first lead investment for the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, which Mr. Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, set up in 2015 to eventually invest most of their Facebook wealth to “advance human potential and promote equality.”
During a tour of Africa last year, Mr. Zuckerberg visited Andela’s Lagos office and told the employees, “You are all part of something that’s really important.”
Andela’s offices in Lagos. Ninety percent of its workers are in Africa, with other sites in Nairobi, Kenya, and Kampala, Uganda. Credit Tom Saater for The New York Times Photo
Sayo Alagbe, an Andela coordinator, briefing software developers for a trip to the United States. Credit Tom Saater for The New York Times
Spark Capital and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative were the lead investors in two earlier rounds of funding for Andela. CRE Venture Capital, based in Cape Town, South Africa, is the lead investor in the new $40 million round, the largest venture round led by an African firm, said Pule Taukobong, a founding partner of CRE Venture Capital.
Andela began with a founding team of six — three Africans, two Americans and a Canadian — and an initial test class of four students. It now employs 800 people, and it expects to double that number in the next year. While it has its headquarters in New York and a small office in San Francisco, 90 percent of its workers are in Africa, with offices in Lagos; Nairobi, Kenya; and Kampala, Uganda.
Though growing fast, Andela has been highly selective. Applicants undergo dozens of online drills to assess everything from technical ability to personality type. About 3 percent of the applicants are invited to a two-week boot camp, and a final cut takes the acceptance rate below 1 percent.
The new hires get a MacBook computer, subsidized housing and two meals a day during their six-month training program. In that time, Andela invests $15,000 in each developer. Starting salaries are low, but after the developers begin working as billable contractors for companies, their pay rises, up to $30,000 or so, comparable to salaries for young professionals in Africa’s urban centers.
Andela makes money much like consulting or law firms. It charges clients per worker, with part passed on to the worker as salary and Andela collecting the remainder. The company declined to detail its billing practices.
Andela’s recruits sign contracts for two years, but are expected to stay for four years. That longevity is part of the business model, since the work of developers on contract to customers helps pay to recruit and train new hires. So far, the retention rate is 98 percent.
None of the developers have hit the four-year threshold yet. Andela would be happy to have them stay beyond that, but it is also encouraging them to go work for other companies or start their own. It is setting up an Andela accelerator to nurture alumni start-ups.
“We want them to go out to become leading entrepreneurs and leading technologists in Africa,” Mr. Johnson said.
The Andela developers are young — the average age is under 25 — and 70 percent have computer science or engineering degrees. But university curriculums in Africa, technologists say, tend to emphasize theory rather than modern programming tools and the techniques of fast-paced software development in teams.
Jolomi Otumara, left, Andela’s director of apprenticeship products, speaking with Kamdi Uko, a product manager, in Lagos. Credit Tom Saater for The New York Times
Olufunmilade Oshodi, a computer engineering major in college, had done some programming before, but his practical skills have been acquired since he joined Andela two years ago. Today Mr. Oshodi, 25, leads a group of eight Andela developers working for the Zebra, a car insurance comparison website based in Austin, Tex.
Last year, the company needed more engineering talent to expand. But with Google and Facebook hiring in Austin, the company did not want to compete in the escalating bidding war for local talent, said Meetesh Karia, Zebra’s chief technology officer.
Instead, it gave Andela a try.
The developers, Mr. Karia said, have worked out well — aided in part by Andela’s customized approach to outsourcing.
Andela sends its developers to customer sites to meet people and learn about the client’s business. Mr. Oshodi spent a month in Austin last year, and recently finished another three-week visit. He and the other Adela programmers have been invited to backyard barbecues and nights out in downtown Austin.
“They know my family. They know my kids,” Mr. Karia said. “They are really part of the team.”
The Andela developers are on the same corporate mailing lists and chat channels as Zebra employees. When back in Africa, the Andela members of the team participate in the daily “stand-up meeting,” where developers talk about their work and plans, usually via a video link.
One of the initial group of developers, Mr. Karia said, did not work out. But Andela soon replaced that person. Now, Mr. Karia said, “I would love to hire all eight” when their four-year commitments to Andela are over.
Mr. Oshodi’s four-year clock runs out in 2019. Until then, he said, he wants to steadily enhance his product development and management skills. He has not decided what comes next, but he is optimistic.
“If you put yourself in a good place,” Mr. Oshodi said, “opportunity comes.”
A version of this article appears in print on October 11, 2017, on Page B1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Tech Talent Pipeline From Africa.
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