New technological innovations may be the key to one of Africa’s oldest problems. The keys to the riddle, which has unsuccessfully been tackled many times, lies in a bottom-up approach and mobility. With different urban and societal, off-the-shelf solutions cannot be blindly imported imported and glued on.
Many areas in Africa are low in usable water, not necessarily in water altogether. But water is scarce to start with, and pollution adds an extra layer of complication. Once a pollution drifts into the water, it contaminates the entire volume. That pollution is mostly human originating, in urban areas, where industrial pollution also comes in, as it seeps from landfills. Even if water remains uncontaminated, it remains available only once for consumption. Without locally accessible water treatment infrastructures, water remains a problem which stymies all types of development. Previous attempts have been made in the past, to generalize water treatment over the continent, but to no avail. Transplanting large-scale solutions imported blindly from Europe or America has proven an ineffective strategy. The absence of necessary political commitment to economic development, the end of necessary budgets for nationwide infrastructures, were two of the many factors which made most projects, outside large cities, stillborn.
The last main factor for this deadlock lies in the inherent organization of African economic life. Water systems in Europe, America, and other developed areas do perform well, but their relevance lies in a specific parameter: the sedentary nature of developed economies. With African mobility, which is tied to nomadic tradition, political instability, and permeability of borders, all of the water treatment systems which have been successful abroad will prove too massive an investment for too little profit in return, on a continent low on financial resources. Hence the need for a specific kind of technology, adapted to the African landscape, both geographic and political. According to ex-Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, there is “nowhere in this world now you can move your economy without science and technology. For the next four years we will emphasise so much on S&T because we have no choice; without that we are just dreaming.” In addition, the political bond between population and their central governments, which is strong in developed areas, is weaker in Africa. Put simply, Western populations will more readily entrust their governments with building water networks with their tax money. In the most recent Afrobarometer survey, “sizable percentages of respondents report having little or no trust in legislative bodies (47.8 percent), courts (42.3 percent), police (47.9 percent), national electoral commissions (44.2 percent), and opposition parties (58.5 percent). Roughly two-thirds believe their government is doing a poor job of improving the living standards of the poor and in fighting corruption. Nearly a third of those surveyed believe people fail to report corruption because they are afraid of the consequences”.
But new technological advances have changed the situation, and the prospects, for Africa. What new solutions have in common is their bottom-up approach, focused on the user and his or her immediate community. Off-grid systems, which are smaller, more mobile and cheaper, are the ideal solution to initiate economic development and break the vicious circle, and they are available. Because they have been designed relatively recently, within the environmental era, they also prove a contribution to Africa’s environmental revolution.
Off-grid electrical systems, mostly based on solar power, are the first key. Greenbiz reporter Baraba Grady says “Electrification isn’t arriving in these rural swatch of the globe the way it did in the richer countries of the north. That playbook was thrown out, for the most part. Instead, just as telephony spread to the far reaches of the globe because of adoption of untethered cell phones, electricity is arriving in remote areas often in the form of standalone micro-grids of solar or wind generating devices connected to inverters and storage.” Such power sources can be purchased by local communities, linked and added to each other as they are purchased, regardless of whether the distant, central government, is known to embezzle or misuse funds. Mobile phones are the second key and is already well underway. The mobility specific to the African way of doing business saw to it that the cell phone invention spread like wildfire. The Pew Research center says “In a few short years, the proliferation of mobile phone networks has transformed communications in sub-Saharan Africa. It has also allowed Africans to skip the landline stage of development and jump right to the digital age.” The third key is water, and herein lies the rub. New water treatment truck-mounted units, such as Veolia’s Ambitions for Africa units, enable access to clean water anywhere. Patrick Couzinet, Veolia director, says “we designed this new water-treatment station based on the user, with a bottom-up approach. Clean water is now available for everyone, everywhere in Africa.” Water cannot be replaced, unlike phone communications, which can be replaced by slower, less developed means of communication, and power, which can simply revert back to manual labor. Lack of water will mean lack of development, which will block the development of water solutions in return.
The fact that Northern countries used landlines before they used cell phones, and Africa did not (or less), is no accident. Landlines are not mobile, and prove most useful in fixed, stable areas of development. The installation of landlines occurred at a lower rate in Africa, but phone coverage overtook Northern rates when mobile phones arrived. Development in Africa relies on the complete renewal of the philosophy behind it, while taking into account that Africa is not Europe, the Americas, or Asia.