ABB Highlights Need for Power Infrastructure at WEF on Africa

2016-06-01 - The World Economic Forum recently held its 26th annual conference in Kigali, Rwanda, bringing together leaders from business, government and civil society to address the theme of “Connecting Africa’s Resources Through Digital Transformation.” Representatives from ABB were on hand to discuss some of the technologies that the company is currently deploying on the continent to contribute to economic growth and to support major improvements in infrastructure.

Tobias Becker, ABB’s Senior Vice President and head of the company’s program to generate revenue growth in Africa, said, “The digital economy is already driving some impressive results in Sub-Saharan Africa. But without broader access to electricity and better connectivity, some serious limits are also coming into play. Our group has a role to play in tackling these problems and in bringing Africa online in much larger numbers.”

Tobias Becker is seated second from the left.
Becker, who participated in a panel discussion on the transformation of the digital marketplace, explained that many of the power technologies that are a prerequisite to widespread digitalization do not in all cases require vast, capital-intensive infrastructure projects. Solutions exist today to serve small-scale as well as large-scale needs. “Africa is in a position to become the first wireless continent, leapfrogging many of the technologies that are thought of as the norm in places like Europe,” said Becker.

The latest developments in microgrids provide an excellent example. Maxine Ghavi, ABB’s Senior Vice President and Program Director for Microgrids, also attended the forum, participating in panel discussions on the future of production and the goal of providing internet for all. “Microgrids have a major role to play in enabling digitalization and large-scale economic development in Africa,” she said. “They’re not just a solution for small and isolated places, but can be used to improve reliability and integrate a variety of power sources in almost any situation.”

Microgrids are well suited to leverage the (free) renewable resources available locally to meet their power needs. They may also be equipped with either a back-up diesel generator or battery storage, for when the wind stops blowing or the sun goes down. Such systems are already being deployed in such dramatically divergent locales as the remote town of Marsabit, Kenya (population 5,000), and metropolitan Johannesburg, South Africa (population 4.4 million). In the latter case, an installation now under development will provide cleaner and more stable power for ABB’s own large manufacturing and office site in the Longmeadow neighborhood.

Applied to microgrids, renewables are particularly attractive because they offer many advantages over electricity generated through diesel or kerosene. When connected to the grid, microgrids also help decentralize the electrical supply, minimizing the impact of outages and making the whole power system more resilient.

While the focus of the conference was on the potential of digitalization and greater connectivity to generate continued growth in Africa, ABB’s representatives were not alone in highlighting the need for stronger infrastructure to support that transformation. Attendees from government, academia and business widely cited the importance of enabling broader access to electricity and computing power, even while heralding what has already been accomplished in the digital sphere in Africa. In order to attract additional investment in IT and communications, any region’s economic landscape must first offer an affordable and reliable supply of power. ABB’s solutions are thus a necessary part of the work that remains to be done, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa, where nearly 66 percent of the population currently lacks access to electricity.

In spite of the challenges, the forum also emphasized some of the signal successes that have been achieved in the field of digital technology. These have included locally specific products, like rideshare apps for motorcycle taxis in many of Africa’s larger cities, popular crowd-sourcing apps like Ushahidi, and hardware such as the BRCK Wi-Fi device. Other positive indicators include rapid growth in venture capital funding for tech startups and the formation of burgeoning innovation hubs in such places as Durban, Nairobi, Lagos and, of course, Kigali.

The forum took place from May 11 to 13 and attracted 1200 delegates from around the world.

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