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AP Photo/Eric Risberg
Stunned.

The critical barrier to global connectivity that Facebook and Zuckerberg forgot

By Dr. Henri Winand

In case you missed it, this week, Mark Zuckerberg transformed analyst projections about connecting the next billion from hypothesis into a time-tabled reality. The Facebook CEO announced on Oct. 5 that they will launch a satellite dubbed AMOS-6 into the atmosphere in late 2016 to beam Internet access into sub-Saharan Africa.

According to Zuckerberg, the collaborative launch with Eutelsat Communications will bring them one step closer to Facebook.org’s mission of connecting the entire world through 4G Internet.

Ambitious? Yes, but Facebook’s on to something: the opportunity in Africa is enormous. The Economist Intelligence Unit identified Africa as the market with the greatest investment opportunity globally right now, with more than half of its 52 countries’ economies growing over 5% per year between 2012 and 2016. Africa’s largely untapped reserves of natural and human resources mean that its potential will only continue to rise in the future, enticing droves of what may otherwise be considered risky investments.

Meanwhile, 89% of adults in Africa own a cell phone, the same percentage as within the United States. Buoyed by this surge in mobile adoption, the continent has been able to leapfrog past the landline stage of development straight into the digital age, and connecting to the rest of the world with widespread Internet access for these mobile devices could indeed be the final step to transforming Africa into a perennial economic powerhouse.

But before they can get online, they need to get charged. As Internet connectivity rises, the issue of electricity in sub-Saharan Africa has become increasingly dire. Decades of mismanaged resources and corruption have left the African infrastructure woefully unable to meet the needs of its constituents.

The statistics are startling, and reveal a picture a lot less rosy than the one Facebook’s painted for us. Nearly half a billion Africans still don’t have access to electricity, and the power sector alone would need an additional $100 billion a year investment to make the necessary improvements to the existing infrastructure. Even strong emerging national economies like Nigeria are crippled by energy limitations; for example, the nation of 180 million has the same energy capacity as Hungary — a country of about 10 million inhabitants.

As Africa makes increasingly huge leaps towards universal Internet connectivity, the weak energy infrastructure’s potential to undermine all of this progress has only become more pressing. The solutions aren’t straightforward, either; updating the existing grid to meet demand sufficiently would take billions of dollars and years of labor. Given the pace of development in other industries, this just isn’t sufficient.

Instead, the best solutions may be ones that circumvent the grid entirely, and set Africa on the path to a new, sustainable type of energy future. For instance, in India, a nation that suffers from similarly crippling energy shortages combined with rapid economic development, we’ve begun to roll-out hydrogen fuel-cell powered generators on telecom towers to replace the failing antiquated diesel generators.

For Africa to avoid the costs and time spent implementing an entirely new electrical grid, but also meet the energy demands of an increasingly connected population, it should begin to look at reimagining the way in which we distribute electricity entirely. A new connected future could also mean a new energy future.