Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Botswana Goes Hi-Tech Green For Cellphones

Enoch Lekgoa set up this system in Leshibitse working as a senior technician for cellphone provider Mascom.
In the vastness of Botswana's Kalahari Desert, the sun is powering a communications revolution. Huge distances separate electrical utilities in this desert country of two million people, and there are very few fixed phone lines.

In the past Botswana relied on expensive diesel generators to run hundreds of remote cellphone towers but that is changing rapidly as the costs of solar systems drop.

Enoch Lekgoa works in the main city Gabarone as cellphone provider Mascom's Senior Technician. "The system works very well and its better than the diesel systems because diesel is expensive to run, but with these we just harness the energy from the sun and it runs more or less maintenance free".

A self-contained solar cellphone tower in Leshibitse Botswana.

According to the World Bank, Botswana has 143 cellphone subscriptions per one hundred people. That’s more than the UK, Germany, the United States and Japan. Cellphones here are as ubiquitous as donkey carts, wild animals and gorgeous sunsets.

Now affordable solar cellphone towers offer a better, cleaner way to connect. The old diesel systems each consumed 3,200 gallons of fuel every year. And that didn’t include the fuel used to drive trucks across the country to maintain and refuel the generators and in a country chronically short on power users say solar towers have been remarkably dependable.

Tumagole explains the problem and the solution very clearly. "Even the national grid is not that reliable, we have a lot of power out-ages and all that, while we have enough energy from the sun".

The night sky over our camp near Leshibitse, Botswana while researching this story.

Botswana has one of the highest solar energy indices in the world, according to the UN.

To take advantage of it, the system uses solar photovoltaic panels to run the cellphone microwave equipment and charge a bank of deep cycle batteries. At night, batteries power the system until morning in the remote town of Leshibitse.

It has changed lives for people like 19 yr old Oteng Mooketsi, who uses his phone to keep in touch with his far-flung family, organize school work, and speak to his girlfriend two towns away. Standing in the sand holding his phone he says, "We can make calls easily because the Mascom tower is always working".

19 yr old Oteng Mooketsi, who uses his phone to keep in touch with his far-flung family, organize school work and chat to his girlfriend, in Leshibitse Botswana.

At Mascom headquarters in Gabarone, the country’s capital, there is more to come. Soon they plan to roll out a fourth generation data system to deliver broadband internet to most subscribers.

Mascom's Tumagole, sitting in an office building that is becoming linked wirelessly to the remote villages of the Khalahari Desert explains the hunger here for more internet. "Data Utilization is the main call for everybody to access internet, downloads, and we are making that possible of course".

Jeffrey Barbee
Leshibitse Botswana

After working in Leshibiste on this Cellphone story, a long drive towards Windhoek through the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, where we saw this Kudu stooping down for a late morning sip.

A Spotted Eagle Owl in the Central Kalahari Game Reserve, which the team passed after leaving Leshibitse.