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New move to bring electricity to Africa

A World Bank contest seeks to spur businesses to provide light for the poor.

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Like most African towns, Abéché in eastern Chad goes dark when the sun goes down. Students close their books. Families finish their chores and settle down to sleep, or to an occasional gossip session by kerosene light.

Fewer than 25 percent of Africans have access to electricity. In Uganda, only 5 percent of the population has access to electricity; in Kenya, 15 percent; in Congo, 6 percent. In oil-rich Nigeria, the energy demands are nearly twice what the country's creaking power plants can produce. It's one of the continent's biggest obstacles to development and a big turnoff for foreign investors.

Building enough hydropower dams to meet the need would take decades, but the World Bank has launched a smaller, but potentially powerful program in September to meet the growing demand for light from the 250 million poorest Africans by 2025.

The "Lighting Africa" initiative, including a $12 million competition to design the best business model for providing light for Africans, hopes to do for cheap low-energy lighting what entrepreneurs have already done for cellphones.

"The impact would be huge," says Russell Sturm, head of the Lighting Africa initiative for the International Finance Corporation, a branch of the World Bank in Washington. "Globally, there are 1.7 billion people who lack reliable access to electrical services. You've got some technologies already in the market, but what you don't have are manufacturers who understand the needs of the African market. What does the consumer need? What can he afford?"

Linking businesses to consumers

In theory, the competition to design the best model for providing reliable, cost-effective lighting to Africans should help technology businesses serve 1.7 million potential customers.

Once the winners are chosen in the competition, the World Bank, together with the IFC, will help make the products both affordable to Africans and profitable for the entrepreneurs.

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