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The Reality of Electrical Power Variability in African ICT4D Projects

By Wayan Vota on February 29, 2012


Looking at the wavy line above, you could be forgiven if you think that’s a pure sine wave electrical power graph. It is not. It is the electrical power grid uptime for a town in Tanzania, East Africa. Shocked? You should not be. That is the mains power reality, as computed by David Berg:

For nearly an entire month, I kept track of the power cuts that occurred throughout the day. Given how much it happens around here, it was actually pretty difficult to keep the numbers accurate. I figured the resolution of the data wasn’t incredibly important; what’s more important is to show the general trend of the uptime, which you can see even with relatively inaccurate measurements.

There is no discernible pattern in how the power cuts; the only times you know it might go out is if there’s strong winds or it rains fairly hard. Inclement weather is nearly a guarantee that the power is going out. Which is a shame really, because our supply is local to Mtwara and is actually quite reliable. The unreliable part is the infrastructure to carry it.

Now let us add in yet another level of variability. David graphed the uptime, but equality important is the quality of that uptime power grid. If you put a meter on an outlet to measure the level of electrical current available, you will find that electrical power does not always come at 230 Volts and 50 Hz as it should, but jumps up, down and around at levels that can fry electronics. In fact, brownouts, where the power drops but doesn’t cut off completely, can be worse than blackouts.

Add the two variables together – quantity and quality – and the lesson is that gird electrical power is not to be trusted. You will need to condition your electrical power for long term ICT4D sustainability in Tanzania or anywhere in Africa.


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Written by
Wayan Vota co-founded ICTworks and is the Digital Health Director at IntraHealth International. He also co-founded Technology Salon, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, JadedAid, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things. Opinions expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of IntraHealth International or other ICTWorks sponsors.
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One Comment to “The Reality of Electrical Power Variability in African ICT4D Projects”

  1. John Hawker says:

    Then think of the damage done.

    When a typical Windows based machine crashes repeatedly it starts up in safe mode.

    Many computer illiterate people, or people who’s machine is in English but that’s not their language accept the machine starting in safe mode, then discover the machine isn’t working as it was before.

    They think its “broken” and place it to the side.

    The number of times this has happened to me are numerous. A perfectly good machine, but the operator thinks it’s damaged.

    Then of course machines to get damaged by the constant crashing.

    UPS’s while important also fail.

    Our’s had a life of about 18 months on average we found.

    Solar is getting cheaper and over 20 years can pay for it self, but the life span of a ICT4D project is far less than that.

    Working in Nairobi right now the power in my upmarket area goes down 4 times a night.

    It happens in Accra and Somonya,

    This isn’t a village in Tanzania issue, it’s an issue in cities and all over Africa.