Negev lab promises a better tech tomorrow for Africa
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Negev lab promises a better tech tomorrow for Africa

The Eilat-Eilot Off Grid Hub is developing solutions to bring electricity, clean water to world's 'bottom billion'

A sugar cane project in Peru using Netafim drip irrigation systems (Photo credit: Courtesy Netafim)
A sugar cane project in Peru using Netafim drip irrigation systems (Photo credit: Courtesy Netafim)

For Westerners, it’s hard to imagine life without electricity — but that’s the situation for more than a billion people, according to the UN. Besides making lives less convenient in far-flung rural areas and crowded urban slums in the developing countries of Africa and Asia — no electric lights or computers — it means an existence socially and economically worlds away from the 21st century in the West. Now an Israeli firm is working to close the gap by delivering technology.

Products to be developed at the newly created Eilat-Eilot (EE) Off Grid Hub will bring electricity, cooking fuel, and other benefits to the bottom fifth of the world’s population, who have for decades been waiting for a better life.

The technologies developed at the Off Grid Hub, said director Tomer Weinstein, will deliver that power in a much more efficiently — and cheaply — than the governments in those countries would be able to, even if they had the resources to do so, “which they largely don’t,” Weinstein told The Times of Israel.

The Hub will provide start-ups and established companies in the energy, water and agricultural sectors with field testing facilities and a demonstration ecosystem to install, validate and showcase their off grid products and solutions — for example, a biogas system that doesn’t require fuel, said Weinstein. “We have a solution that produces biogas from leftover scraps of food that are too rotten or contaminated to eat, that can power cooking stoves and heating sources.” All that’s needed is a match to light the system, and the biogas processor does the rest, he added.

“The people in these rural African villages have no access to the power grid, and it’s unlikely they will get that access anytime soon,” said Weinstein. “Right now, if they want cooking gas, villagers have to get on a bus and travel hours to a big city, where they buy expensive kerosene, and transport it back home, where they can use it in their stove — assuming it hasn’t spilled or been stolen on the way.” With the biogas solution, even old food or agricultural products unfit for human or animal consumption can be converted into much-needed energy that can take care of a villager’s heating and cooking needs, Weinstein said.

Israel has been active in promoting technology use in Africa, sponsoring missions, hackathons, and educational programs in Kenya, Uganda, and other developing countries, aimed at helping improve the day-to-day lives of the many millions bypassed by 20th century technology. Many of the solutions being implemented make use of 21st century technology. Few Africans, for example, are familiar with desktop computers, but more than ever, they’re using smartphones to access the Internet and communicate using voice and video.

Most of the solutions that have been implemented — such as the widespread installation of Israeli-developed drip irrigation in rural Africa — are derivations of technologies that are already on the market, adapted for the developing world. EE Off Grid Hub’s innovation will be to provide a workspace dedicated to creating new products and technologies for developing communities, to solve energy, water and agriculture needs in places that are not connected to national water and energy grids. The Hub will be the first lab in the world dedicated to building those specific solutions in a targeted and organized manner.

Off-grid solutions can also play an important role in areas where there is already a grid — in main cities, specifically in the burgeoning shantytowns that dot the edges of many large urban centers in the developing world. “Millions migrate each year to these cities seeking economic opportunity, but all they find is more misery — with the only place available for them a shack made out of old cardboard or wood,” said Weinstein. Needless to say, there is no electricity, gas, or plumbing in these places. “Solar energy and biogas projects can supply fuel and electricity to people in these areas, providing the power needed to filter water,” he said, noting that when residents in these shantytowns work together, they can defend their installations from thieves and marauders — and new technologies developed at the Hub will make the systems more defendable and more accessible.

The project will make its official debut in December at the annual Eilat-Eilot Green Energy Conference. “Right now we’re being funded by donations, but we have plans to leverage what we develop here to generate income that will fund new technology” via licensing and lab fees, Weinstein said. The EE Off Grid Hub will be located on Kibbutz Ketura in southern Israel and will be jointly managed by the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Initiative and the Arava Institute. The Conference will take place at the Herods and Dan Hotels in Eilat on December 7-9.

“The demand for off grid solutions is growing, especially in developing and emerging countries where electricity grids, water systems, sanitization facilities and other traditional infrastructure do not exist,” said Weinstein. “By facilitating the development of off grid technologies, we can improve the daily lives of millions of people living in rural as well as urban and peri-urban areas in developing and emerging countries.”

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