Grounding Electricity

Empowering micro-retailers in Nigeria

Energy access is one of those areas of human activity where global inequality can be most starkly observed. Using satellite technology to record images of the earth’s surface at night, a map could be stitched together that resembles a star chart: there are spots of intense brightness linked by glowing synapses to other bright spots, like constellations. Some areas glimmer more faintly, while many others are left in darkness.

The night lights map provides an overview of energy distribution across the world. It can also be a proxy map for wealth distribution: The brightest areas are often also the most prosperous, because energy is one of those resources that vastly increase productivity in a virtuous cycle. So a key step in helping people improve their lives is to address the energy question. The satellite-eye view is one way of approaching this question but it is by no means the only one. 

Small shopholders’ eye view

The night lights project, as the name suggests, only really works at night. The Suomi NPP satellite orbits the earth and captures images at fixed spatial intervals at around 13:30 a.m., local time. The resulting patchwork has a range of uses, such as assisting disaster recovery efforts, helping detect illegal fishing activities, and allowing management of light pollution near sensitive wildlife habitats. It also enables more accurate electrical grid mapping so that planning for expansion could be done more quickly and accurately, and at lower cost, than if relying on traditional methods alone. 

But this approach has its limits. For one, it misses a lot of important human activity because most people are in bed at 90 minutes past midnight, except for those working the night shift or, perhaps, those suffering from insomnia. Most human activity, and thus most electricity consumption, takes place during the day. Other non-traditional techniques are needed for capturing detailed information on electricity use and supply in daylight hours. Here, the answer is more likely to be found in a network of shop vendors equipped with simple handheld devices, than in a team of scientists running sophisticated computer programs. This is where we need to zoom in from outer space to street level.

So let’s zoom in on one of the inner streets of Lagos, Nigeria. We’ll go even closer and zoom in on one of the buildings along the street, the one on the corner: a small neighborhood sundry shop whose shutters are now being pulled open for the day by its owner, a woman we’ll call Ezinne. It is still early in the morning but Ezinne has already been up for two hours, preparing breakfast for her kids and helping them with school work that could not be finished last night—the power had been cut again, as often happens, and it was difficult to work in the dark. Even now, the electricity has yet to come back, but at least, there was free sunlight. Ezinne looks at the rusty hunk of metal at the back of the shop. The generator had broken down again and she didn’t have enough funds to get it repaired.

Ezinne puts down the small bundle wrapped in an old headscarf on the shop counter. She peels back the colorful cloth, takes the phone in her hands, and presses the ‘On’ button. She had known enough to fully charge it yesterday before the power supply was cut. She taps on the tabtapSHOP icon and pulls up the question she wanted to answer: How many hours did your shop receive electricity supply from the grid yesterday? She quickly does the math—she was used to holding numbers in her head—and types in her answer: 4. How about today, she wondered. But she had other things to worry about. If she sold enough today, she’d be able to get the generator fixed; the kids would be able to read and study even at night. She takes a deep breath and switch to “Sell” icon in the same app. The products on her shelves are reflected there. She is ready to scan the next products her customer wants to buy. Now, she really was open for business. 

Walking smart meters

It may seem improbable but shops like Ezinne’s are vital nodes in a network designed to gather vital information needed to enhance electricity supply and delivery in cities like Lagos and Abuja. In highly industrialized countries, electrical grids have built-in systems that collect this information. So-called smart meters in homes and buildings automatically collect data on energy consumption and send them back to the provider, with minimal human intervention. 

The provider can use this information to better align electricity supply with demand, as well as to detect supply disruptions and other problems in real time so they could be quickly resolved. Aside from resulting improvements in services delivered to consumers, the latter also benefit from more detailed information about their electricity use, information they could use to make cost-saving behavioral changes. Someone whose bill shows steep water heating costs, for example, might decide to cut back his daily hot bath to once weekly, or someone might be able to pinpoint energy-inefficient appliances and fixtures and replace them with models with higher efficiency ratings. 

The needs and priorities of people in the majority world tend to be quite different, but there is no reason why they shouldn’t likewise benefit from the so-called, in digital economy speak, “data exhaust” generated by their activities. Under commission by the Non-profit Groots gUG and of the German Development Cooperation Agency, GIZ, Groots is working with close to 1000 small shopholders in Lagos and Abuja—a community it hopes to grow —to capture this exhaust, the way smart meters do. The intelligence and insights generated could then be used by electricity providers and professionals to upgrade infrastructure and improve service delivery, and by development cooperation agencies to guide funding decisions. 

This community-level approach has the benefit of generating data from the customers’ perspective, as compared to relying on official data from providers or regulators. Relying solely on the latter tends to generate an incomplete picture since it is likely to overlook the losses and leakages that tend to take place before the electricity reaches the end-users. It is also vulnerable to tampering or filtering to cover up inefficiencies.  

This approach allows for data collection in almost real time and over the long term, since information can be submitted easily on a day-to-day basis, a tremendous advantage in places where meter-readings are generally still taken manually at certain intervals, usually monthly, by the providers’ personnel. In addition, a broader range of information can be collected that touch on other important aspects of energy use, such as the use of diesel-powered generators to augment electricity needs, a “fix” that impacts household finances, as well as the environment and human health. 

Mutual utility 

In line with SDG 7, Affordable and Clean Energy, GIZ is supporting electrification based on renewables in partner countries, and Groots is proud to be providing some of the tools with which to make this happen. 

As mentioned earlier, access to electricity is vital due to energy’s enabling role. Better and more affordable electricity supply supports most, if not all, of the other SDGs. For instance, electricity allows the operation of machines that increase food production and prevents food spoilage, and that pump water from the ground. It keeps lifesaving equipment running in hospitals, and allows the operation of computers in schools to support children in their learning. Many time-saving appliances that ease some of the work that traditionally fall to women, such as doing the laundry and cooking, run on electricity, impacting gender equality, and electricity keeps streets lit at night helping to keep neighborhoods safer for everyone. The list goes on.

This is why no amount of electricity can be allowed to go to waste. Modern electrical grids are designed to capture every watt of energy: users receive the electricity they need and are able to supply excess power back to the grid. It is a form of reciprocity, akin to that enabled by tabtap SHOP. More than just means for the shopholders to send data intended to support electrification, they are also designed to help them in the day-to-day running of their business, from managing their inventory, to keeping track of sales and monitoring expenses, productivity enhancing tools that bigger and better resourced businesses take for granted. 

If you think of everything that electricity can do for people, you realize why it is also called ‘power.’ It is time everyone got a fair share of this precious resource. It is time for empowerment, like we truly meant it.

Open Source Software Contribution

Under the scope of this project, Groots Consulting UG developed the Nigeria Energy Add-on Module for tabtap SHOP. The source code of this module is available for use under MIT License.