Unexpected technologies

Jenny Wilson

This week, UKCDS is hosting an event in partnership with LCEDN and the SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub, exploring the opportunities for bioenergy as a force for growth LMICs.

This week, UKCDS is hosting an event in partnership with LCEDN and the SUPERGEN Bioenergy Hub, exploring the opportunities for bioenergy as a force for growth in low- and middle-income countries. Perhaps naively, my initial reaction was confusion – bioenergy is a relatively young and misunderstood sibling in the renewable energy family which doesn’t instantly chime with the established perception of ‘appropriate technologies’ for development. However, it may be this attitude that the bioenergy community could do well to challenge.

For those of us in the comfy surrounds of the UK, technology uptake and major breakthroughs in innovation in a development context is much harder to predict than it is for home audiences and markets. However, the adoption of mobile phones in Africa, in two-thirds of households on average, demonstrates to the rest of the world that where there’s a will, there’s a way, i.e when a truly appropriate technology comes along, people want to access it and have the means of doing so. Ingenious adaptations of mobile phone technology to respond to regional demands, like M-PESA (below), have since evolved to open the door to new innovations such as M-Kopa Solar.

Technology leap-frogging – the idea of adopting the latest technology without having to go through all of the predecessor technologies – is not a new concept, and in many ways it’s one of the biggest opportunities for developing countries as opposed to high-income countries. A good example of this is African countries’ implementation of broadband internet, rather than having to transition first through dial-up internet.  I also hope that this is something that funders, whether they are national governments or multilateral development banks, aspire to facilitate. I can imagine that these projects which deliver major step-changes in societies do come with a high price tag, but if the background research is done well then they may prove to be a great investment for the future.

From a research perspective, I believe that there is also a voracious appetite for all things high-tech, having had conversations with representatives of a handful of Ministries of Science and Technology from across Africa: From Ethiopia looking to transition to a knowledge-based economy with the latest agricultural technologies, to hearing about Namibia’s aspirations in fostering innovationand Burkina Faso ascending the leader board in the bibliometric stakes.

In a heartening trend, there is an increasing amount of international research funding in partnership with Africa on the basis of research excellence, rather than coming from development budgets. This acknowledges the increasing number of world class researchers on the African continent who are producing globally competitive research.

So why not bioenergy in a development context? It is undeniable that Africa has the raw materials to engage with bioenergy by using first generation fuels (‘feedstocks’ for the bioenergy aficionados among you) like sugars or crop oils. There are also exciting developments in the use of second generation feedstocks such as grasses and algae. The demand for energy will only increase. Whilst not particularly glamorous, there is also significant research in the area of how to use human waste to make both electricity and fertilizer or water outputs. My hope is that if bioenergy does turn out to be the next mobile phone for development, perhaps the innovations in next generation feedstocks will come from collaborations with partners in developing countries.