In a scene reminiscent of Colonial Williamsburg, for 16 years Thabo Molubi and his partner had made furniture in South Africa’s outback, known locally as the “veld,” using nothing but hand and foot power. When an electrical line finally reached the area, they installed lights, power saws and drills. Their productivity increased fourfold, and they hired local workers to make, sell and ship far more tables and chairs of much higher quality, thereby also commanding higher prices.
Living standards soared, and local families were able to buy and enjoy lights, refrigerators, televisions, computers and other technologies that Americans and Europeans often take for granted. They could even charge their cell phones at home! The area was propelled into the modern era, entrepreneurial spirits were unleashed, new businesses opened, and hundreds of newly employed workers joined the global economy.
People benefited even on the very edge of the newly electrified area. Bheki Vilakazi opened a small shop where people could charge their cell phones before heading into the veld, where instant communication can mean life or death in the event of an accident, automobile breakdown or encounter with wild animals.
Thousands of other African communities want the same opportunities. But for now they must continue to live without electricity, or have it only sporadically and unpredictably a few hours each week. Over 700 million Africans – and some two billion people worldwide – still lack regular, reliable electricity and must rely on toxic wood and dung fires for most or all of their heating and cooking needs.
Mothers with babies strapped on their backs must bend over open fires, breathing poisonous fumes and being struck down by debilitating, often fatal lung diseases. Homes, schools, shops and clinics lack the most rudimentary electrical necessities. Impoverished families must live in mud-and-thatch or cinderblock houses that allow mosquitoes to fly in, feast on human blood and infect victims with malaria. And parents and children must carry and drink untreated water that swarms with bacteria and parasites which cause cholera, diarrhea and river blindness. When the sun goes down, their lives shut down.
The environmental costs are equally high. In Rwanda gorilla habitats are being turned into charcoal, to fuel cooking fires. In Zambia, entrepreneurs harvest trees by the thousands along highways, selling them to motorists heading back to their non-electrified homes in rural areas and even parts of cities. As quickly as First World charities hold plant-a-tree days, Africans cut trees for essential cooking.
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