PRI’s The World ran a story today about the boom in renewable energy in the developing world.  The story itself is fine – but I’m tired of reading stories that hang their angle on how amazing/interesting it is that the global poor can be so innovative, and so capable to taking up new technologies – this angle is misguided and condescending, and does a lot to keep us trapped in the development echo chamber that tells us how the global poor would be lost without our help.

The World, like all media, has to draw the reader/listener in with unusual and topical stories.  But this story is not all that unusual – it runs parallel to the explosive growth of mobile phones in the developing world.  When I first started working in Ghana, back in 1997, barely anyone had cell phones.  Landlines were also rare, and nearly impossible to get because the switchboards in places like Cape Coast were maxed out – basically, you had to wait for someone to move or die, which would free up a land line.  The waits for land lines ranged into years.  I could make outbound calls from the Ghana Telecom building in Cape Coast, but I had no means of receiving phone calls.  When I went out to a village to do fieldwork, I effectively disappeared – there was no means of reaching me except word-of-mouth messages passed by people going to and from the village on various errands (though that method was surprisingly effective – I could get a message in well under a day in that manner).

Fast forward to 2004 -when I arrived in Ghana, I borrowed a cell phone from a colleague of mine at the University of Ghana, went out and bought a SIM and some minutes for around $15, and had a phone number within a few hours of touching down in the country.  People could call me, and I could call out, nearly all the time.  Coverage did not extend into the villages in which I was working, but if I climbed a very tall hill behind my house, I could get a wobbly signal.  In 2005, the signal was much stronger.  Since 2006, it has been possible to make and receive calls from the village itself, without having to climb the hill.  And people have adopted the phone as these advances have taken place, to the extent that while these villages do not have electrical service, I have heard a farmer take a call on a mobile phone in his field (the phones are charged on car batteries).

Why the rapid advances in mobile phone technology?  People wanted the service (badly), but the dominant technology of the late 1990s (land lines) was too expensive to extend to everyone who wanted it.  Mobile phones filled the gap . . . and now we see all kinds of innovation in mobile technology starting to emerge from Africa – such as the unique talent pool of low-bandwidth phone app programmers in Kenya.

Given all of this, I am forced to ask why anyone would find the adoption of alternative energy sources by those living in the developing world surprising.  People want and need power, but the infrastructure to bring it to them is very expensive.  Dominase and Ponkrum, the two villages in which I have focused much of my research in Ghana, are less than five kilometers from huge high tension lines carrying electricity from the Akosombo Dam to coastal cities like Takoradi to the West.  Yet they have no electricity themselves, and little hope of seeing the grid extended to them any time soon.  As the story notes:

“One reason why renewable energy is expanding is because of the inadequacy of the power supply in much of the world. Conventional power grids simply don’t reach many people. And when the price of oil goes up, people who use diesel generators start searching for other ways to get power.”

I agree that situations like this one drive innovation (the villagers can run almost anything off of a car battery), but the emergence of alternative energy as one set of innovations is therefore completely unsurprising.

The real story here, as I see it, is the rate of change.  What we are seeing is a remarkable rate of innovation in the developing world around emerging technologies.  Further, this is not all the result of development projects, education, or other capacity-building efforts supplied by advanced economies.  Instead, such as in the case of the Kenyan programmers, these innovations are local phenomenon that illustrate just how capable the people living in the Global South really are.

Perhaps we need to stop writing stories that express surprise and interest in the emergence of new technologies among the global poor, and refocus to carefully explore why some technologies emerge and others do not.  Any time we see a useful, innovative technology hit the Global South without making a major impact, or without people picking it up, we need to explore what is preventing this sort of innovation and impact.  The only reason we don’t, I fear, is because we assume that the global poor are generally incapable of such innovation without outside help.  This is a bad assumption that empowers development projects that are probably not needed or misguided – efforts that could be better spent identifying and removing the barriers to adoption so that these local innovations can flourish.