The Reality of Electrical Power Variability in African ICT4D Projects


Looking at the wavy line above, you could be forgiven if you think that's a pure sine wave electrical power graph. It is not. It is the electrical power grid uptime for a town in Tanzania, East Africa. Shocked? You should not be. That is the mains power reality, as computed by David Berg:
For nearly an entire month, I kept track of the power cuts that occurred throughout the day. Given how much it happens around here, it was actually pretty difficult to keep the numbers accurate. I figured the resolution of the data wasn't incredibly important; what's more important is to show the general trend of the uptime, which you can see even with relatively inaccurate measurements.
There is no discernible pattern in how the power cuts; the only times you know it might go out is if there's strong winds or it rains fairly hard. Inclement weather is nearly a guarantee that the power is going out. Which is a shame really, because our supply is local to Mtwara and is actually quite reliable. The unreliable part is the infrastructure to carry it.
Now let us add in yet another level of variability. David graphed the uptime, but equality important is the quality of that uptime power grid. If you put a meter on an outlet to measure the level of electrical current available, you will find that electrical power does not always come at 230 Volts and 50 Hz as it should, but jumps up, down and around at levels that can fry electronics. In fact, brownouts, where the power drops but doesn't cut off completely, can be worse than blackouts.
Add the two variables together - quantity and quality - and the lesson is that gird electrical power is not to be trusted. You will need to condition your electrical power for long term ICT4D sustainability in Tanzania or anywhere in Africa.

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