Around California, I've been seeing more and more solar panels. Solar panels installed subtly on people's homes. Solar panels on wireless keyboards. Solar panels atop lights. In such a sunny state, these solar panels make perfect sense.
On my return to northern Uganda, I started looking more carefully at the different ways people use new technologies, such as mobile phones and computers. But with an emergent civic infrastructure, access to the electric grid in the region remains limited. So while I was focused on how people used technology, I had to wonder: how do they charge their devices at all?
I soon learned that enterprising citizens in rural northern Uganda often purchase solar panels. They then offer phone charging services at a range of what I observed to be around 400–500 shillings per charge. That's about 20 US cents. The panels themselves, often coming from India and China, can cost as much as 200 US dollars, so it obviously takes a while to pay back that investment. But as one person told me, there is always someone who needs to charge his or her phone. Any freelancer can appreciate the value of a steady gig.
What seemed new to me was a practice already many years old. As I poked around the web to understand the mechanics of solar panels, I came across a 2010 New York Times article talks about solar panels in Kenya:
As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.
As the article points out, and as I've seen in my travels, the solar panels leap past infrastructural challenges and provide electricity to individuals who use their mobile phones for business and personal connections. Some phones can last days on a single charge, making that 20 cent payment well worth it for the consumer, and good business for the solar panel provider. The latter can rotate the panels throughout the day to maximize the energy they collect as the sun rotates over the sky.
As clever as they are, solar panels can't serve as a permanent solution. The business model isn't scalable; selling phone charge services only makes sense with a limited number of entrepreneurs. The panels can only support low-energy devices like light bulbs and phones, but not an entire office or a refrigerator. Those with means kept generators on hand as well. As my research continues, I'm eager to learn more about how this business model functions and how it will be affected by the arrival of electric poles and transformers.
In the mean time, I got used to seeing the panels almost anywhere I traveled in the north. And when I returned to California, I started thinking about purchasing some of my own.
My notes from the field are an part of an ongoing exploration of live fieldnotes, a practice explored by ethnographer Tricia Wang. These notes come from my Tumblr and Instagram posts as I travel and reflect fragments of thought as posted online to engage in dialogue. My work is supported by Art Center College of Design and UNICEF Uganda, but opinions expressed are my own.