Can AI help to address energy poverty in Nigeria where more than 100m people lack stable access to electricity?
By Laura Clark Murray
A staggering 1 billion people on Earth live in energy poverty
Without stable access to electricity, families can’t light their homes or cook their food. Hospitals and schools can’t dependably serve their communities. Businesses can’t stay open.
Energy poverty shapes and constrains nearly every aspect of life for those who are trapped in it. As the Global Commission to End Energy Poverty puts it, “we cannot end poverty without ending energy poverty.” In fact, energy poverty is considered to be one of humanity’s greatest challenges of this century.
In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, more than half of the 191 million citizens live in energy poverty. And though governments have been talking for years about extending national electricity grids to deliver energy to more people, they’ve made little progress.
With such a vast problem, what can be done?
Rather than focusing on the national electricity grid, Nigerian non-profit Renewable Africa 365, or RA365, is taking a different approach. RA365 is working with local governments to install mini solar power substations, known as renewable energy microgrids. Each microgrid can deliver electricity to serve small communities of 4,000 people. In this way, RA365 aims to address Nigerian energy poverty community-by-community with solar installations.
To be effective, RA365 needs to convince local policymakers of the potential impact of a microgrid in their community. For help they turned to Omdena. Omdena is a global platform where AI experts and data scientists from diverse backgrounds collaborate to build AI-based solutions to real-world problems. You can learn more here about Omdena’s innovative approach to building AI solutions through global collaboration.
Which communities need solar microgrids the most?
Omdena pulled together a global team of AI experts and data scientists. Working collaboratively from remote locations around the globe, the team set about identifying the regions in Nigeria where the energy poverty crisis is most dire and where solar power is likely to be effective.To determine which regions don’t have access to electricity, our team looked to satellite imagery for the areas of the country that go completely dark at night. Of those locations, they prioritized communities with large populations that incorporate schools and hospitals. Also the collaborators looked at the distance of those communities from the existing national electricity grid. In reality, if a community is physically far from the existing grid, it’s unlikely to be hooked up anytime soon. In this way, by analyzing the satellite data with population data, the team identified the communities most in crisis.
In any machine learning project, the quality and quantity of relevant data is critical. However, unlike projects done in the lab, the ideal data to solve a real-world problem rarely exists. In this case, available data on the Nigerian population was incomplete and inaccurate. There wasn’t data on access to the national electricity grid. Furthermore, the satellite data couldn’t be relied upon. Given this, the team had to get creative. You can read how our team addressed these data roadblocks in this article from collaborator Simon Mackenizie.
What’s the impact?
The team built an AI system that identifies regional clusters in Nigeria where renewable energy microgrids are both most viable and likely to have high impact on the community. In addition, an interactive map acts as an interface to the system.
RA365 now has the tools it needs to guide local policymakers towards data-driven decisions about solar power installation. What’s more, they’re sharing the project data with Nigeria Renewable Energy Agency, a major funding source for rural electrification projects across Nigeria.
With this two-month challenge, the Omdena team delivered one of the first real-world machine learning solutions to be deployed in Nigeria. Importantly, our collaborators from around the globe join the growing community of technologists working to solve Nigeria’s toughest issues with AI.
Ademola Eric Adewumi, Founder of Renewable Africa 365, shares his experience working with the Omdena collaborators here. Says Adewumi, “We want to say that Omdena has changed the face of philanthropy by its support in helping people suffering from electrical energy poverty. With this great humanitarian help, RA365 hopes to make its mission a reality, bringing renewable energy to Africa.”