The mobile phone sector has been famously dynamic in Africa, with a history of innovation that includes mobile banking, citizen reporting, and some pioneering mobile infrastructure in Lesotho.
Lesotho is a small and mountainous country, beloved of geography students for being an ‘enclave nation’ – it is bordered on all sides by South Africa. In 2012, the mobile phone company Vodacom began to install green base stations – off-grid mobile towers that were powered by solar and wind energy, with batteries or generators for backup. As this was some of the first off-grid mobile infrastructure in the world, Vodacom fitted smart meters so that their performance could be measured remotely. They found a number of benefits.
For a start, the towers were running on solar or wind energy, so they were saving money on electricity bills. The self-sufficient base stations were often more reliable than those with a grid connection, as local grids were sometimes prone to power cuts. Because the back-up generators were used less, there were fewer maintenance visits to the site and that reduced costs too, and there were even fewer where batteries were used. Off grid base stations also extended and improved the network in rural areas without having to wait for power infrastructure.
The company built dozens more base stations in Lesotho and then the DRC, and over 950 of its sites across Africa are now solar powered. As well as mobile infrastructure, Vodacom have prioritised low carbon buildings and their headquarters in Lesotho is one of the first zero carbon buildings in the country.
What I liked about this is the way that the decentralised renewable-based approach has outperformed the traditional grid based operations. It has reduced emissions and costs together, showing that the green option doesn’t need to be more expensive. And those that benefit most are those in more remote or marginalised areas who would have been last in the queue for a mobile signal if the network was relying on the grid. These side benefits are actually more important than the low carbon aspects, since Lesotho has extensive hydropower capacity and almost 100% clean power – in fact it exports clean power to South Africa.
Vodacom is a big company, and it has been able to use its relatively small operation in Lesotho as a test bed for new ideas. The challenge for them now is to apply that learning on its much bigger network in South Africa, where decarbonisation is much more urgent.
I also wonder whether there’s anything we can learn in Britain. There are plenty of parts of the country that have terrible phone signal, and that could potentially benefit from a self-contained base station. Perhaps it points the way to a net zero mobile phone network too, something all of Britain’s networks will have to consider in the years ahead.
Finally, if you were assuming that the bar for a mobile network might be lower in Lesotho, consider this. If you look up 5G on Wikipedia, or Google ‘first country with 5G’, you’ll find an argument over whether the US or South Korea got there first. They both launched services within hours of each other in April 2019. But Lesotho beat them both to it by months, with Vodacom launching a commercial 5G service in August 2018. Bear that in mind the next time you hear a government figure going on about how Britain is a world leader in 5G.
(While we’re on the subject, conspiracy theorists might like to note that Lesotho was the first country in Africa with a 5G network, and the last country on the continent to record a Coronavirus case.)