12 Dec 2013

PNG solar charging stations for cellphones will mean more business

5:25 pm on 12 December 2013

The World Bank Group says Papua New Guinea's new solar charging stations for mobile phones will give villagers entrepreneurial opportunities and allow people in remote areas to better do business.

The International Finance Corporation, which is part of the World Bank, the New Zealand government and the phone operator, Digicel, are trialling a solar station at a village two hours from Port Moresby, Hula.

Its regional manager for the Pacific, Gavin Murray, says if the trial is a success, there may be more than 500 stations across rural areas by 2015, being used by half a million to a million people.

He told Mary Baines about the project.

GAVIN MURRAY: It's quite remarkable. They call it the 'telecommunications revolution' in Papua New Guinea and we see it in other Pacific Islands, as well. But I think perhaps it's most stark here in Papua New Guinea just given the difficulty of communications, the difficulty of access because of the terrain. And mobile telephony has completely changed the way the community now interacts and can now communicate and, in fact, do business. It goes from two extremes. The week before last we actually launched an online business registry, which is the first in the Pacific, to be available for small business to be able to register online. The interesting thing about that is when we were out in this village it was one of the local villagers who was aware of that and said 'Now not only can I charge my phone, but I can use my smartphone to go online and register my business.' Here in a remote community in Papua New Guinea people could already see the benefits of how these different activities are coming together. So that's at one extreme. At the other extreme we've heard stories that mobile phones have been used at night, where there is no electricity, for childbirth, to be able to provide light. A number of women were telling us that the benefit of having this here was a) they'd be able to charge their phones, b) there was a streetlight so they would feel safer moving around at night and then they would have the ability to use their phones in this perhaps more basic way.

MARY BAINES: How do they work?

GM: It's simple in nature. It's a photovoltaic array sitting on top of a pole. It captures the sun's energy and transmits that to a battery in a small box at the bottom of the pole and then there's a number of mobile phone direct connections that are available for people to use to charge their mobile phone. And then also on top of the pole is an LED light, effectively a streetlight, so at night the whole area also gets lit up and can be used for community activities.

MB: So at the moment it's still at pilot stage, but it will be rolled out across the country?

GM: Yes. The model that we're testing here is actually a mini business model. The idea is for a local in the community to take charge of these installations and effectively to run them as a small business. So they would then charge a small fee for people to recharge their phones and in return they have responsibility for the maintenance and upkeep of the unit.

MB: And how much is this costing?

GM: Each of these installations costs about $150,000 in the pilot phase, but we're hoping to reduce that cost to about half. And the initial cost is underwritten by the IFC, the telephone operator. Then IFC has a partnership with New Zealand aid programme to support that, as well.