Research Magazine 2006

Research aims to energize African communities

African continent

Affordable and reliable energy is perhaps the most crucial requirement for developing countries. History Associate Professor Alusine Jalloh says this is particularly true in Africa, which contains 13.4 percent of the world’s population and 15 percent of its land area but only 2 percent of its industrial capacity.

Less than 15 percent of Africa’s population has access to electricity, and much of what it has is unstable. In addition, there are wide disparities in access. About 67 percent of South Africans have electricity compared to 6 percent of Malawians. In Lesotho, only 4 percent of the population is plugged in.

Dr. Jalloh and Wei-Jen Lee, director of the Energy Systems Research Center at UT Arlington, have proposed a system utilizing wind, solar photovoltaic, hydro, geothermal and biomass for achieving electrical autonomy, especially in fishing villages. Agricultural residues would be the main biomass resource.

They intend to approach organizations like the World Bank and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to sponsor initial development. African communities would be a driving force for the project, with the goal of complete local control in five years.

Jalloh directs UT Arlington’s Africa Program, established in 1994 to promote business, educational and technological relations between Africa and Texas. Africa represents the world’s new economic frontier, he believes. Asked about similarities between Africa and his adopted home, the Sierra Leone native doesn’t hesitate.

“Most African economies are agricultural, and agriculture is big in Texas,” he said. “There’s also the energy dimension. A lot of Texas companies work in West Africa, Nigeria specifically.”

His father was an entrepreneur and his mother a public servant who placed great emphasis on education. Jalloh received his Ph.D. from Howard University in 1993. One year later, he became an assistant professor at UT Arlington, where he founded the Africa Program.

In Sierra Leone, he researched a combination of solar energy, biomass and hydroelectricity to develop a sustainable micro-grid for an African village. He also investigated the skills, technology and funding necessary to keep such systems running.

He returned to his homeland in September to teach at the University of Sierra Leone and was also there last winter to help create the Center for Energy, Science and Technology.

In a recent Fort Worth Star-Telegram article, Jalloh says Sierra Leone should have had a bright future, “but its citizens failed to remain vigilant and allowed a corrupt society to flourish.” About half the population lacks even a high school diploma. What’s worse, he contends, the culture emphasizes material gains over education.

Jalloh has spent years traveling between America and Africa. Last summer was his 12th in the sub-Saharan heat, sharing experiences of his native land with students from UT Arlington.

“The African people are in very difficult material conditions,” he said, “yet they are very hospitable and willing to share and can still put on a smile.”

He shared smiles with UT Arlington students when the Africa Program hosted a four-week trip to Ghana as part of the Musical Traditions of the World (MUSI 2300) course in the first summer session. Students spent the first two weeks in the capital, Accra, and the last two on the beach in the Volta Region of Africa’s Atlantic coast. They studied music, dancing, drumming, singing, rituals, language, arts and culture.

Jalloh says education is the key to realizing human potential. When he looks at the heart of the African people, he has reason to remain optimistic.

“When you look at the future of Africa, my view is that the private sector is key to revamping the African economy, to creating jobs, to increasing incomes, to expanding prosperity. So my work in terms of African entrepreneurship is very important. People are the key to the future, not just of Sierra Leone, but to Africa in general.”

— Shawn Stewart