‘We managed to turn a major risk into a great opportunity’
Since the start of 2018, my research group has collaborated with LUT University, GreenEnergy Finland, Nokia and University Properties of Finland Ltd on the Fusion Grid research project. The goal is to develop light and communal ways of introducing electricity and internet connectivity, along with digital services to those remote areas of developing countries where it would be uneconomic to build heavy traditional electricity and telecommunications solutions.
On Finland’s Independence Day in 2019, we piloted the project for the first time in the Namibian village of Oniipa: the temporary solution enabled five households receiving electricity and internet without a heavy and expensive infrastructure.
In March, the core members of our research group – myself, postdoctoral researchers Antti Pinomaa and Karin Fröhlich and researcher Iurii Demidov – were meant to travel to Oniipa. We wanted to improve the electric grids and telecommunications networks of the existing pilot, in addition to the local digital service platform. The system introduced in December was built from temporary ‘loan components,’ which were scraped together during the week of the installation. The originally designed components were finally available for use: the control box inverter, batteries and local servers. Everything was supposed to be completed by Namibia’s Independence Day on 21 March.
The aggressive spreading of the coronavirus, however, resulted in a change of plans. A day before the majority of the group was supposed to travel to Namibia, a travel ban was imposed on Finnish universities. It appeared that our research project pilot, which had thus far been carried out successfully, would be left incomplete.
Yet when the travel ban kicked in, I was already in Africa: I had travelled to Dar es Salaam in Tanzania with our Creative Sustainability student group. The study trip that had got off to a promising start came to an unfortunate halt, and our students flew back to Finland. I, however, still had a plane ticket to Namibia and was meant to board a flight home from the country’s capital city Windhoek.
As the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had not yet encouraged travellers to return to Finland, I travelled to Namibia from Tanzania on 14 March to do what I still could for our project.
On Tuesday 17 March, I drove a pickup from Windhoek towards Oniipa, where I was transporting the improved equipment needed for the project pilot. At this point, Namibia declared a state of emergency in the country, meaning for instance that the borders would be closed from foreigners. Finnish authorities were now encouraging Finns to return to their home country.
‘I won’t be able to get a return ticket for the same evening through South Africa anyway,’ I thought, knowing that KLM would have a direct flight from Windhoek to Amsterdam the following night. Thus I decided to continue my drive towards Oniipa, which would take approximately five more hours.
In Oniipa, I had about an hour to spend with the local residents. We unloaded the truck and I instructed the locals on how to use to equipment so that we could help them with configuring the batteries and maintain close communication with them via video. This schedule would allow me to get on the KLM flight in time – the company’s last flight out of Namibia before the borders closed.
The situation was made especially eventful by the ticket exchange system: when I tried to change my original ticket late in the evening for the following night, the screen kept displaying an error message. Thankfully I was able to find a ‘crisis number’ for our travel agency, and the customer service provided a reason: there was only one more seat left on the flight, but in a different ticket category – hence the ticket could not be changed online. Perhaps after four and a half seconds of consideration, I replied that the seat could be reserved for me. As I sat on the fully boarded plane on the return trip, I realised how lucky I had been.
I left a smartphone and laptop for the locals in Oniipa so that we could communicate. While I was rushing back to Windhoek, my colleagues Antti Pinomaa and Iurii Demidov from LUT University instructed them remotely from an ‘instruction and control centre’ built into a laboratory at LUT. They provided guidance on how to switch the batteries, inverter and other equipment, and how they should be connected. The guidance was a great success due to their patience, and I made it to my flight on time.
The residents of Oniipa who took part in the pilot received an improved electricity connection, wireless internet connection and access to digital services as originally planned. We, as researchers, now have even better opportunities to gather empirical data and maintain the system in cooperation with the Oniipa residents, as we work by using a video connection. This real-time video connection introduced on account of the coronavirus appears to be shaping up into a new way of conducting research. It complements our original methods, technical data collection and surveys.
With our entire research group displaying an excellent effort in a tight spot, we were able to turn a major risk into a great opportunity. Together with the residents of Oniipa, we can now continue our research in full. Remote work is now the most current way of working internationally, and it has quickly become a crucial practice in our project. This opens many new and fascinating opportunities, which we are eager to be a part of and develop in the future.
The collaboration in Fusion Grid between LUT, Aalto University and the local piloting community is unique in many ways, and I believe it will bear long-lasting results. We have already noted it time and again that our research and conceptual viewpoints have produced innovative results in a most special way.
N.B. Despite the publication date, this is a true story.
Professor, Aalto University
Tel. +358 50 368 4763
Project Manager, Fusion Grid
Postdoctoral researcher, LUT University
Tel. +358 40 833 7291
Coronavirus did not stop the Fusion Grid project – solar power system installed remotely in Africa (Lut.fi)Researchers are importing electricity and internet connections to a Namibian village – required technology can be transported in a pickup (Aalto.fi)Fusion Grid introduces connectivity and electricity to homes in developing countries (Lut.fi)
English translation: Annika Rautakoura