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Renewables will bring power to a billion unserved Africans within a decade, experts say.

Renewable energy will likely bring power to many under-served areas of Africa within the next decade, industry observers say.

As many as a billion people, most of them in Sub-Saharan Africa, lack access to electricity. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal #7 targets universal access to power by 2030.

Kenya hopes to achieve universal access by as early as 2022, through connecting 1.2 million new customers annually.

Renewable, off-grid power sources will have a major role to play in this transformation, according to panelists at Africa’s Energy Revolution: Perspectives on Cleantech, a recent symposium in Waterloo, Ontario.

Over the past five years, conversations have shifted from relying on the electrical grid in Nigeria, to the off-grid sector as a viable business model, said Ify Malo of the Power for All & Clean Technology Hub.

Ify MaloIfy Malo

Samson Ondiek from Kenya Power agreed. Close to 70 per cent of the 600 million residents of sub-Saharan Africa who lack access to power live in remote rural areas and informal settlements in major cities, he said. Off-grid power stations and mini-grids are the tools of choice in reaching the last mile, off-grid customers.

Samson OndiekSamson Ondiek

Most of the people lacking access to power are farmers, said Peter Nyeko of Uganda-based Mandulis Energy. Lack of power means they cannot process their crops and therefore receive less value for their work, he said.

Peter NyekoPeter Nyeko

Over two billion people use wood fuels for cooking, with adverse health impacts he compares to the effect of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.

Mandulis develops renewable energy projects, both on-grid and off-grid, in emerging markets. Its biomass systems use food waste, including corn cobs and rice husks, to produce cooking fuel and electricity, replacing charcoal and wood. The company has set up a pilot plant in northern Uganda, where 80 per cent of the 40 million population lack electricity.

Mandulis has power projects in 16 sites. Off-grid systems in rural communities have allowed rural farmers to triple their incomes from $1,000 to $3,000 a year, Nyeko said.

In some ways, technology is allowing parts of Africa to move ahead in renewable energy quicker than what is being done in the rest of the world, said Aaron Leopold of the African Minigrid Developers Association. “We’re doing stuff that’s really not happening here in North America (or) in Europe,” said Leopold, who is chief executive officer of the Nairobi, Kenya-based organization.

The Internet of Things is making it much cheaper to connect new users to electricity, he said. “We’re really moving … to revolutionize the face of the sector in Africa.”

Rooftop solar, solar lanterns that also charge phones, mini-grids and biomass are all contributing to the breakthroughs, with the integration of various technologies providing for integrated energy planning.

Leopold believes that Africa’s energy problem is not primarily related to generation but rather distribution and transmission. He views efficiency of transmission as being the key issue to be addressed.

The Internet of Things, machine learning and artificial intelligence all help to advance the growth of access to electricity in Kenya, Ondiek said. In some regions, including lawless areas near the Somalian border, staff don’t want to visit to fix machines. That makes the ability to have remote control of systems critical. Kenya Power also uses drone technology to have some presence in areas “we consider to be a bit dangerous.”

Similarly, technology is solving the problem of how to collect money for the power provided. Kenya Power uses the M-PESA mobile money transfer system for pre-payment.

Understanding customer needs can sometimes be more challenging than technical solutions, said Sebastian Manchester. Manchester is chief technology officer for Jaza Energy, a Halifax, Canada and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania-based “last mile energy firm” that focuses on rural Tanzanian communities.

Sebastian ManchesterSebastian Manchester

“Energy is actually the easiest part of what we do, thinking about the energy revolution,” he said.

Jaza is a for-profit company that grew out of a tree-planting charity. It focuses on developing clean energy to every household in rural communities.

Jaza uses solar systems to charge portable battery packs for electronics in people’s homes, including lights and various devices. It hires women to run the charging depots.

Delivering appropriate customer service has forced Jaza to pivot quickly on several occasions to get products to market faster. On the technical side, their systems have evolved from a “rat’s nest of wires” to a completely plug-and-play approach, and from lead acid to lithium batteries.

The building hubs have gone from brick and mortar to prefab in order to drive costs down. Jaza’s overall goal has been to make “the most comfortable facility for the women who are actually running these hubs.”

The firm also learned that customer problems vary dramatically based on location. When Jaza launched on a small island off the Tanzanian coast, they were serving customers whose main concern was kerosene replacement, to provide better lighting in their homes.

On the mainland, customers had their own solar systems, but were frustrated by frequent battery failure.

Manchester was surprised to see that once people have access to power, they leave the lights on all night. “We need to be very careful about the assumptions we make and the products we deliver.’’

A focus on electricity can lead to overlooking more basic needs, panelist Grace Mbungu noted. Eighty per cent of African energy consumption is for cooking, said Mbungu, a researcher with the German-based Institute for Advanced Sustainability studies.

Grace Mbungu second shotGrace Mbungu

She urges business not to talk just about electricity when addressing energy needs.

Malo agrees that cooking needs are left out of the conversation around energy access, a situation she is trying to change in Nigeria. “Energy poverty wears a female face,” she said.

Overcoming that problem requires teaching women with people who look like them. Sixteen of Malo’s 20 employees are women, 10 of whom are engineers.

Conducting a gender audit of energy policies is important, Leopold said. Many energy plans have failed to provide for street lighting. Lack of streetlights makes it unsafe for women to walk at night, he said.

“Energy policies can be biased … unintentionally or not.”

One of the paradoxes in having businesses try to supply universal energy access is that while having a successful business means focusing on profits, providing universal access means losing money, he said.

Bridging that gap will require public support in order to reach the most marginalized, he suggested.