Monday Motivation

By the end of last month Germany had officially reached a new milestone, marking the installation of the 100,000th home battery storage system for domestic solar energy use. While this particular European nation also boasts over one million domestic solar panel installations, not all have been able to avoid the losses that ensue when only a fraction of solar-powered homes are actually storing the excess energy they generate. While there are some very obvious reasons not to compare our energy landscapes with our friends to the north, there are nevertheless some valuable lessons to be learned.

Keep reading to learn more.

Can the Grid Ever Go Green?

Anyone who’s lived in the region for a good amount of time knows that it’s far from pessimistic to have lost faith in African power utilities. We’re realists here, and we like to call it how it is. And the truth is, the Nigerian electric grid in its present state won’t be experiencing its golden age any time soon. From the glaring unpredictability of power supply to the haphazard funding practices that allow them to continue to operate, it isn’t much of a stretch to suppose that it is a system beyond repair—sorry guys.

According to a 2016 World Bank study shared by Quartz Africa, fewer than 1% of the African utilities surveyed in the study were capable of generating enough cash to cover both operating costs and maintenance/expansion fees. While some large companies are able to switch to alternative sources of energy, this hasn’t always been an option for smaller businesses and individuals who are just as tired of the failing, unpredictable grid. Of course, the result tends to be that existing utilities lose their big customers and it’s the people who are left to suffer the consequences.

We already know it takes time for decentralized, sustainable practices to pick up speed when cost is an issue for huge swaths of the population. But there is a growing consensus of voices familiar with these industries who agree that the utilities’ present situation isn’t so much of a setback as it is an opportunity. That is, an opportunity for those of us in the dark, whether in urban centers or rural areas, to set our sights on something a little more 21st century. Something a little more…green. Some of the writers over at Quartz even suppose that the grid may make a comeback as a marketplace where users are able to sell the excess power generated from their solar installations to those without power. And that, my friends, is music to our ears. Because we’re here to make it possible.

The Generator-Free Generation

Being at the top of a list is usually great (who doesn’t want to be number one?), but not so great when you’re at or near the top of a list for, say, most extensive generator markets. Unfortunately, as of this year Nigeria ranks in at no. 2 with approximately 60 million generators, 12 million of which are in regular active use and emit at least 29 mega-tonnes of CO2 per year. The green future many of us envision certainly doesn’t include the noxious, grey fumes spawned by these incessantly noisy behemoths. While the movers and shakers at the forefront of African sustainability efforts are not shy about letting this be known, what some have yet to realize is that pollution is more than just an aesthetic issue—it’s a public health crisis in the making. As Mr. Ademola Adesina, Founder & CEO of Rensource Ltd. has poignantly noted, turning the energy sector green is about more than just promoting sustainability for sustainability’s sake. With ever-increasing urbanization and the projected population growth expected to come with it, it would be irresponsible not to start making the transition when the conditions are all but demanding it.

We are particularly fond of what Mr. Adesina has in mind for setting the record straight. “Nigeria” he predicts, “will become the first country where distributed power generation from renewable energy is the norm rather than the exception.” From our vantage point we’re already off to the races—the continued efforts and growing concern will keep on proving him right.

Scaling the Pyramid

Some voices in the tech industry are attempting to settle the debate between whether African startups and investors ought to be catering to the needs and wishes of the affluent—the region's one per cent, if you will—or those at the “base of the pyramid”; that is, the millions of African people who currently earn too little to be active players in any formal economy. Certain university studies point to the latter while established industry leaders are suggesting the opposite.

Mohammed Dewji, president and CEO of Tanzania-based MeTL Group, recently remarked that “the rise of bottom-of-the-pyramid African consumers and companies profitably serving them is one of several key trends driving large-scale private sector growth on the continent.” A related source notes that iROKO Partners, parent company of the popular subscription-video-on-demand platform iROKOtv headquartered in Lagos, has pivoted to target lower income consumers at the base of the pyramid, presumably having come to the same realization. Given the successes of these companies despite going against what the data would seem to recommend, it’s clear the answers aren’t so straightforward to discern.

So, what’s one to do when university studies tell us to focus on one end of the spectrum while businesses on the ground indicate the opposite? Ultimately only time can tell. But for now our bets are on, well…both. Rich or poor, there are certain goods and services we think everyone should be able to afford, and consistent access to energy is one of them. In taking what amounts to a “top-down” approach—insofar as we begin, by necessity, at the top and work our way to the base—we're letting the technology set the pace.

After all, the bottom of the African pyramid has 71% of the continent’s aggregate purchasing power, and in countries like Nigeria roughly half the population live at the base, so it’s really only common sense that drives our aim to provide the solutions to this population’s most urgent needs. No matter how you slice it, there’s ample room for everyone to serve and be served.

Changing Landscapes

This may come as a shock to some, but a lot can change in just half a century. A little short of fifty years ago, the then coveted Kenbak I personal computer was selling for $750—which, when adjusted for inflation, comes to $4,659 by today’s standards. Fast forward a few decades: it’s 2018 and no reasonable person dares spend that much on what is now the hallmark of ubiquitous commodities. Times really have changed.

Just look at any other breakthrough technology and you’re likely to spot a common pattern: first there’s the initially questionable market viability because of high costs. This tends to be followed by initial sales and capital investment driving the development of more efficient processing systems. Greater efficiency leads to an increase in demand often resulting from the increase in user-friendliness. And, finally, a decrease in cost thereby making once rare technologies more widely accessible. Groundbreaking, right?

Anyway, the question remains as to where solar technologies fit into this picture. Like any industry in its youth, the benefits don’t always outweigh the costs when money is an issue for those who stand to benefit the most. But thanks to ongoing research in solar cell efficiency and growing concerns about sustainability, costs may not present as much of a barrier as the technology catches up with public interest. A pioneer of decentralized, clean energy in West Africa, entered the game to meet the public’s needs along each step of the way. Stay tuned as we keep up with the latest industry developments and help pave the way to a greener future—for all of us.