Over the past decade, tens of millions of people across Africa and Asia have gained access to electricity and cleaner cooking for the first time, in large part due to technology and business model innovation. But more of these new types of innovation are still required if energy poverty can be eradicated by 2030.

A recent fireside chat by ESI Africa that took place as part of the Digital Energy Festival for Africa, shed light on achieving this goal.

Dr Nicola Lazenby, Project Director at the Energy Catalyst programme at Innovate UK, oversees the annual competition that acts as a springboard to innovators working on energy access, both for clean cooking and last mile electrification. She was in conversation with William Brent, chief campaign officer of Power For All.

William Brent: “Access to finance is often cited as the main challenge by energy access innovators. How is Energy Catalyst helping to solve that problem?”

Nicola Lazenby:
“Energy Catalyst is an annual competition that provides funding to energy access innovators. However, I must say it is more than just funding. Whilst the funding is one element of Energy Catalyst we also broaden it because we definitely see a need in providing additional support to energy access innovators. So the type of support that we provide is help in finding collaborations, finding the people who work well and complement your innovation and those who will benefit from it.

“We also provide a lot of acceleration support. This is really as innovators develop their technologies they actually have the business skills to make them sustainable really grow to meet the needs of their target audience.

“We also focus a lot on gender equality and social inclusion to ensure that the innovation is really mapped to the end user needs and really fills in the community, as opposed to being dropped in and left.”

William Brent: “So, more than funding but the grant funding that you do provide is often a critical piece that middle stage and late stage companies lack. Because they may have an innovation in mind but they don’t have the working capital to actually try and make it work.”   

Nicola Lazenby: “Yes most definitely, we sit in that nice middle ground where the research may have just come out of university and is looking to really grow and scale up to the next level. However, they are not ready for venture capitalists, angel investors, those kinds of things, and they don’t actually have the funds themselves.

So they may be using some personal finances to get to where they are now but they need quite a bit of more substantial investment which we provide with the ground funding to get to that next level. Grant funding is really good for them not to release equity and things like that. They get some cash to actually develop their technology without any risk.  

It’s just the bit of finance to take them over to the other side. They may not have their first demonstrator yet or haven’t quite done their first trial of the technology and our grant funding is kind of a stepping stone to prove to other investors that this technology is worthwhile.”

William Brent: “So all that said, there has been a lot of progress over the last decade, but according to the recent International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook, we are actually going to see an increase this year in the number of unelectrified people in Africa for the first time since 2013 because of  COVID and the pandemic. So clearly, we have a long way to go still. So I am wondering, in your work with Energy Catalyst, what are some of the main challenges in innovation to solve?”

Nicola Lazenby: “I wouldn’t say there are many challenges that need innovation to solve. I would say that the innovation is actually already there, it exists. However, it’s a bit like the nett zero challenge, it’s getting that technology and scaling it quickly enough to meet the demands that there are. So, I wouldn’t say that it is new innovation that’s required, it’s the development of existing innovation to scale that is required to meet some of those demands in energy access.”

To watch the rest of this interview and see other ESI Africa discussions, register on the Digital Energy Festival for Africa platform: click here