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Why catalysing innovation is needed to power Africa

According to the newest data, sub-Saharan Africa will be where the UN goal of universal energy access by 2030 (SDG7) either fails or succeeds. To understand why innovation is a key part of the solution, we spoke with Nicola Lazenby, who leads the Energy Catalyst Programme at Innovate UK, which aims to accelerate energy access innovation.

This article first appeared in ESI Africa Issue 3-2020.
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here.

If policies in effect before the COVID-19 pandemic go unchanged, an estimated 620 million people will still lack access to electricity at the end of this decade, 85% of them in Africa. For clean cooking, the number is even more daunting: 2.3 billion.

Is there really a need for more innovation?

Clearly new approaches are needed or the problem of energy poverty would have been solved long ago. Legacy thinking hasn’t worked, while new ideas have flourished. For example, the mobile money revolution has brought solar power to tens of millions of people who wouldn’t have had it otherwise.

While an integrated approach that addresses policy, finance and capacity building is needed, innovation remains essential to make modern, clean energy affordable and available to everyone.

For this decade, what areas of innovation are the most critical?

Bringing down the price of batteries even further using AI and IoT to create smart connections that can be managed remotely. As an example, start-up Modularity Grid is using machine learning to streamline mini-grid operations by predicting and managing demand.

We also need innovation in unlocking electricity to affordably provide clean cooking, developing more efficient solar-powered machinery to drive productive activities like agro-processing, welding and cold storage, solar panels that can be printed locally, new sources of funding and more.

Is the technology or the business model innovation more important?

They are two sides of the same coin. True change cannot happen without both. If a technology is helpful on paper, but clunky or annoying to use for the customer, then it will fail. Similarly, if a business model is promoting a technology that isn’t high quality or lasting, that will fail too.

What are some interesting partnerships you’re seeing?

These days collaboration is more and more important to tackling complex challenges. This is especially true for partnership between the public and private sectors, which mostly still operate in silos. Spanning that gap can have immediate impact, as we’re seeing with on-bill financing for electric pressure cookers in Kenya that brings together the utility, Kenya Power, and private sector solution providers.

Similarly, connecting local entrepreneurs in Africa with innovators in the UK and elsewhere can be a powerful combination that leverages market-savvy with cutting edge solutions, like how crowd-funding platform Charm links local entrepreneurs to international capital.

Are there geographic hotspots for energy access innovation in Africa?

Vibrant start-up communities are being fostered, especially in markets like Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Ethiopia. Various efforts – Energy Catalyst, the World Bank’s Climate Innovation Centres, the Shell Foundation’s Off-Grid Market Accelerators – are all making an impact, but more is needed to foster innovation.

Ultimately, there is an opportunity for innovation that happens in Africa not only to serve the African people, but also be exported to the global market.

What are the main barriers to unlocking energy access innovation in Africa?

According to one estimate, between 7,000 and 20,000 local energy enterprises are needed to solve energy poverty. That requires fostering a huge number of entrepreneurs. Yet there is still insufficient investment from donors, governments and commercial financiers into the innovation ecosystem. Capacity and training efforts must be redoubled to foster the next generation of innovators. ESI

Look out for the ESI Africa and Energy Catalyst innovator interview series online.

About the organisation
Energy Catalyst Round 8 makes available up to £20 million to support businesses to develop highly innovative, sustainable energy technologies and business models, which are accelerating the clean energy transition in developing and emerging economies.

ESI Africa
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