Africa has an immense energy crisis. In a continent with a population of close to 1 billion, over 625 million people are without power. According to the International Energy Agency, that makes up 68% of the population. This is ironic considering the fact that Africa has an abundance of natural resources available. For instance, the continent has a large coastline where wind power and wave power resources are abundant and underutilized in the North and South. Africa has much greater solar resources available than any other continent because it is the sunniest continent on earth.
Energy is an essential factor for the reduction of poverty and economic growth. Major sectors like agriculture, education, communication, and technology all require abundant, consistent, and cost effective energy to spur the much needed development of the continent. Currently, many African nations already have small scale solar, wind, and geothermal plants that provide energy in rural areas. These modes of energy production are becoming very useful in remote locations, because they bridge the gap created by the excessive cost of transporting electricity from large-scale power plants.
The applications of renewable energy technology has the potential to alleviate many of the problems faced, as well as help improve the lives of many in the continent. Many small scale companies and startups have ventured into provision of renewable energy in the continent, and here we look at ten startups that are utilizing the vast amount of the continent’s renewable energy potential.
M-KOPA Solar, Kenya
M-Kopa sells solar home systems to low-income earners by allowing them to pay in instalments over the course of a year using mobile money. M-KOPA prides themselves in making affordable, high quality solar that can be accessed by anyone. Founded in 2011, the system relies on a patented mobile payment structure with a pay-as-you-go business model. It relies on M-Pesa, which is Kenya’s incredibly popular and pioneer mobile money system that has served as a model for the rest of the world.
M-Kopa enables its users to replace kerosene lamps with solar lights and radio/phone charging stations over several months in instalments via SMS messaging on mobile money networks. After a year’s worth of regular payments, the customers attain full ownership of the system and therefore have access to free solar electricity. By offering the mobile installment method of paying for solar energy, the company has pioneered a better way to supply safe power to millions of off-grid homes. The company has spread to other countries such as Uganda and Tanzania, and they are helping communities gain access to clean and affordable energy.
They have received various awards including Bloomberg New Energy Finance Award 2013, AfricaCom Award for Rural Telecoms 2013, and Zayed Future Energy Prize 2015. They were even listed at number position 34 on MIT’s 50 Smartest Companies of 2017. The Kenyan startup was ranked ahead of various multinationals and giant companies such as IBM, Adidas, and Jumia among others. Each year, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) identifies 50 companies that are creating new opportunities by combining important technologies and business savvy. M-Kopa making it to the list is a great achievement not only to them, but to similar startups as well.
Mobile Solar Cell Phone Kiosk
Mobile Solar Cell Phone kiosk is an alternative solar-powered mobile kiosk that charges phones and connects communities in Rwanda. It was founded by Henri Nyakarundi, a Rwandese who lived in the United States, after struggling with charging his phone whenever he went back to Rwanda or Burundi for holidays. He also noticed that even though many people had cell phones, they faced a challenge with charging their devices. It is estimated that over 70% of the population in Rwanda own a cell phone; however, at the same time, World Bank estimates that less than 25% of the Rwandan population has access to electricity.
Prompted by this need, Henri sketched his first design on a piece of paper. He devised a solar-powered kiosk that can be towed by a bicycle and provides concurrent charging for up to 80 phones. The Mobile Solar Cell Phone Kiosk uses a franchise model that is low income and motivated by entrepreneurial objectives. Henri moved to the United States in 1996 and studied computer science at Georgia State University.
Shakti Energy, South Africa
Established to bring safer lighting solutions to off-grid communities who live in informal settlements and rural areas across South Africa, Shakti Energy is a South African startup that provides an alternative energy solution to thousands of households that do not have access to electricity. They provide Nuru Lights, LED powered lights, which are able to provide up to 20 hours of lighting on a full recharge. The Nuru LED light is portable and costs US $8. Shakti Energy also distributes the Nuru PowerCycle that uses human pedal power to recharge Nuru lights and mobile phones. The Nuru PowerCycle is the world’s first commercially available pedal generator.
The startup plans to distribute its products through township entrepreneurs who earn money through the sale and recharging of lights and mobile phones. In a previous interview, Vijay Mitha, the Chief Executive Officer of Shakti Energy, said that the startup establishes energy entrepreneurs in informal settlements and rural areas across South Africa who will be able to earn a sustainable income as they provide a solution to the energy challenge that most of these people face.
“Shakti Energy establishes energy entrepreneurs in informal settlements and rural areas that are not connected to the electricity grid, to charge portable lights and mobile phones using a pedal powered generator,” said Vijay Mitha.
Off Grid Electric
Started in 2012, Off Grid Electric is a Tanzanian based startup that provides a solar power solution to thousands of households in Tanzania. Off Grid Electric provides a system that includes a solar panel installed on a roof and a lithium-ion battery that provides electricity around the clock. This provides each household the advantage of a low-cost, environmentally-friendly alternative to handle their lighting, cooking, and mobile phone charging needs.
A large portion of the company’s investment comes from Elon Musk’s SolarCity, one of the largest solar energy providers in the US, and Helios, Africa’s largest private equity firm. Off Grid Electric was founded by Erica Mackey and Xavier Helgesen; the two were classmates at the University of Oxford’s business school. Each household that signs up for the system pays a monthly fee of $6. Off Grid Electric then installs the solar panel and a meter to monitor their energy usage, along with LED lights, a radio, and a phone charger that work off the solar charge. The startup has received various awards for their work, including the United Nation’s 2016 Momentum for Change Award, which focused on projects that are innovatively addressing climate change.
Founded in 2011, Freedom Won is a South African startup company venturing in provision of clean energy and electric vehicle solutions. Better known for its advances in electric vehicle technology, the South African company seems to be inspired by the giant US company Tesla. Freedom Won’s first innovation was a prototype electric vehicle in 2011- a Jeep Grand Cherokee, also known as Freedom1. The startup has since built more electric vehicles, mostly for wildlife tourism lodges and game drives in the parks across Southern Africa. The technology used by Freedom Won can be installed into most existing car models, at various levels of sophistication, power, and range, depending on requirements and budgets. The company has created a wall-mounted system, the FreedomCOR, which is similar to the Tesla Powerwall system. In fact, it is a direct competitor of the Powerwall, and it uses lithium-ion batteries to store renewable energy. The battery uses lithium-ion cells that can help households and businesses go off-the-grid by using solar power, or as a backup in case of power outages.
According to a statement on their official website, Freedom Won has Africa’s unique power challenges covered with their leading range of superior Lithium Iron Phosphate (LiFePO4) energy storage solutions.
“Our solutions are fast becoming the preferred choice as the huge advantages of using this proven technology become more widely known through our marketing efforts,” reads the statement.
Though based in Germany, Mobisol offers customers in various parts of the continent home solar systems using a mobile phone payment plan. They combine solar energy with an affordable payment plan via mobile phone, along with comprehensive customer service and innovative remote monitoring technology. Mobisol’s solar home system systems provides enough electricity to power bright efficient LED lights, radios, mobile phones, TVs, and a variety of household and consumer appliances systems.
Its systems come in varying sizes, from 80 to 200 watt peak (Wp), to match the various energy needs of differing households. The systems are also powerful enough to run small businesses, enabling entrepreneurial customers to create incremental income. The company has partnered with mobile phone service provider MTN to introduce a 600Wp Solar School System to power eight schools in rural Rwanda. By providing the solar home system, Mobisol offers low-income customers in developing nations quality solar home systems that are a clean alternative to unhealthy, environmentally harmful, and expensive fossil fuels. According to Mobisol’s official website, they have currently installed over 85,000 solar home systems on households and businesses in East Africa, thus enabling over 425,000 beneficiaries to access clean, affordable, and reliable solar energy. By doing so, they are stimulating economic and social development in project countries while simultaneously contributing to global environmental protection.
African Clean Energy
One of the major energy challenges that is faced in the continent is cooking on open fires or with dirty, dangerous fuel. The overdependence on such fuel does not only have a massive health implication to millions of Africans, but it also leads to massive environmental degradation and drags vulnerable communities to a cycle of induced poverty. It is because of this that African Clean Energy was born in Lesotho. This company is a startup that developed the ACE1 Ultra-Clean Biomass Cookstove, which burns any type of biomass both cleanly and smoke-free indoors or outdoors. It reduces fuel use of about 70 percent, saves 50 percent of costs, and drastically improves the lives of women and children, who do the majority of the cooking.
Started by Judith Joan Walker, together with his father Stephen Walker and brother Ruben Walker, African Clean Energy provides off-grid energy solutions to Africa and other developing regions in the world. Having lived in Lesotho for a while, the Walkers identified that there was need for addressing household air pollution caused by cooking fuel. The ACE1 addresses the three needs of cooking, lighting, and mobile phone charging by bringing together forced draft cookstove technology with solar panels and high quality batteries.
The technology works by using a fan to blow oxygen into the chamber through holes at both the bottom and top. This drives the fire to increase in temperature until it reaches approximately 1000°C. These conditions then cause the biomass to gasify. After that, hot gas floats up to the top and meets more oxygen, and combusts completely. The stove produces as much as 5kW worth of energy, and the outside temperature, though warm after continued use, does not become hot enough to cause injury. When fully charged, the battery will power the fan for over 20 hours of cooking. The battery can also be used to charge a mobile device or run LED lighting, and can be boosted using a solar panel.
iCoal Concept Ltd.
iCoal Concept is a Kenyan startup that transforms waste from the charcoal industry and processes it into modern energy. The company collects charcoal waste from the community and repurposes it into charcoal-based briquettes that are 35 percent cheaper than regular charcoal. They are involved in medium scale production of charcoal briquettes. iCoal Concept Ltd employs a highly innovative, yet simple and appropriate system for producing and distributing superior eco-charcoal briquettes from salvaged charcoal dusts. They produce three tons of their own SmartCharcoal per day for hotels, farmers, and residential communities. The startup is among the first beneficiaries of the inaugural World Bank’s Kenya Climate Innovation Centre’s crowdfunding mentorship program for entrepreneurs in East Africa, which provided them with financial support and mentorship.
Quaint Global Energy Solutions
Listed among the 2015 Forbes list of Five African Cleantech startups, Quaint Global Energy Solutions is a Nigerian company that develops renewable power projects and provides solar energy solutions to rural Nigeria. The company was recently given a grant by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency for a solar power project that they are developing in northern Nigeria. The grant was part of Power Africa, a US government initiative. Quaint Global Energy Solutions is now working with California-based Tetra Tech on the project. On its completion, the project is expected to bring 50 megawatts of clean energy to Kaduna State, a state in Nigeria, and could also leverage more than $160 million.
Solar Turtle is a South African innovation that targets poor and rural communities by introducing a unique solar battery charging station. The Solar Turtle is a small mobile power station that was inspired by traders in Johannesburg who used containers as metal safes. The Solar Turtle is a shipping container that houses solar panels that fold out during the day and retract securely at night, charging batteries stored inside recycled bottles. Customers can collect their ‘battery in a bottle’ from the Turtle, then plug it into their home system. Once it’s run down, customers can buy a charged replacement. The solar Turtle is an innovation of James Van Der Walt.