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Building a Clean and reliable energy future in Sub-Saharan Africa; Lessons from Tesla

image credit: copyright Manamuz Electric LTD (www.manamuz.com)

Three years ago during a trip to Nairobi, I attended a GIZ training on solar PV project development where an associate of mine told me that the most sustainable way to solve a problem is through a business. This gave me food for thought and I agree with him because when a business is solving a problem profitably, their solution to that problem becomes sustainable.

 The telecommunication companies in Africa were successful in their mission to connect Africa because they did it profitably and this accelerated the transition to mobile phones and made building telephone lines unnecessary. Currently, there are about 444 million mobile subscribers in sub-Saharan Africa and these numbers are expected to keep increasing. In most parts of Africa, the number of people with cell phones outnumbers the number of people with electricity.

This is however expected to change in the new decade as a new breed of entrepreneurs have emerged who use solar photovoltaics and other clean energy technologies to fight energy poverty and ensure steady electricity for over 1 billion people in sub-Saharan Africa.  As a solar energy entrepreneur from Nigeria, I am a part of this new breed of entrepreneurs who are pushing for a transition to sustainable energy which is now a global movement.

One of the companies at the forefront of this global movement is Tesla, whose mission is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy through their electric vehicle and energy businesses. Tesla is declaring profits, Tesla stock price is high, market capitalization has exceeded 88 billion US dollars and shareholders are happy. Their profitability while accelerating the transition to sustainable energy is why they will win in the market.

Oppenheimer & Co Inc., analyst Colin Rusch in a note to investors stated that “Tesla’s risk tolerance, ability to implement learnings from past errors, and larger ambition than peers are beginning to pose an existential threat to transportation companies that are unable or unwilling to innovate at a faster pace.”

To build the Tesla of Africa, the new breed of African energy entrepreneurs need to be more ambitious (talking to myself and my colleagues). We already have a tolerance for risk but we need to start implementing learnings from past errors and designing/building our own products.

At Manamuz Electric, we have deployed several solar and energy storage solutions across Nigeria over the past 3 years and lessons learnt are used as feedback for improvement. However, there is a limit to how much value these lessons can add to the ecosystem or how much we can scale. Until we start developing our own products and making changes based on our own experiences or that of our colleagues, we would be unable to scale and achieve the kind of profitability that ensures we win the fight against energy poverty in Africa.

There are massive opportunities in Africa for producing different energy products however, one area we need to start exploring as a matter of urgency is Lithium Ion battery production. Africa needs to stop being absent and participate in the global battery production space.  Lithium Ion batteries are seen as a luxury and considered too expensive in Africa but they are gradually becoming ubiquitous in the west thanks to companies like Tesla.  The situation in Africa is not meant to be as the minerals used in producing these batteries are here in Africa but we export them without any value added. In 2018, Zimbabwe alone was among the top 5 producers of lithium in the world and has potential to produce 20% of the worlds lithium supply.  

To be continued…

 

Uzochukwu Mbamalu's picture

Thank Uzochukwu for the Post!

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Discussions

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 28, 2020 4:38 pm GMT

Uzochukwu, with the launch of several new Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) on the horizon, won't nuclear energy offer a more scalable and cost-effective clean energy option for the four African power pools?

I can't imagine renewable energy would be any more useful or affordable in Africa than California. And though "batteries" are often touted as a potential solution to intermittency, there isn't a single working, grid-scale example to show the idea is feasible. That means Africans would likely be dependent on foreign gas to maintain industrial and economic growth for decades to come.

Uzochukwu Mbamalu's picture
Uzochukwu Mbamalu on Jan 28, 2020 8:23 pm GMT

Hello Bob, Nuclear energy has lots of potential but may not be ideal for the African market as it will be met with lots of resistance due to safety concerns.  With our track record of having a poor maintenance culture, deploying a technology where mistakes/ poor management could lead to disaster may not be ideal . 

The future of energy in Africa is mini grids and not necessarily a national grid . Building thousands of minigrids  of about 100 kilowatts is the direction we are are headed .  It's a 9.2 billion dollar a year market opportunity.  Theres lots of projects on the continent that prove that this approach works. 

Also, most of our systems have battery back up. However, most of them are lead Acid . Lithium ion is not yet mainstream but as the technology becomes cheaper, this would definitely change 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 28, 2020 10:18 pm GMT

With our track record of having a poor maintenance culture, deploying a technology where mistakes/ poor management could lead to disaster may not be ideal .

This is interesting, Uzochukwu. Usually the argument for nuclear is that with proper maintenance and safety protocols that there's nothing to worry about, but you're saying the African market is not in a place where that can be assured? Can you expand on what has led to that culture?

Uzochukwu Mbamalu's picture
Uzochukwu Mbamalu on Jan 30, 2020 6:50 am GMT

Hi Matt, responding to your question doesn't have a straightforward answer.  But let's look at the facts . Nigerias national grid has an installed capacity of 12,000 megawatts but we only have about 4000 megawatts in the grid . Lots of operational inefficiencies that lead to power stations operating at less than they were designed for .  The problems are not rocket science, some of them are issues as basic energy economics  and supply chain management. In the solar energy sector, lots of installations have also failed due to poor O&M . Thoughts of Nuclear would instill a lot of fear but it is definitely something worth considering.  An energy secure and clean energy future would combine different energy sources 

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Jan 30, 2020 1:07 pm GMT

An energy secure and clean energy future would combine different energy sources 

Amen! 

Thanks for the response. 

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jan 29, 2020 6:23 am GMT

I assume the majority of mini grids are backed up by diesel generators?

Uzochukwu Mbamalu's picture
Uzochukwu Mbamalu on Jan 30, 2020 6:35 am GMT

Yes they are . The generators are used as backup.  With future improvements in battery technology , we expect need for generator backup to be reduced 

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