Renewable Power to the People
Nov 24, 2016
Access Energy is a Kenyan based company developing remote, village-scale, renewable energy micro-grids. They have designed technology that allows remote control, cashless, pay-as-you-go payment services using mobile phone networks. The pricing mechanism means that those at the ‘bottom of the pyramid’ can finally benefit from the advantages of clean, reliable renewable energy. In sub-Saharan Africa, 70% of the population do not have access to electricity, and in rural areas, this number rises to 98%. Pay-as-you-go micro-payments have revolutionized access to mobile telephones in Africa and Access Energy intend to do the same with energy.
Global Innovation Magazine spoke to their Technical Director Dr Sam Duby.
The renewable industry is obviously science and engineering-focused, has this been a lifelong interest of yours?
There are a family line up photographs, from when I was about six years old, and my mum always says “isn’t it funny what routes we have all taken?” when she sees it. She says that mine has been the most predictable in that I always wanted to be an inventor, I always built stuff and was curious etc. My brain works that way so it was pretty inevitable. I studied industrial product design. I have always had a pull in two directions; one from an engineering perspective – building machines – but I have also always had a strong desire to build beautiful things. There has always been a link between art and engineering so design for me had to have the conceptual as well as the hard science, hard engineering element.
Were there people around you who designed things, built things and took them apart?
Absolutely. My father’s an architect, his father was an artist and illustrator, his sister was an illustrator, so definitely lots from my father’s side. My great grandfather on my mother’s side was a ship builder from Scotland so I think there was some genetic influence somewhere from her side!
Where did you study?
I grew up all over the world, but most of my later education was in England. I went to Brunel University and continued to do my PhD there later. I was born in Swaziland (South Africa) and spent my first seven years there. My father was building schools for the local government, and my mother started a health project concerned with reproductive health and family planning, so I grew up very much in a development context. Then I lived in Bangladesh for several years, then Nigeria and in between we would come back to England.
What was your working route after University?
First of all I took a year out between undergraduate and postgraduate studies, travelling, getting education out of my system. Then I did a PhD and afterwards I got further funding to see if I could commercialise the technology I had been working on. I then went to Brazil doing some raw jungle engineering, came back to the UK and started working for a group that gathered investment, for innovative, renewable energy, green technology ideas. My job was to liaise with scientists and to translate the ideas between the investors and all the parties concerned. A bridge between the idea and investment I guess.
After this my wife and I wanted to get back to Africa, to perhaps try something a little more wholesome, and then an opportunity came up with Harrison Leaf (now Managing Director of Access Energy) who I had met very briefly in London previously. He called me out of the blue and said “I have this crazy idea to build wind turbines in Kenya, what do you think?”. I took a punt and went out to Kenya.
So this is the story of Access Energy starting to develop…
Yes. The original motivation, and what we were doing when we first went out there are now completely different. It was a very necessary path to follow, though very different to where we are now.
The original concept was to teach people how to build wind turbines, using locally available scrap materials. This, as far as I know, hadn’t really been done before, it was super interesting. Learning the language, trawling over scrap yards, meeting the people. We realised very quickly however, that a big impact would not happen this way. Only so many people have those skills or the desire to do that.
It was much better for us to build high quality wind turbines, and sell them but people didn’t have the capital up front to buy the equipment.
We needed to find some way of bridging the gap, of financing things for them. So we went down the route of leasing the wind turbines out. However these are quite valuable assets often just sitting out in the middle of nowhere – someone could walk off with them very easily.
So we started to develop little boxes that sat on the turbines, which you could plug into the mobile phone network telling us how much energy was made, that everything was ok, that the turbines weren’t being stolen, that sort of thing.
Then we heard about M-Pesa, which would just change everything for our business.
So what is M-Pesa?
It’s absolutely amazing and has revolutionised the way money works in Kenya. Basically, if I sell bananas for a living, and sell all my bananas during the day and have a wedge of cash, I don’t take it home. I go to a little green shack, give it to the guy there, and he sends me a text message letting me know about the credit. This ‘cloud’ account is then accessed via my phone. Your telephone becomes your ATM.
To this end our boxes could be used to sell power, so we do all the maintenance of the grids, and this way no capital needs to be put down. People could pay for power as they used it in a very culturally appropriate way using the same mechanism everyone already uses to buy airtime for their phones. We were able to sell people power, at a much cheaper price than kerosene (fuel). That opened up the market, because anyone who used kerosene previously could now be a customer.
How are things going?
It’s going really, really well. The demand and market are there, and the desire to invest is there. Our role is bridging the gap between these two worlds. We have five of our own grids up and running.
We will build a small power station, largely solar powered but if the conditions allow we will have a couple of wind turbines also and we run power lines from the hub out to a hundred businesses and homes.
How many customers do you have?
If you take into account grids built by others that we’re running with our technology, we deliver clean energy to 10,000 people in 23 villages in Kenya. Our technology controls USD 0.7M worth of solar power equipment. This is a private sector investment.
What’s customer feedback been like?
The proof is I’m the pudding, people buy our product, and they seem happy, it’s clearly a big advantage to what they had before, replacing kerosene in the house.
It sounds like there are endless possibilities…
There are defined criteria before considering installing a micro-grid, but yeah the market is worldwide. We have the data and the experience and we feel it’s not a crazy idea anymore.
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