How do you make millions from the sun in Africa? You can replace kerosene lamps in Tanzania or build a solar farm, the size of a small island, in Ghana. Everyone is talking about it and many want to invest. It involves importing millions of solar panels, installing them in barren deserts, then cashing in. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Watch out for sand dunes, fast-growing vegetation and hungry animals.
You would think that a company that can build a solar panel designed to withstand hail stones shot from a cannon would be able to weather anything nature can throw at it. Think again.
Problems come in thick, fast and furry, according to Matthew Merfet, Africa and the Middle East’s project director at First Solar, a company that operates more than 20 utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) plants producing 1.7 gigawatts of energy worldwide.
“On one farm, we noticed a number of panels kept shutting off. We thought it was a cable problem, and we didn’t know why. It took us months to figure out that racoons had moved in and were chewing the cables,” says Merfet.
Fending off rodents on a 4,000 hectare plot is just one of the many unexpected headaches for solar energy farmers. Merfet says First Solar discovered dandelions and trees that grew so high they blocked the sunlight. In deserts, sand dunes piled up.
Finding these problems is harder than you think. Merfet’s company has to fly a toy plane with an infrared camera across fields of panels to check for dark spots.
“It’s easy to get lost out there, finding your way in acres of land is impossible, so we have GPSs,” he says.
Even when everything is working, solar energy can present problems. Merfet says solar energy is unique in that it has a predictable timeframe; you have roughly 10 hours to maximize a sunny day. The key is to heat your panels quickly, and keep them in the sunlight for as long as possible.
As the sunlight is converted to money, companies like First Solar have come up with black panelled solar units designed to follow the sun like a field of sunflowers.
It also means that if one panel breaks, only that panel will miss out on the light. Compare this to a conventional solar farm that moves panels in rows; if a motor malfunctions, the entire row will fail to soak up the rays. Even with hungry creatures and growing trees, First Solar believes this sunflower system can increase output by 25% a day.
In September, South Africa bedded down its first private PV plant in Kimberly, three months ahead of schedule. The 75-megawatt (MW) solar farm houses 312,000-panels. The country’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme has allocated $2.8 billion for renewable energy, of which 8,400MW are for solar PV. Currently, South Africa needs 41,346MW of new power over the next 17 years. The country also needs to upgrade its grid infrastructure, which is so out of date it might not be able to support all the required renewable energy.
Ghana has also stepped forward. Once their giant 450 acre, 155MW solar plant near Aiwaiso is completed in 2015, it will be the biggest solar plant in Africa, boosting electricity capacity by 6%. Costing $400 million, the project will have the capability to generate sufficient energy for 100,000 homes.
This dwarfs Africa’s former largest grid-linked solar plant, Kigali Solaire, in Rwanda. The small 250-kilowatt plant helped the county during a two-year drought, which strained its hydroelectricity plant.
Investing in Africa has only been possible after prices of PV modules dropped by 80% since 2008, according to CleanTechnica. As prices reduce, more technology arrives in Africa.
Then there are days when the sun doesn’t shine, according to South African analyst Chris Yelland of EE Publishers.
“Solar energy can produce more power than wind during the day … we generally have a sunny climate in South Africa. One of the biggest disadvantages of solar power is that the price is not coming down. There is also no storage in solar PV, which restricts power during the night. So you need batteries to store energy and they are expensive, which makes it uninteresting for investors,” says Yelland.
But, soon night won’t be a problem. Abengoa Solar, responsible for building the world’s largest solar plant, is now planning to build the largest parabolic trough solar plant in the world, in Arizona, in the United States. Solana will be the first solar plant in the United States with thermal energy storage. This plant, which will cost $2 billion, will be capable of producing energy night and day.
One of the investors taking the plunge is Adam Camenzuli. For Camenzuli solar energy is a common topic around the dinner table, but his best idea came in the stalls of a McDonald’s in Toronto, Canada.
“We were just hanging out and talking. We saw that the North American and European economies were not going to be the drivers of tomorrow’s growth. With our ties to Africa, we always talked about the next thing for the continent’s growth,” he says.
“We realized that bringing in solar lamps was not a viable business in the long-term—we had to do something different. We had to be innovative and combine the effectiveness of pay-as-you-go, which revolutionized mobile telecommunications, with the benefits of solar technology.
The current market penetration for solar energy is around 15 million people, but there are 600 million people who use kerosene. A family in Tanzania can spend 10 to 25% of their income on kerosene alone. There is a large quantity of low quality solar lanterns coming into the market [Tanzania] … But the upfront cost of a solar lantern is $20 dollars. The average person can’t afford that. Kerosene lanterns are the best alternative,” says Camenzuli.
Clad in a neat black suit and blue shirt, the Canadian-born Camenzuli is in the heart of Sandton, South Africa,.He has traveled from China to Brazil, on the hunt for investors that will back his idea.
In 2011, shortly after moving to Tanzania, his idea shone like a bulb in the dark.
“The ‘aha’ moment was when we realized we had to separate the components of the lamp and introduce a pay-as-you-go model through swapping the battery/light portion of the lamp,” he says.
Camenzuli was even able to throw in a cell phone charger, which has made the lantern even more popular. He sold it to small shops that sell cigarettes, soap and daily doses of kerosene in Tanzania. They call these shops Dukas, and for Camenzuli they are his first step to solar millions.
“By selling through Dukas, you can rent the battery, and swop out a used battery. The Dukas then charge the batteries on their roofs. People pay $20 over the course of a month to rent it, around 66 cents a day. Its money they spend on kerosene, so there is no additional cost to the user. At the end of the 30 days they have paid for the lamp and get to keep the solar panel. In effect, it’s a fully working lantern at 66 cents a day. The individual Duka keeps all the spare batteries. They pay a small charge for the battery and solar panel batteries can last for two years. The beauty is that you can replace individual pieces if it breaks,” says Camenzuli.
It took only six months to turn his dream into reality. Big or small, Africa is the ideal landscape for solar energy. Early bird entrepreneurs are snapping up the worms, but they must watch out for hungry animals.
Farmer Forays: ‘Creating A New Line Of Business’
Nigerian agripreneur Shola Ladoja, the founder of Simply Green, says the pandemic-induced lockdown brought with it logistic adversity, but also more local sales.
With the marauding coronavirus disrupting lives and businesses in Nigeria, the financial stability of a majority of the country’s 200 million inhabitants has been severely affected.
The significant toll it has taken on economic activities has forced many small and medium enterprises to reimagine new ways of staying afloat. Covid-19 is also set to radically aggravate food insecurity in Africa. In spite of Nigeria’s dependence on oil, agriculture remains an important cornerstone for its economy, providing employment for millions especially in the informal sector.
The threat of starvation is so present that in a public address in May, Nigeria’s President Muhammadu Buhari, urged Nigerian farmers to produce enough for the country to eat, saying that the country has “no money to import” food.
But every cloud has a silver lining. The food shortage has presented some agripreneurs in Nigeria with serendipitous opportunities.
Shola Ladoja is the founder of Simply Green, which is a farm-to-table company specializing in vegetables, fruits, juices, spices and herbs. The border lockdown has meant that many of the retail and supermarket chains can no longer import foreign produce into the country.
But this hurdle created a new opportunity for Ladoja.
“[Previously], I tried to get my juices into local stores in Nigeria but they all turned me down and most of them wanted to buy imported juices. The lockdown meant that they had to buy a local brand like mine because they could not get them from abroad anymore. We are now able to sell a lot more during this time than previous years,” says Ladoja.
On the logistics side, however, Ladoja has also felt the pinch of the pandemic like most business that require consistent movement of goods and services. The lockdown scenario prevented his workers from coming in and as a result, the company’s daily delivery of juices, has come to an abrupt stop.
Ladoja has had to start thinking outside the box to make ends meet.
“We have come up with a fruit and vegetable box, which we sell directly on our website to our customers. So, they can now buy lettuce, kale and carrots, which we have never done before. So, this period has forced us to think about how we can expand the business and this time we actually created a new line of business, which was not in the plans for this year,” says Ladoja.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), even before the Covid-19 crisis, farmers had not been able to satisfy the demands of Nigeria’s population.
“I feel like the government should give out grants and loans and support for small businesses so that they don’t crash. I have friends who have complained they are going to shut down their businesses because they haven’t been paid for two months. A lot of people cannot sell their produce in Lagos because the markets are closed which is going to affect a lot of farmers at this time,” says Ladoja.
Nigeria used to import over a million tonnes of rice from Thailand annually. That number has been significantly reduced with the implementation of high import taxes. This has led to an abnormal increase in food prices in Nigeria since the onset of the coronavirus with the UN estimating the number of people facing acute food security stands to rise to 265 million globally in 2020 as a result of the economic impact of the pandemic.
Nigeria has substantially increased domestic rice production in the pandemic but is still a long way from reaching the levels needed for the country to sufficiently feed itself. Coupled with the decline in global oil prices, it is safe to say the adverse economic impact of Covid-19 on Africa’s most populous country is going to be felt for a long time to come.
All For Grooming Future Leaders
Katlego Thwane has had to dip into his own savings, with the Covid-19 crisis, to fund his noble cause, teaching the underprivileged in a South African township.
He is in his twenties, yet turning around the destiny of underprivileged young people around him.
Katlego Thwane, a 28-year-old born and bred in South Africa’s lively township of Soweto, is an educator and founder of the Atlegang Bana Foundation here that caters to primary school learners who struggle to keep up at school and need additional help.
“Our foundation also provides for needy learners from underprivileged backgrounds. One of my biggest campaigns at the foundation every year is to give confidence and motivation to learners for the year ahead,” says Thwane.
He has bagged numerous awards and accolades for his work, as a 2017 Young Community Shaper, 2018 Lead SA hero and featuring on live television show Big Up on SABC Mzansi in 2018.
Growing up, he was a “naughty boy”, as he describes himself, but says many are now astonished at the serious, ambitious young man he has become.
“Teaching has always been a passion of mine. I love seeing change, transformation and grooming leaders, and value their education while being innovative in taking our country forward.”
Thwane has recently established a clothing brand, BANA, under the Atlegang Bana Foundation. He is also currently handing out food parcels to the needy in his community, in partnership with Hollywoodbets.
“The virus has affected us immensely with many parents losing their jobs or taking salary cuts, we are not receiving the financial support as before. This has led to me [dipping] into my own personal pocket and [using it] to buy tutors data for teaching virtually,” says Thwane.
Most schools continue operating online because learners haven’t as yet returned to school, however, this has come with its share of setbacks.
Makosha Masedi, a parent of a Grade 4 learner, says her challenges come with network issues and understanding the tasks given to the child.
“Some of the programs that the work is loaded on to is not friendly for all devices, so submitting and retrieving becomes a problem, as also understanding some of the work,” rues Masedi.
But Thwane powers on, hoping for a better tomorrow, for himself and his country.
The Mother-Daughter Duo Behind A New Inclusive Community Teaching Budding Professionals How To Better Engage At Work
Edith Cooper, who spent more than 20 years as an executive at Goldman Sachs, knows what it’s like to stand out in a workplace. Being one of few people of color in a sea of white faces over the course of her career hasn’t been easy. But rather than dwell on this reality, Cooper, who now sits on the boards of Etsy and Slack, has championed her differences. That’s what helped her rise through the ranks at the bank to eventually head its human resources department, an accomplishment she says was a result of her ability to connect with people of all backgrounds.
That quality would continue to work to her advantage: As Goldman Sachs evolved, so did its staff. Diversity was reflected not only in employees’ skin colors and genders, but also in their ages and geographical origins. Cooper was awakened to the fact that if the company was going to thrive, it would need to create an environment wherein its multifaceted staff could feel comfortable embracing their differences and, in turn, learn from them.
“If you can figure out an environment where people can thrive together, it’s powerful,” Cooper says. But it’s a process that takes time, especially if newer, more inexperienced employees aren’t equipped with the proper skills to navigate this balance between professionalism and open expression.
That is in part what inspired Cooper’s new startup, Medley, which she launched with her daughter Jordan Taylor, a former chief of staff at Mic and Harvard Business School Baker Scholar, to provide a community in which young professionals can gain the skills they need to bring their most authentic selves to work without fear. In light of the heightened tension surrounding ongoing racial injustice that’s inevitably seeping into workplace communication, it’s an ideal time to learn this skill.
Taylor has also had her fair share of experiences being the “only one in the room,” but as an emerging leader, rather than an established executive like her mother. Graduating in the top 5% of her class and being one the first 20 Black students to be named a Baker Scholar meant she was constantly figuring out how to relate to peers in predominantly white spaces. She figured it out, but Medley is a platform she wishes had been around when she was finding her voice among people whose backgrounds were much different than hers.
Medley groups young professionals in their 20s and 30s with other like-minded members whose workplace values, concerns and priorities align. The professionals that make up these eight-person groups differ, however, in terms of gender and ethnic background, which Cooper and Taylor hope will translate to increased empathy that members can apply within their respective workplaces.
“This idea of people being able to bring their true selves to work and to be able to talk through what that looks like is at the core of what Medley is offering,” says Cooper.
In addition to full access to workshops, panels and conversations led by experts across industries, members commit to a 90-minute virtual meeting each month, facilitated by a Medley-certified coach and focused on addressing and reflecting on ongoing experiences in their personal and professional lives. Cooper credits Medley’s robust network of coaches to the guidance she gained from Merche Del Valle, former global head of coaching at Goldman Sachs and a certified lifestyle, nutrition and wellness coach.
Merging personal wellness and professional development in group discussions is a priority. “You can’t just look at your career in a vacuum,” says Taylor. “In order to meet your potential, the ability to have a more holistic approach is incredibly important.”
To ensure that people of all socioeconomic backgrounds have the ability to join the community, Medley offers a sliding scale fee ranging from $50 to $250, depending on the financial situation of prospective members. Cooper and Taylor are also in conversations with companies interested in partnering with Medley to give their staff reimbursement for membership.
With the help of investors including Away cofounder Jen Rubio, dtx company founder and CEO Tim Armstrong and MIC cofounder and former CEO Chris Altchek, who contributed more than $1 million to the project, Medley was ready to launch in May 2020 as an in-person membership hub in New York City. Shelter-in-place mandates halted the launch, but also presented an opportunity for Medley to instead be virtual and incorporate international members. The more springing corporate workers that can benefit from the community’s aim to build the next generation of confident, communicative professionals the better, the mother-daughter team notes.
“Medley gives people an opportunity to be a better human in relation to the people they work with and quite frankly in society,” Taylor says.
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