You may not believe it, but this is my first article I have ever published, with my own fair hands, on a website – not just any website, but ForbesAfrica.com, the publication I have ate and slept for more than six years.
I feel exhilarated, excited and on top of the world. What a way to take our precious content on the important business and entrepreneur story to every corner of the continent? The possibilities stretch out in my mind like an endless blue horizon. How many more lives will we be able to touch, for the good, with our incisive and measured journalism? How many more entrepreneurs could these words inspire to take the plunge? I feel as giddy as I did on my first day in the job 36 years ago.
It also makes me think about how communications for journalists have changed so rapidly in the two decades I have spent reporting from Africa. I arrived to the chatter of the telex machine – for those if you under 50, that was a huge metal box that would type out incoming news onto paper that we had to rip off and read. On top of this, very few people had expensive satellite television; all we had was the faint crackle of shortwave radio. When we journeyed to the bush, on stories, even day-old newspapers were scarce – it was so bad, we used to miss the deaths and funerals of prominent figures, only to find out months later that they had passed on.
In those dim days, even using a fax to file stories was seen as man landing on the moon.
But now the technology is on the march and so is our journalism. I work hard every day of my career to carry it forward through the pens and ambition of our crack young team of African journalists at FORBES AFRICA. What an enticing and appetizing prospect.
In the days of telex, crackly radios and dodgy fax machines, we still managed to send out many great stories that went down in African history. Just think how faster and further FORBES AFRICA can send those stories now.
Op-Ed: Promoting The Growth Of Women In The Energy Sector
Ujunwa Ojemeni is an impact investing, energy and development expert with experience in the areas of opportunity maturation, financing, and policy.
At the Office of to the Honourable Commissioner for Energy & Mineral Resources Lagos State, she drives policies, investments opportunities and implementation strategies to deliver reliable energy to the citizens of the State. She is also an Advisor with the Private Finance Advisory Network (PFAN) – the multilateral, public-private partnership initiated hosted by United Nations Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO) and Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency Partnership (REEEP) focused on bridging the investment gap between investors and entrepreneurs and project developers by facilitating investment into promising clean energy
and climate change projects.
She was previously the Senior Investment Associate at All On, responsible for driving clean energy investments opportunities from origination to closing as well as providing strategic, governance and operational support to All On’s investees.
Before that, Ujunwa coordinated several gas and power development opportunities of up to $300 Million at Axxela Limited (Oando Gas & Power), and earlier at the Management Consulting unit of KPMG, she focused on start-up advisory and business process improvement.
She received her Master’s degree in International Development – Development Finance from the University of Manchester, and has a First-Class Bachelor’s of Science degree in Banking and Finance from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.
In acknowledgement of her contributions to the energy sector, she was selected as one of the 60 young African Clean Energy Leaders for the Open Power Africa 2019 program by Enel Foundation and was a finalist at the IFC Sustainability Exchange Contest for Youth Innovations 2019. She was also recently awarded the 2019 Young Leaders Award in the Energy and Sustainability category, by the Mandela Washington Fellowship Alumni Association in Nigeria (MWFAAN).
Passionate about social responsibility, volunteering and philanthropy, she founded the SME Transformation Project through which she provides business advisory and funding to womenowned SMEs in low-income communities. She helps them navigate through basic business challenges such as marketing and distributing channels, product line expansion, and most importantly, funding, which they have difficulties accessing from traditional financiers.
Ujunwa also volunteers as a mentor with the Cherie Blaire Foundation, where she provides support to women entrepreneurs and helps them grow as they build their businesses in different parts of the world.
To promote the participation in the energy sector, she founded the African Women in Energy Development Initiative (AWEDI Network) focused on promoting the growth of the women in the sector through mentorship programs, career sponsorship (acceleration), networking opportunities, professional development and leadership training for women at all stages of their energy careers and for female students at the secondary and tertiary levels.
Op-Ed: The Silver Lining For Distributed Renewable Energy Solutions Post Pandemic
The Covid-19 pandemic has had significant impact across all sectors including access to electricity. The Distributed Renewable Energy (DRE) sector that provides decentralized energy access to users although equally hit by the pandemic can take advantage of new opportunities for the industry to thrive and grow. With the right support, funding and enabling environment, DRE solutions can become mainstream and play their part to improve access for the 789 million people still lacking electricity.
Mama Esther has lived in my hometown in Eastern Nigeria for most of her life. She is a small-scale ‘Nsukka’ (yellow peppers) farmer who would typically harvest a few baskets of pepper, some tomatoes and other perishable products daily.
My village has not had grid electricity for more than 30 years and the closest to any form of such are the poles which once had cables connected to them. Towards the end of each market day, Mama Esther will have to sell her products at giveaway prices, barter some of it while the rest will go to waste because the lack of electricity supply means the products cannot be stored.
Mama Esther, just like other small-scale farmers, tends to lose a large percentage of her produce due to the lack of electricity for processing and storage. She remains a small-scale farmer, unable to escape the poverty trap as she cannot transition into producing higher value agricultural products to increase her disposable income, or at the very least maximize her income by reducing losses.
This inadequate access to electricity affects most aspects of life in developing countries – childbirth in poorly lit hospitals, inability to store blood and vaccines safely, children who are forced to study using candlelight, businesses who are unable to operate for longer hours to increase their profitability, and much more. While the Covid-19 pandemic has made these situations more dire, it presents an opportunity for Distributed Renewable Energy (DRE) companies to make a positive impact.
DRE during a pandemic
Distributed Renewable Energy companies have been providing customers with power, cooking, heating and cooling systems that generate and distribute energy independently of the centralized grid systems over the last few years and currently serve over 100 million people in both urban and rural areas of the developing world, and these numbers continue to increase annually.
Reports by The Economist and the IRENA Global Renewables Outlook 2020 highlighted that the outbreak of coronavirus has had significant impacts on the energy transition, particularly threatening global supply chains in the renewable energy sector.
Indeed DRE companies are facing their share of the Covid-19 induced challenges; surveys conducted by SEforAll shows that they are expecting to lose between 27% to 40% of their revenues in the coming months. In addition, their growth plans are likely compromised, and they have to take precautions to protect their staff and customers. They continue to advocate for ‘essential service’ status to enable them meet the needs of their customers and closely monitor their inventory given the impact of the virus in key component manufacturing countries.
DRE evolving under pressure
While concerns remain that the pandemic has slowed down some of the progress that off-grid energy companies have made in the last few years, a closer look shows that the DRE sector is able to continue improving access to electricity by leveraging some of the resulting effects of the crisis.
DRE becoming mainstream as the solution of choice to complement bad grids or inadequate supplies: In regions where the electricity grid is unreliable or even non-existent, the Covid-19 pandemic added a strain to the requirements for reliable energy for health facilities, essential enterprises, citizens sheltering and working from home, and vulnerable communities. In these regions, DRE systems are increasingly serving as a complement to the centralized/ grid energy generation systems, or as a substitute. They provide an often cheaper alternative and sometimes provide the entire energy requirements for essential facilities.In fact, utilities are now receptive to the option of partnering with DRE developers like mini-grid companies through the increasingly popular “under the grid” models. The speed of deployment especially during the pandemic has been important, with installations within a few weeks, coupled with the plug and play nature of some solar home systems. Through simplicity, nimbleness, and mutually beneficial collaborations, DRE companies are becoming a popular choice to meet critical energy needs.
The growth of the Local Supply Chain: The Covid-19 pandemic led to delays in supply of imported solar components and stocking out due to restrictions affecting logistics. Players in the African solar industry are now seriously exploring local solutions to reduce import dependence. Some existing local companies who have been meeting local needs for almost a decade and local content requirements in countries like South Africa and Morocco have supported the growth of the local market. In fact, other local assemblers have experienced an up to 7X increase in demand for their locally assembled solar panels and are now exploring ways to increase their capacity. This is clearly an opportunity for enabling policies and incentives across African countries to help expand local manufacturing. This would enable value-chain competitiveness and support access to sustainable energy for all.
Promoting the Financial Credibility of DRE customers through increased Financial Inclusion leveraging mobile money: The restrictions in movement during the pandemic has led to a significant increase in mobile payments across Africa; even beyond East African markets that have well advanced mobile money systems. With energy payments now ranking as a crucial expense just after food, school fees and medical payments, these mobile micro payments become the first channels for financial inclusion of the vulnerable DRE customers, who begin to build credit. Indeed energy companies such as M-KOPA receive over 30 million mobile money payments per day. With stronger financial credibility of their customers, DRE businesses may see a strengthened position during fundraising processes and as they scale their operations.
The saying goes “never let a good crisis go to waste”, and as seen above, the DRE sector is able to find its way through the crisis as its solutions continue to take their place in the energy mix. Only by supporting these DRE solutions through enabling policies, affordable technology, suitable funding options and business support would we help women like Mama Esther to move out of the poverty trap, save lives in our health facilities, help students to study at night, enable businesses to thrive and much more.
– By Ujunwa Ojemeni, an impact investing, energy development and policy expert. She provides her expertise to drive access to energy in Africa through the Office of the Lagos State Commissioner for Energy & Mineral Resources, and is an Advisor with the Private Finance Advisory Network (PFAN). She holds degrees from the University of Nigeria and the University of Manchester, in addition to certifications from the International Finance Faculty and Florence School of Regulation. She is also an Alumni of the Open Africa Power program for young African Clean Energy Leaders by Enel Foundation. To promote the participation in the energy sector, she founded the African Women in Energy Development Initiative (AWEDI Network) focused on promoting the growth of the women in the sector through mentorship programs, career sponsorship (acceleration), networking opportunities, professional development and leadership training for women at all stages of their energy careers and for female students at the secondary and tertiary levels.
Op-Ed: From Cashless To Digital: The Covid-19 Tipping Point
People’s safety concerns about transmission through contact has resulted in Covid-19 becoming a catalyst for the adoption of cashless payments globally and even more so in South Africa, with the disruption expected to effect lasting changes in the way people transact with cards and cash.
While consumers had already begun to embrace digital payment options prior to the pandemic, the health crisis is rapidly accelerating the adoption rate with more consumers seeking safer, contact-free payment methods.
This rapid adoption of digital payments will help shape a new normal as businesses begin to emerge from the more stringent levels of lockdown regulations and attempt to navigate their post-Covid-19 futures.
Derek Cikes, Commercial Director at Payflex, says the pandemic represents a watershed for the payments industry.
“The acceleration towards a cashless society is one of the key opportunities that has emerged from the pandemic, bringing the advantages of digital payments to the fore including lower fees, convenience, seamless delivery, greater security, and more flexible payment options,” says Cikes who adds that what makes this trend so interesting, is that historically, people used to hoard cash in times of crisis. Now, the opposite is occurring.
A study by MasterCard revealed that since the beginning of Covid-19 in South Africa, 89 percent of South African respondents have been using contactless methods to pay for groceries, 60 percent for pharmaceutical items, 39 percent for other retail items, 15 percent for fast food, and eight percent for transport.
Similarly, recent figures from Bain echo this, with estimates that by 2025, the adoption of digital payments could accelerate by a 5 – 10 percentage point increase globally, above what was previously anticipated at 57% before Covid-19 to 67% after Covid-19.
Are contactless payments here to stay?
Cash is perceived as a vehicle for the transmission of the virus. As stores, restaurants and other merchants begin to open their doors again, contactless payments are key in providing consumers with a much-needed sense of comfort and reassurance.
“Businesses have no option but to rethink their use of shared payment surfaces, with customers more conscious than ever of what they touch. People don’t want to touch ATM or PIN pads or have to hand their cards to store tellers. Once viewed as a convenience or nice-to-have, digital payments are now viewed as a critical service, providing a solution to limiting contact with other surfaces,” says Cikes.
Creation of new payment habits
From banking facilities like tap-to-pay, payment apps such as Zapper and Snapscan, to digital banking and e-wallet providers, South African fintech firms have reported significant increases in the use and adoption of digital payment methods since the outbreak began in March. The simple truth is, while these channels provide a convenient way of paying, they are also contactless, allowing consumers to pay for their goods while not having to exchange cash or cards with merchants.
“The perception of cards and cash as vehicles for transferring microorganisms has changed how people physically interact with their payments in favour of contactless options. With health and safety being top priorities, we anticipate this trend to become more permanent with hygiene measures and social distancing likely to become part and parcel of our daily realities for years to come,” says Cikes.
Retailers drive adoption of digital payments
Both online and brick and mortar retailers are helping to accelerate this trend with stores like Mr Price enabling consumers a contactless way to pay in-store pay via their app, and most South African retailers offering tap-to-pay-methods. There is also an expected uptick in omnichannel capabilities (being able to sell your goods through many channels such as website, app, retail, third-party platforms such as Amazon or Shopify) which bridges payments in any environment, physical or digital.
Another contactless payment method driving this trend is e-wallets with over 500 million mobile money users expected on the continent in 2020. In addition, it is anticipated that the capabilities of digital wallets will expand to offer features such as digital IDs and transaction monitoring and reporting, which is expected to create even more growth for this payment mechanism.
Flexibility needed more than ever
According to TransUnion’s Financial Hardship Survey, conducted in the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, India, Hong Kong and South Africa, one in six people lost their job in early May, with defaulting on their bills just seven weeks away. 82% of consumers indicated their household income had been impacted, and on average, consumers who were impacted, expect they will be short by R 7 542.90 when paying bills or loans.
“Many people are financially stretched and need the support of alternative payment solutions to help manage their cash flow without incurring further credit card debt,” says Cikes.
A report by GlobalWebIndex shows that 83% of South African consumers are expecting flexible payment options from brands.
“We have seen this play out in the increased uptake of our Payflex Buy Now Pay Later payment solution, which allows people to make interest-free payments over two paychecks,” says Cikes.
With health, safety and financial security at the forefront of consumer sentiments, companies will need to provide payment options which meet these consumer needs.
“Digital payment solutions provide an avenue which safeguards against physical interaction, enabling both consumers and business to navigate the environment as the economy is restarted. These digital adoptions will not only help manage the current situation but will also have far-reaching benefits, facilitating a more customer-centric, efficient and resilient economy,” concludes Cikes.
-Derek Cikes, Commercial Director, Payflex
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