Off-grid insights and innovations changing the face of rural Africa

Local Energy

The vision behind the Freeing Energy Project is simple: electricity is moving away from fossil-fuels toward cleaner, cheaper and more resilient sources of power. One of the most exciting catalysts for this epic change is Local Energy. Much like the farm-to-table movement, Local Energy is about creating electricity and consuming it in the same community, sometimes in the same home. This simple model frees energy from its century-old grid model, unleashes innovation, and makes way for the creation of life-changing products.

Examples of Local Energy are appearing across the planet, but few places are embracing it more quickly and driving innovation more aggressively than Africa. In fact, 68 percent of the Sub-Saharan population lives without access to electricity (and many hundreds of millions only have sporadic access). Local energy solutions like solar home systems (SHS) and microgrids are the fastest and least expensive option for getting electricity to hundreds of millions of people living in low-income, remote, and rural areas.

A journey through Africa

William Nyaoke of KawiSafi, Jacqueline Novogratz of Acumen, and Amar Inamdar of KawiSafi

In mid-2017, Jacqueline Novogratz, the amazing CEO of Acumen, invited me to join her, Amar Inamdar, who runs Acumen’s energy-focused fund, KawiSafi, and a small group of others, on a 10-day trip through Rwanda and Kenya. We traveled to the other side of the world to see firsthand how local energy is transforming the lives of people in East Africa.

Jacqueline and her team work tirelessly to eradicate poverty on a global scale. What struck me most about Acumen and KawiSafi is their fundamentally different approach to social impact. The fund operates like a venture capital firm by investing in local entrepreneurs [link to post about entrepreneurs] who are passionate about building technologies, businesses and processes that have the potential to profoundly improve people’s lives. In doing this, Acumen is responsible for flicking the first domino that has since led to tens of millions of people benefitting from the power of off-grid electricity solutions.

This trip gave me the opportunity to meet the children who are able to study after long days of farming because they now have solar-powered lamps. It enabled me to visit the home of a businesswoman who is able to thrive because her off-grid home energy solution lets her run her business into the evening. I saw the scarcity of grid power and heard from a mother who lived one-house too far from a power pole and lived without electricity for years until she purchased a solar home system this year.

Africa is teaching the world about Local Energy

This chain reaction (need powering innovation driven by funding resulting in solutions) has led to solar home systems, pay-as-you-go financing options, solar irrigation kits, and, increasingly, microgrids and mini-grids. I wouldn’t be surprised if Africa’s growing use of solar-plus-battery technologies becomes a proving ground for systems that ultimately make their way to the Western world.

I can (and will continue to) share a slew of statistics about how local energy manifests as more efficient power, cost savings for municipalities, cleaner air, and economic equity, but to see these manifestations in action, taking root halfway around the world, made me realize just how important and how impactful Local Energy is becoming.

I returned from Africa filled with insights, ideas and inspiration—all of which I set out to capture here on The Freeing Energy Project. These insights later fueled my presentation at the annual Net Impact conference, where the theme “Technology as a Force for Good” provided the perfect platform for sharing everything I’d learned about solar lighting in rural Africa.

Western media feeds us images of Africa as a continent under siege by poverty and struggle. And while Africa does have its share of challenges, this week-long journey opened my eyes to the far more dominant themes of pride, resilience and innovation—and how Local Energy is empowering them.

Take a deeper dive:

Gain more insights about my trip to Africa, the people whose stories inspired us, and the innovations driving change by reading the posts below.

Read this post to get the full story about Jacqueline, Amar, and our fateful trip to Africa.

Read this post to meet Sarah, Francis and Francis, who each opened their homes to us and explained how off-grid solar home systems (SHS) are helping to transform their lives.

Read this post to learn about the far-reaching impact solar irrigation is having on Kenyan farmers, who make up two-thirds of the country’s population.

Read this post to see a full breakdown of the costs of kerosene lighting versus those of solar lighting, and learn about the woman who built a thriving business after making the switch.

Read this post to explore the slides, data points, and takeaways from my Net Impact presentation.

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