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To protect African minigrids, Schneider will invest in cybersecurity

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Tuesday, 6 October 2020 02:45

REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Increased investment in cyber-security is key to Schneider’s strategy of targeting minigrid operators in Africa, Amel Chadli, vice-president of development and strategy for the Middle East and Africa, tells The Africa Report.

Schneider will “for sure” increase its investments in cybersecurity to ensure that its systems remain secure against the threat of sabotage, says Chadli. The global specialist in energy management and automation is also using external partners as it constantly tries to hack its own systems and then devise solutions.

READ MORE Cybercrime: West African banks are under-protected

The French company is seeking to develop mini-grids that can be used to power large-scale infrastructure projects. It is targeting data centres, healthcare, food and beverages and agriculture as priority sectors. Real estate is remains promising in the long term due to Africa’s demographics, says Chadli.

Schneider’s energy-management business was “particularly heavily impacted” across Africa due to the impact of lockdowns on the construction markets, the company said in its first-half results in July.  The crisis has provided further impetus for the digital transformation of Schneider’s markets, it said.

  • The company has seen a general increase in costs in Africa for raw materials do to supply-chain disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, she says.
  • Results have also been affected by currency volatility in markets such as South Africa and Egypt. The need to take protective health measures has pushed costs up.
  • COVID-19 is “accelerating the need for digital solutions”, adds Chadli. “We understand we need to go faster.”

Leapfrog

Proponents of minigrids in Africa point to a possible parallel between the way in which mobile phone use in Africa leapfrogged the need for fixed-phone networks, and the potential for minigrids to bypass the constraints of national systems.

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The International Energy Agency expects at least 40% of new power connections in Africa will be provided by minigrids over the next decade.

  • Yet according to research from the Energy and Environment Partnership (EEP), the consumer cost of electricity from African minigrids on average remains higher than prices paid on national grids, which often benefit from subsidies.
  • Many countries in Africa still lack specific policies for minigrids, making planning difficult for private developers, says the EEP.
  • Regulatory requirements are often fixed regardless of project size, raising the bar for commercial viability.

Remote grid monitoring is a “hero solution” that improved efficiency and cuts costs, says Chadli. It’s now possible to provide the same level of maintenance for a rural minigrid as for one in a big city, she adds.

  • At a global level, Schneider spends about 5% of its revenue on R&D, and much of this goes on software which can be used for minigrids.
  • One sub-Saharan client has been able to save €10m in a year due to better monitoring of energy consumption.
  • Some problems in a minigrid can be prevented by providing real-time information on the temperatures of pieces of equipment.
  • During a blackout, remote systems are capable of identifying which piece of equipment is causing the problem, and in some cases rectify it at distance. In rural locations in the past, the process could sometimes take months, she says.
  • Nigeria, Mali and Chad are among African countries that can benefit the most from minigrid deployment, she adds.

Bottom line

Turning the lights on for rural Africans means having systems that can remotely monitor power use.

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