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Africa: Expanding power access is crucial to resisting pandemics

By David Whitehouse
Posted on Tuesday, 19 January 2021 13:31

An employee of Salpha Energy unboxes a solar panel for home installation in Sagbo-Kodji community, amid concerns over the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Lagos, Nigeria April 25, 2020. Picture taken April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Temilade Adelaja

Funding for developing solar power solutions in Africa must move up the global agenda if the continent is to be able to withstand current and future pandemics, Zola Electric CEO Bill Lenihan tells The Africa Report.

“The capital to support the industry during this pandemic has been slow to develop,” Lenihan says from San Francisco, Zola’s technology development hub. Governments globally need to do more to mobilise finance, he says. Testing and vaccine plans “will fail if there’s no source of energy. It’s fighting with one arm tied behind our back.”

Zola was launched as “M-Power” in Tanzania in 2012. It developed an autonomous power grid that combines smart storage and solar technology. The company has expanded to Nigeria, Rwanda, the Côte d’Ivoire and Ghana. In December, Zola signed a partnership with Econet subsidiary Distributed Power Africa to distribute Zola’s electricity in nine sub-Saharan countries.

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Power is a “mission-critical resource to fight the pandemic” as it allows treatment of patients and storage of vaccines, as well as being essential for people who need to work at home, Lenihan says. But in many African countries, the lack of central energy apparatus means there is no reliable form of energy. “Energy management is more important than the type of power. Smart batteries are more important than solar.”

  • Zola’s solutions include providing data and analytics to optimise energy performance and cost. It can also provide mini-grids for ancillary use around a clinic.
  • The company, he says, can create a solution regardless of the type of client or the kind of power being used.
  • In 99% of cases, this means displacing diesel power in favour of solar power, says Lenihan.

New Projects

Lenihan expects to be starting new African projects within the next three to five months. One project will encompass most of West Africa including Nigeria, while the other will focus broadly on sub-Saharan Africa. They will be Zola’s largest projects to date, he says.

  • The company will be supplying solar batteries for clinics in West Africa as part of the project with multinational corporate partners. The West African project will also involve building new clinics.
  • Existing partner Econet is involved in the sub-Saharan project, but the other companies can’t be identified due to confidentiality agreements.

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Whereas high upfront costs are an obstacle for many mini-grids, Zola’s solution can start small and then be scaled up in relation to demand, he says. “We don’t need a lot of money to start. $20m is enough to be able to show impact.”

  • “There’s always the hope of building a grid,” says Lenihan. “We’ve had 100 years to do that. Now we have a better solution. Distributed energy is here to stay.”
  • Zola’s solution, he says, expands grids rather than competing with them. “Governments need to think this way to unlock resources.”
  • African governments can contribute by easing regulations on business and import duties, he adds.

A breakthrough would create the “energy to fight the next pandemic,” says Lenihan. “It’s got to get done now. The longer it takes, the less effective it will be.”

Bottom line

Fighting COVID-19 in Africa without power is an impossible task.