See the article main talking points below:
- The electrification of Africa is being held back by the lack of local, technical capacity to design, build and maintain renewable energy systems.
- Students cannot learn the necessary skills to improve access to electricity, if they themselves, do not have access to electricity.
- Open Energy Labs (OEL) teaches students the skills they need.
- OEL has funding from Innovate UK to expand its programme.
- OEL is now crowdfunding to deliver this programme.
Providing universal access across Africa by 2030, boosting the share of Renewables in the power sector, increasing the level of local content. These are all great initiatives but a question: How would you achieve them without developing capacity building through concrete training programmes? The electrification of Africa is currently being held back by the lack of local, technical capacity to design, build and maintain renewable energy systems.
The electrification of Africa held back
Like in many countries across the continent, Zambia has a rural electrification rate of only 4%. Zambia’s highly-dispersed population (only 20 people per square kilometre) means that the expansion of the national grid to people in these areas is neither economically or technically feasible in the short-to-mid-term. Thus, households have to rely on Solar Home Systems. A lack of maintenance and after-sales services, as well as harsh operating conditions, renders these systems vulnerable to high failure rates. In Kenya, nearly one fifth of solar products are reported to stop working within 18 months, with the majority of those left unfixed (Cross and Murray, 2018).
There are clearly not enough trained people to support these customers. Indeed, the UNDP has identified the “limited technical capacity to design, install, operate, manage, and maintain renewable energy systems”, as a key barrier for renewable energy technology in Zambia and sub-Saharan Africa (UNDP, 2014; Kachapulula-Mudenda et al., 2018). Scaling decentralised renewable energy is critical for delivering rural electrification and universal, sustainable energy access, but we must also develop a skilled and engaged workforce to support this new energy sector. Here comes the conundrum: to spread electrification, we need to train students. But, how can we train them if we do not have electricity in the first instance? With a lack of actual electricity, educational institutions are forced to focus on theoretical learning (Remember this brave Ghanaian teacher who was showing windows on a blackboard? Certainly a heroic initiative however limited in its effectiveness).
Open Energy Labs (OEL) teaches students the skills they need.
In order to experience full-scale economic development and progress, Africa needs to electrify and electrify now. People are the foundation of spreading electrification and this is where Samson Sahmland-Bowling comes into play. Samson founded Open Energy Labs in 2017, with a mission to inspire, educated and support the next generation of energy innovators in Africa.
OEL has received funding from Innovate UK, DFID and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), to develop a mobile app and connected hardware kit for Zambian school students. With a focus on “learning by making”, students learn about electricity and electronics by designing and building a simple electricity supply, able to provide lighting and mobile phone charging.
Samson’s lightbulb moment came after he completed his masters in mechanical engineering at the University of Leeds. “My masters thesis focused on designing a decentralised renewable energy supply using thermoelectric generators in Kenya. Throughout the project I kept on saying that it was mad that we were six students sitting in a lab in the UK, trying to solve this problem from afar. I knew something had to be done differently but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it”. After a year at ROLI, a music technology startup, Samson decided to strike out on his own. “I had no idea what I was going to do after I left ROLI. It was only after a friend confronted me that it became clear to me what had felt so wrong about the work on my masters thesis. There were all these young people in Africa, with the energy and passion to make a difference, who were so much better placed to understand and solve the problem of access to electricity. The only reason they weren’t able to solve it was because they didn’t have access to the right training and tools. It was then that I made it my mission to provide young people in Africa with the tools and knowledge they needed to solve the problem of access to electricity with a focus on a hands-on approach.”
OEL has funding from Innovate UK to expand its programme.
In order to demonstrate the impact of this hands-on approach, Open Energy Labs raised £70,000 from Bethnal Green Ventures, Energy 4 Impact and through crowdfunding. They are now piloting Energy Makers Zambia (EMZ), a two-week training course which teaches students how to generate, convert, and store electricity. At the core of this programme is its first-generation hardware, an educational charge-controller kit, called the Le1 .
The Impacts and Potential of Le1
The Le1 guides students through the process of designing and building a small solar system, using locally available components. Since the launch of the EMZ programme in October 2019, over 70 students have completed the programme, providing lighting and mobile phone charging to their homes. However, OEL are limited in reach and impact because of the current set-up of face-to-face teaching.
OEL’s target is to integrate their educational kit and mobile learning platform into the secondary school curriculum across Zambia by 2025. From 2025, approximately 100,000 students annually will gain hands-on experience of designing, building, and repairing household electricity supplies. By 2030, half a million students in Zambia will have left secondary school with a basic understanding and ability to repair solar home systems.
This could transform energy access in Zambia. If only 1% of students during that 5 year period go on to electrify 50 households each, then 250,000 additional households could be provided with energy access for the first time. The output from this project could support the electrification of at least 10% of the 2 million households in Zambia that currently lack access to power (Central Statistical Office, 2016), playing a significant role in meeting the United Nations Sustainable Goal 7 to “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”.
If only 1% of students during that 5 year period go on to electrify 50 households each, then 250,000 additional households could be provided with energy access for the first time
OEL is now crowdfunding to deliver this programme.
Due to this impact, OEL has attracted the attention and support of the Zambian government. In particular, the Minister of Energy and CEO of the Rural Electrification Authority have expressed a strong interest and both officials have been hosted in OEL’s Lusaka office and teaching space.
In order to fully develop this project, OEL, with the support of Crowdcube and Virgin StartUp, is launching an exciting crowdfunding campaign later this month.
“We are truly excited about taking our mission to electrify Africa one step further and can’t wait to get started! Thank you in advance.”