Originally published last November, this article was updated on 11 January, 2023.
With about half of Sub-Saharan Africa’s population of close to 1.2 billion living without electricity, there is a great need to extend access. Among the start-ups and public power utilities working on sustainable solutions across the continent, ten were selected at this year’s Digital Energy Challenge. The initiative supports the development of innovative solutions for energy access, improved utility performance and the extension of renewable energy.
Now in its second year, the Challenge is part of AFD’s Digital Energy Facility, a program co-financed by the European Union to support the digitization and modernization of the energy sector.
Sharing expertise in Africa and Europe
The ten winners were announced at the Emerging Valley forum in Marseille, an innovation exchange hub between Africa, Europe and the Mediterranean, where experts provide support and share best practices in workshops and panel discussions.
“The winning projects contribute to universal electricity access through mini-grids, the improvement of grid management and quality of service,” said Nicolas Guichard, Head of AFD’s Energy unit.
Further Reading: Our series on Shared Innovation
Mini-grids are independent, decentralized electricity networks that can function separately from a national grid, and are invaluable in Africa, as they serve populations that are too small or remote for grid extensions or alternative systems. Solar-powered mini-grids are increasingly replacing diesel generators, and contributing to the transition away from fossil fuels to renewable energy.
The 10 Prizewinners for Innovation
Theme: Providing universal electricity access through mini-grids
Green Innovation Ventures Enterprises Ltd (Give) – Kenya
- Digitalization of household electrical appliances to facilitate appliance financing by lenders and increased use of mini-grids
Although 20 million people gain access to electricity in Africa every year, many are unable to enjoy the full benefits of electrification, due to the high prices of household appliances.
“Our IoT platform PowerPay aims to tackle this problem by digitalizing electrical appliances, enabling consumers to purchase equipment in small, manageable mobile installments and track energy consumption” says Geoffrey Mburu, co-founder.
Connecting off-grid low-income households and businesses, the project seeks to expand access to clean energy. Through a single platform, GIVE’s direct clients - appliance manufacturers, lenders, utility companies including mini-grids and energy distributors – can offer credit for consumers, monitor energy consumption, localize equipment and collect payments.
“By combining product acquisition with financing for cooking, cooling and other equipment, we are building an ecosystem that will move the next one billion people away from cooking with dirty fuels,” adds Mburu.
Vittoria Technology – South Africa
- Software-enabled ‘Storage-as-a-Service’ solution providing advanced battery leasing for scalable, affordable mini-grid energy systems
Mini-grid companies are deploying new systems across Africa while maintaining existing sites. Yet affordable, reliable finance is often absent, so many providers continue to use older mini-grids with less storage capacity and reduced power. “This is a significant oversight, as batteries - the most expensive mini-grid component – need regular replacement,” says Liam Murphy, Co-founder of Vittoria Technology. Designing, financing and sourcing scalable battery solutions can be time-consuming and costly for mini-grid operators.
Vittoria Technology’s Battery Bank Africa, an innovative digital platform, provides a full battery leasing service to mini-grids. “Our business model includes sizing optimization of storage solutions for the mini-grid, battery sourcing from vendor partners at negotiated rates, credit risk assessment, contract finalization and battery monitoring” Murphy adds.
After refining the algorithmic software prototype, the next step will depend on technical and financial support from the Challenge. Vittoria Technology will engage mini-grid operators, battery manufacturers, and other local partners in South Africa to test and enhance the Battery Bank Africa prototype.
Zonke Energy – South Africa
- Integration of Solar Home Systems into a mini-grid for two-way energy trading
In South Africa alone, 1.5 million people live in informal settlements with no access to electricity. Residents rely on expensive and dangerous alternatives such as paraffin or illegal grid connections. Zonke Energy’s unique solar tower mini-grids already deliver safe and affordable power to dense urban informal settlements and the new project will allow owners of Solar Home Systems (SHS) to connect to the grid.
The project will focus on developing an electronic interface to allow SHS owners to connect to the mini-grid and buy or sell power. “The new connections will add capacity in an organic way and create possibilities for energy transfer between the grid and the SHS owners in the case of excess energy production” says Alex Densmore, Technical Director at Zonke Energy. The development of features on an existing App will enable energy trading.
Funding from the challenge will enable further development of this innovative technology, which is often viewed as high-risk by commercial investors. “We believe this will de-risk future follow-up investment and be a key differentiator and competitive advantage in the market,” Alex Densmore adds.
Theme: Efficient Grid Management
Classified Projects – Botswana
- Digital monitoring and maintenance management system for the electricity distribution network
On the African continent, many power utility networks lack monitoring on the distribution side, meaning that the consistency of electricity supply at residential, industrial and commercial consumer levels is often unknown. As a result, network equipment failures and power outages often go unnoticed by energy providers until consumers complain.
The start-ups’ digital monitoring and maintenance management system for electricity power distribution networks will enable surveillance and preventive maintenance to increase operational efficiency, lower maintenance costs and reduce the frequency of power outages.
Using GSM and other Wide Area Network technologies, real time monitoring and digital mapping of the distribution grid network, will enable an energy supplier to geo-localize their assets, receive visual alerts for grid failures and flag maintenance schedules. “The installation of IoT sensors and smart meters on the distribution side of the network will enable real time power monitoring 24/7 and digital visualization of the networks” says Peter Mutoka, Project Director at Classified Projects.
The project is still in its early stages but the extensive technical experience of the team and preliminary discussions with a national utility in Botswana make this a promising project that responds to a vital need of more reliable energy delivery to consumers in Botswana and the region.
Theme: Durable and Sustainable Power Systems
E-Energietec – Niger
- Smart metering and a consumer App for tracking and billing real-time electricity consumption
In Niger, electricity meters are read manually by accredited agents but discrepancies between the actual reading and final billing are common, generating customer dissatisfaction and extra work for agents to check actual consumption. “Our digital solution Ren-tec serves both the energy provider and user. The smart metering eliminates errors and our mobile App enables the consumer to track his/her electricity use in real time and pay their bills online” says Diafara Moussa, Director at e-Energietec.
The particularity of the smart metering solution is that it can be used on existing meters, which opens up these benefits to a greater number of households. The digitalization of the whole process will also generate more reliable statistics for the distributor on energy performance and efficiency.
With additional software development, the company hopes to implement the system with companies and the general public in the next 12 months.
Further reading: 5 Projects driving renewable energy around the world
Motsi Technologies Group – Namibia
- Blockchain-enabled peer-to-peer solar electricity trading platform for industrial and commercial players
Namibia has the highest average cost of electricity in Southern Africa, and yet the highest average solar energy potential output in the world. Bilateral energy trading between eligible sellers and consumers is one of several solutions to reduce the cost of electricity. A legislative framework does exist in Namibia but trading volumes remain relatively low, indicating that new PV generation projects are unlikely to be lucrative.
The innovative, blockchain-enabled, energy trading platform designed by Renex Energy Trading, a subsidiary of Motsi, will unlock the potential for peer-to-peer trading by pooling demand from commercial & industrial customers and facilitating trading with producers. “Developed with our technology partners, the platform will provide consumers with access to more competitive electricity tariffs, and asset owners with credit-worthy offtake solutions and alternative revenue streams” says Johannes Andreas, Power System analyst at Renex Energy Trading.
The pilot project will be deployed in Namibia with plans of multiplying its use across the Southern Africa Power Pool and beyond.
Category: Public power utilities in partnership with an innovative technology/service provider
Theme: Universal electricity access through mini-grids
- Digital tool that improves data acquisition process, design, operation, maintenance and monitoring of mini-grids
FUNAE, the national agency of rural electrification in Mozambique, faces challenges in the monitoring and maintenance of its 80 mini-grids, particularly in remote areas. Site visits to collect data are time-consuming, require considerable manpower and the tools used to standardize the design and sizing of the mini-grids are insufficient. In addition, identifying suitable private operators for the operation and maintenance of the mini-grids is a complex process.
The Spanish technology provider Azimut 360 will create a digital tool that facilitates data collection and optimizes the design and operation of mini-grids. “Our complete solution incorporates user-friendly software with mapping tools to reduce site visits and suggestions to improve operations and mini-grid maintenance,” says Mireia Gil, Head of development projects at Azimut 360.
Among the first steps in the partnership project, the software will integrate 10 mini-grids already in operation by FUNAE in several regions to provide more accurate monitoring. Azimut 360 teams will also train local FUNAE staff during the hardware installation phase, in preparation for the integration of new mini-grids into the software in the coming year.
Theme: Efficient grid management
- Distribution network mapping, modelling and simulation to optimize grid investments and supply quality
The demand for electricity is rising fast on the Comoro Islands even with access rates at 70%, much higher than the Sub-Saharan regional average of about 40 percent. Many production projects are in progress, but there is a need for substantial investment in the three island networks. “Currently network planning is difficult as we do not have a reliable network map and access to simulation models,” says Nawal Soilih, Project Manager at Sonelec.
Partnering with Roseau Technologies, a specialist in grid modelling, simulation and optimization software in the energy transition ecosystem, will enable Sonelec to map the electricity grid on the Grande Comoro and Anjouan islands and build an replica for better investment planning. “Using the data from the network map, we can build a digital twin of the grid that can be later used in our simulation tool Sirao to carry out technical studies” says Louise Muller, Project Manager at Roseau Technologies.
In the coming months, Roseau Technologies will train Sonelec's teams on the software that will bring enhanced data management, modelling and grid simulations necessary for the first studies.
Theme: Sustainable and durable power systems
- Network mapping and automation of grid operations for clearer view of grid outages and losses
With the largest population of any other country in Africa and a low access rate of 45%, Nigeria is struggling with power issues. The power ecosystem comprises a multitude of private companies that generate, transmit and distribute electricity generating a complex supply chain and tight margins for the market players. “We are keen to improve our distribution through the reduction of power failures, which will bring higher customer satisfaction and reduce our technical and commercial losses” says Babajide Ibironke, Chief Financial Officer for Abuja Electricity Distribution Company.
The grid network management solution designed by Beacon Power Services proposes a digital mapping of the network and the use of IoT meters and an Artificial Intelligence cloud-based platform. “The technology will help optimize data collection, indicate network losses in real time and facilitate predictive network outages for AEDC” says Bim Adisa, CEO Beacon Power Services.
Additional network analytics will provide better visibility of energy supply and distribution to the approximately 2 million commercial and residential consumers in the region.
- Vibration monitoring of turbine rotors to facilitate preventive maintenance of hydroelectric plants
Uganda is highly reliant on hydropower as it currently provides the lowest tariff to the national grid.
However, inspection and repair of hydro-mechanical equipment are costly, time-consuming, and reduce electricity availability. BCN Hydro Renewables’ innovative monitoring solution will help reduce fault identification time and enhance the root cause analysis of incidents on the hydro-mechanical equipment in Uganda Electricity Generation Company’s hydropower plants.
“We have chosen the Isimba hydropower plant as the first test for this innovative, digital solution, and are looking to scale up to the other hydropower plants in the country,” says Allan Kasedde, Research Officer at Uganda Electricity Generation Company. The plant is one of the biggest in the country in terms of capacity so stakes for optimized running of the plant are high.
Operations and maintenance support for the plant is currently provided by global energy leader EDF, who will also be involved in technical assistance. “With a strong partnership between all stakeholders, we are convinced that our AI- and big data-based solution will help maintain optimum production capacity at Isimba, and we are looking forward to the first results from the predictive algorithms,“ says Alexander Balcells, General Manager at BCN Hydro Renewables.
Given the success of the Digital Energy Challenge - numerous responses to the call for projects have hailed from across Africa over the past two years - the third edition will be launched at the beginning of 2023.