Water in the desert
When Yumna Madi stepped out of the building of her former employer, she needed to take a deep breath. Just a few minutes before, they decided to lay off the whole department for renewable energies. The young woman with a degree in International Relations, International Economics and Energy, and also Environmental Policy was just beside herself.
Egypt, a country in the Sunbelt of the world, was turning its back on its biggest resource: The sun.
This happened in a country with huge energy supply problems. Most of Egypt’s energy supply comes from fossil fuels and its supply is irregular. There are power outages that occur on a regular basis, especially when air condition use is highest. Only about six percent of the land in Egypt is inhabited or used for agricultural: The regions around the Nile, the Nile delta, the important cities for tourism in the north and the Red Sea as well as a few oases. But this area is one of the most densely populated areas in the world.
On the day Yumna walked out of the building, a revolutionary wind was blowing through Egypt. The Jasmin Revolution had started just a few months ago in Tunisia, and it didn’t take long for the Arab Spring to reach Egypt. People reached out for freedom, democracy, and a true constitutional state. President Mubarak, who reigned over the country’s pseudo-democracy at the time, was forced to step down. Elections began soon after and Egypt has been fighting for its rights ever since.
Solar Powered Waterpumps: KarmSolar is founded
Yumna felt an even bigger revolutionary spirit. After her department of renewable energy was shut down, she decided to start her own company, along with Ahmed Zahran, Xavier AuClaire, and Randa Fahmy. Their idea was to focus on developing innovative hardware, software and energy efficient structural and architectural designs that enable commercial applications for off- grid solar systems. In October of the same year, KarmSolar was founded.
“We started right after the revolution, so there was a lot of excitement. However, we were offering high tech solutions and people did not believe that Egyptian companies could develop such sophisticated solutions. We really had to break the stigma and build people’s faith in Egyptian tech. In addition, since the 1990s solar energy had developed a bad reputation because of solar water heaters that flooded the Egyptian market. These systems quickly broke down,” describes Ahmed Zahran, CEO of KarmSolar.
Yumna, who’s responsible for market research and analysis, client relations, new business development, project proposals and communications, adds: “But we had the passion for this industry and knew that we could develop something unique and scalable for the whole MENA-region (Middle East & North Africa).”
When they started Egypt mainly used diesel to meet its energy demands: For the water supply, air conditioning, and electricity. “But diesel is unsustainable and heavily subsidized by the government. That´s why we wanted to reduce dependence on diesel and thus developed a solution to compete with diesel generators,” says Ahmed.
2012 was the company’s first year in the Bahariya Oasis in the western desert. Here, farmers live off the electrical grid and tank wagons arrive irregularly bringing fossil fuels to power generators, which farmers use to facilitate water and to produce energy for daily living. KarmSolar provides farmers with a solar pumping system to power high-capacity water pumps that replace diesel generators. The off-grid solar water pumping (variable speed drive) system powers high-capacity, submersible electric pumps with energy generated by photovoltaic solar installations. Applicable for the majority of pumps commonly used in the agricultural sector, this system upgrades pumping systems, thereby replacing diesel generators.
Because the system was so effective, it was patented soon after and won the HCT-Wharton Innovation Award. Suddenly, Yumna, Ahmed and their co-founders discovered the potential of their technology: Mainstream usage of solar energy could enable water usage and therefore facilitate agriculture in more remote areas of Egypt. But there was a major challenge that needed to be overcome first: About one quarter of Egypt’s state budget was used for diesel-subsidies, so the whole industry was based on fossil fuel use.
However, the state has seen the writing on the wall and has concluded that the immense costs of its current power supply cannot be maintained in the long run. They decided to set up a program to support companies that work with solar energy. Hundreds of companies have applied for the program and soon it will not be able to accept any additional firms. So KarmSolar faces yet another challenge: The fledgling enterprise needed to be better, more stable, and economically sounder than its fossil fuel competitors.
Better, cheaper, sustainable: A vision for Egypt
Today, six years later, KarmSolar is Egypt’s largest private off grid solar energy integrator. The energy is used where it is produced — a decentralized system. With the solar powered water pumps, humans may one day use regions outside of the fertile area around the Nile. “We shifted perspectives of renewable energy and set high industry standards. We’re also the first company in Egypt to overcome renewable energy’s financial obstacles by successfully raising USD 1 million in debt financing for a 1 million Watts off-grid solar station for an agri-business”, Ahmed says.
Thousands of years ago, the ancient Egyptians overcame the constant blaze and bareness of their county with sophisticated aqueduct systems and canals. This is the mindset that Ahmed and Yumna share: “Our mission is to build the world’s most innovative off- grid solar technology company that drives communities away from central power generation and towards a more sustainable, localized and independent alternative. We specifically wish to achieve this in Egypt in light of the reclamation of desert areas that are very far from the electricity grid, which would need their own energy alternatives,” explains Yumna.
In addition to developing hardware and software solutions and installing decentralized solar facilities, KarmSolar heads another subsidiary firm: KarmBuild designs environmental friendly houses that are built from cheaper materials, which are locally produced and energy efficient. So not only do they provide solar-operated water usage for off-grid farms but they also make living there possible.
“The combination of solar energy, efficient and energy-saving material that is locally mined and has a far smaller percentage of cement in it is the future. We really create a real and substantial alternative to the conventional material. With a shift of policy and mentality to an environmental friendly energy supply we could really make an impact on the whole region. And hopefully on the planet, too“, said Mohamed Bassyouni. The 25 year-old renewable energy engineer works at KarmSolar in the engineering, design, research and development departments.
Too close to the sun? Egypt goes fot nuclear energy again
In 2015 the Egyptian Minister of Energy, Mohammed Shaker, agreed to a deal with the Russian concern, Rosatom: Four new nuclear power plants will be built with Russian credit of an unknown volume. For the next 35 years, Egypt will pay back the debt — a step back for the fighters for renewable energy and decentralization advocates alike. On its way to becoming Africa´s first nation for energy, Egypt is once again busy making agreements with foreign companies that build credit-based power plants instead of providing the people with independent and local energy.
According to UN estimates, Egypt’s population will balloon to 150 million people in just a few years (around 2045). And it’s certainly going to be a squeeze with all of these people living in an area that only makes up about 6 percent of the country’s total land mass.
KarmSolar will continue to keep striving to unleash the full potential of solar power, “through encouraging greater renewable energy penetration, by optimising operations, infrastructure, and user adoption. Moreover with recent energy subsidy cuts, the road has been paved for renewable energy already,” summarized Ahmed.
It’s not always easy being a pioneer, but it seems as if start-ups like KarmSolar have a sharper view on the big picture.