Charging Forward: Piloting a New Approach to Backup Power in Sub-Saharan Africa

Kofa
7 min readMay 4, 2023

How will the fusion of technology and innovation shape the future of energy in developing nations? As we inch closer to a world powered by renewable energy, the demand for reliable and sustainable energy has never been more apparent. At the same time, the exponential advances in battery technology which allow larger and larger amounts of energy to be stored in smaller and smaller packets raises an interesting opportunity for many parts of Africa where energy access and reliability are often below par, if present at all.

While the reliability of grid power in Accra has improved greatly over the last few years, it still does experience power outages due to various reasons, such as rain or harsh weather, as well as scheduled or unplanned transformer maintenance. Additionally, there is often a need to have off-grid power. This may be for a variety of reasons, such as power for an off-grid event, or a construction worker needing to power his tools at a site that is not yet connected to the grid, or the fact that a connection to the grid is often prohibitively expensive or inconvenient.

Between 2022 and 2023, Kofa piloted a novel approach for backup and remote power by using lithium ion multi-use batteries, for just such use cases. A multi-use battery is an application-agnostic store of energy designed to empower users to decide how, where and when to use them. Such a battery can be used to power an EV one moment and then retasked as a backup “generator” for a home the next. For testing purposes the battery is paired with an inverter in a simple and portable package, and provides up to 2kWh of energy at a go. We tested a variety of user archetypes and use cases, ranging from an at-home remote worker, to a tailor.

Pilot Testing Battery Power

For shops and commercial businesses, productivity is a key concern when power outages occur; especially for businesses that sell food and/or drinks, or require power for whatever reason. At Makola Market, which sits at the heart of Accra’s main commercial shopping district, standby generators are par for the course for most shops. They are usually stored indoors, but when there is a power outage, the generators are moved outside the shop (often requiring the manpower of two or more individuals) for operation because they are noisy and emit fumes. This is a major nuisance, since the space outside most shops and in the streets and walkways around them is often already constricted. It also creates a safety concern as customers and passersby weave between rows of goods and generators, and is a generally unpleasant experience, given the noise that each generator produces. Shops almost never share generators between themselves; each shop must have its own.

We tested our batteries with two shops at Makola. In contrast to the generators that these shop owners were used to, our batteries could operate in complete silence, without fumes, and could safely be used indoors. We were also able to connect the battery-inverter system directly through the mains changeover switch, so that the entire shop could be powered.

A barbershop using Kofa’s battery-inverter system. They were able to power 2 towel warmers, 2 UV light boxes, a sound system and multiple hair clippers.
A barbershop using Kofa’s battery-inverter system. They were able to power 2 towel warmers, 2 UV light boxes, a sound system and multiple hair clippers.

Generators can sometimes be rented instead of owned, as is often the case with DJ’s, who do so when the power goes off at an event that they have been assigned to cover. We tested such a setup with Kwasi, who works as a DJ and Key Cutter, who could easily see himself using such a system.

Like other users he observed a marked difference between the energy supplied by the battery compared to a generator or even mains power. This was most keenly observed with the tailor’s sewing machines and the barber’s clippers.

“I used the sewing machine the whole day and it was no different from when I was connected to [mains power]. Power was stable.” — Tailor

A tailor uses Kofa’s battery-inverter to power a sewing machine
A tailor uses Kofa’s battery-inverter to power a sewing machine

A key challenge though, was determining the load that the inverter can support. Many users struggled to even estimate the power load of their appliances, and many appliances were old or had their load rating stickers rubbed off. This makes it difficult for users to know or estimate their load, making their starting load very high, or their power draw unpredictable. High starting loads meant that certain pairs of appliances could either not be plugged in simultaneously, or could not be powered by a particular inverter at all, even though the inverter was of high enough capacity to support it at its full running load. It meant that higher capacity inverters than we had originally anticipated were required to run several of the tests.

One carpenter shared his experience of how the portable battery helped them meet a target, despite a waterlogged workspace interfering with his productivity:

“I’m glad you brought the battery in today. It rained yesterday and so I couldn’t work. Even though it rained again today, I was able to meet my goal because the battery made it possible.” — Carpenter

Spanner Junction Market

Spanner Junction market is a day and night market, a stone’s throw away from the Accra Mall in Accra. It’s a series of closely-packed mostly wooden stalls shaded by umbrellas and other structures, connected by a footpath that busy pedestrians ply. At night, (electrical) power is money at Spanner Junction; vendors are absolutely reliant on illumination to display their wares to customers for their businesses to function. The market has no formal connection to the grid. Instead, many stall owners accessed power via small lead acid batteries which they rented for GHS 2 per day. Here, we conducted a pair of long-term pilots with paying customers.

Three consecutive stalls at Spanner Junction market lit up at night by Kofa’s battery power
Three consecutive stalls at Spanner Junction market lit up at night by Kofa’s battery power

The first of these was with Michael, who owns a shoe stand in the market. After our initial tests with a number of vendors found success, Michael saw our solution and agreed to invest in it by becoming a sort of power reseller — paying us on a daily basis for access to the battery while charging other vendors for access to power. To get started he invested over GHS 600 ($50) of his own money to buy and install the necessary wiring and bulbs to connect his neighbors.

At his busiest, he was powering up to 10 other vendors at a time using the battery, each of whom was paying GHS 3 ($0.25) a day for access to his ultra-bright bulbs. His income was further supplemented by charging a fee for others to recharge their phones.

Another test subject here was a small drinking spot next to a public transportation station, just behind Spanner market. Not connected to the grid, it served as a gathering spot for a handful of people at a time, and a place for trotro (public transportation minivans) drivers to buy a cheap drink after they closed for the day. The owner, Solomon, used the battery to power a television set which was placed outside of his bar at night during the 2022 Qatar World Cup. Rechargeable lights provided illumination. Sales soared, and Solomon was happy to pay consistently for battery access on a daily basis for two months.

Tellingly, our pilot served as a proving ground to Solomon himself of the value of electrification.

“The experience we had from the World Cup with increased sales after using the battery to power the TV convinced us to invest into more power. We wanted more power.” — Bar Owner

“We wanted more power,” he said, and went on to invest GHS 7,000 (about $600) into a grid connection to expand his business into a neighboring space.

The Future

A delivery rider takes a break at one of Kofa’s Swap & Go stations
A delivery rider takes a break at one of Kofa’s Swap & Go stations in Accra while waiting for her next order. Piggybacking on a battery network built for electric mobility means that available and clean backup power can suddenly penetrate communities and be available to individuals and businesses that really need it.

Our goal now is to develop and test a full system and experience around this product, including payment, delivery and/or pickup from a nearby swap station. Beyond the use cases described above, there’s even a case to be made for such a system being able to support slightly more permanent backup power solutions, such as homeowners transitioning their homes fully off-grid, Office Managers needing to ensure that productivity is maintained at all times, or even managers of residential and commercial sites, as well as hospitals and medical facilities.

Kofa Technologies Ltd. is a Ghanaian company re-engineering how people access energy. Our vision is to create an affordable and customer-driven electricity network powered by portable batteries and renewable energy, thereby helping to transition multiple use cases away from fossil fuels. Starting with electric motorcycles, we will then drive mass adoption of renewable energy by opening our battery network to power people’s homes and businesses. The Kofa Swap & Go system is a distributed network of batteries and swap stations that allows you immediate access to a fully charged battery in just seconds. We believe that this is just the beginning of a new era in e-mobility and energy in Ghana and Africa, and we are excited to be at the forefront of this change.

www.kofa.co

This research was supported by Shell Foundation and the UK’s FCDO.

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Kofa

Electric Motorcycles & Portable Battery Network. Accra, Ghana. Together. We Are Electric.