Challenging Innovators to Turn the Power On in Africa

Think you have a solution to power 20 million households in sub-Saharan Africa with clean and affordable electricity? We want to hear from you!

Jun 24, 2016 · 4 min read
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USAID supports businesses like M-POWER that are enabling customers in rural areas of Africa to power their phones and light their homes. / Mathieu Young, Off.Grid:Electric

Six hundred million.

That is the number of Africans who do not have access to electricity. Imagine what this might be like. No street lights to help you find your way home after dark. No place to charge your computer or cell phone. No way to read a book before bed or have your kids do their homework. No refrigerator to stick your hand in to grab a cold drink or keep your food from turning bad.

Hard to imagine, right? But a majority of Africans sit night after night in the dark or rely on expensive, polluting or dangerous kerosene and diesel to power their homes and businesses. Access to energy would transform their lives. The question is: How do we harness that power for the millions of Africans who live in some of the most remote, low-income communities of the world?

The good news is that we have technology that can provide clean, reliable electricity to families who live “beyond the grid.”

A pioneering set of entrepreneurs has figured out business models to make energy solutions like solar home systems both affordable for rural families in Africa and profitable as an entrepreneurial venture. Start-ups like M-Kopa Solar and Off-Grid Electric have proven business models that are now profitable and attracting private investments. We have a market-based solution to a big problem, but we need to make sure more people can benefit from it.

In order to achieve the ambitious targets that President Obama set out for Power Africa, USAID aims to provide millions of new electricity connections via off-grid energy solutions. But we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why we are joining forces with the U.K. Department for International Development and the Shell Foundation to build a vibrant marketplace for off-grid energy providers.

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Together, we are launching Scaling Off-Grid Energy: A Grand Challenge for Development. Through USAID’s eighth Grand Challenge, we plan to help build a vibrant market for the off-grid energy sector. The challenge aims to provide 20 million households in sub-Saharan Africa with access to modern, clean and affordable electricity. Together with our partners, we will address key constraints and barriers to the market’s growth across supply, demand, and the enabling environment.

We know that many promising solutions exist, but they aren’t reaching the end customers — those who live beyond the grid. We will help the businesses that provide off-grid energy expand geographically, test new business models, and tap into private sources of finance. We will incentivize innovation through prizes like that of the Global Leap Awards Off-Grid Refrigeration Competition. And, we will strengthen the marketplace by addressing country-level barriers to the growth of off-grid markets by promoting policy and regulatory reforms, spurring the growth of mobile payment systems, and building capacity in local markets.

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With access to power, many small many small businesses can earn additional revenue in the evening. / Mathieu Young, Off.Grid:Electric.

The potential for off-grid energy is enormous, not only for the people who will benefit from access to energy, but for those who are employed by the new businesses created as markets open up. The Grand Challenge for Development will enable investors and entrepreneurs to better align their investments and innovations in ways that can accelerate the growth of the sector, and respond to changing market conditions as the market evolves and matures.

We are calling on entrepreneurs, investors, philanthropists, and governments to scale up clean energy solutions to reach millions of households that live beyond the reach of the electricity grid.

And we are excited to see what ideas this Grand Challenge inspires.

To learn more about the Scaling Off-Grid Energy: Grand Challenge for Development, visit us here.

About the Authors

Ann Mei Chang is USAID’s Chief Innovation Officer and Executive Director of the U.S. Global Development Lab. Follow her @annmei.

Andrew M. Herscowitz is the coordinator for President Barack Obama’s Power Africa initiative. Follow Andrew @aherscowitz.

U.S. Agency for International Development

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