Note: THE TORCH is an interview series from Entrepreneurs for Impact. We profile CEOs mitigating climate change. Our goal is to highlight their work and inspire others. As we deal with multiple crisis, from COVID and racial injustice to climate change and economic recession, we need some of this positive light in what seem like dark times. Onward and upward.
Why did you create Energicity? I learned a lot as Senior Director of Global Business Development at Opower. After it went public, I took some time off. I kept thinking about what it would take to get to 100% renewable energy on the grid. It seemed like a harder to problem to solve in the US. At the time, just 1% of power on the grid came from solar. In contrast, I thought this scale up could work more quickly in Africa. In addition, I began to learn what life is like the without electricity. The challenges to health, safety, economic productivity, and education were astounding. And I realized that I could do something about it.
Who does your company serve? We have the pleasure of serving some of the world’s poorest people. We’re lucky to serve rural homes, farmers, and businesses in Sierra Leone, Ghana, and soon Benin.
What problems do you solve for your customers? We provide light that is affordable and scalable for any household and business to use however they need. We do this by providing minigrid power solutions to off-grid communities.
How does your work contribute to mitigating climate change? Our minigrid power replaces the need for people to clear forests for wood to burning and to use diesel generators. But it’s not just about technology. Sometimes behavior change is slow. For example, some folks just like cooking on open fires. It’s a habit, the way it’s always been done. So we’re approaching this from a “whole customer” point of view.
What makes your company different than its competitors? We are the lowest cost provider, relative to extension of the central power grid and diesel generators. In addition, per third-party research, we’re at about half the cost of other minigrid solutions. We also strive to have closer relationships with our customers. For example, during COVID, it became difficult for farmers to get their products to market. Because we can provide better access to those markets, we began exchanging produce for electricity, and also got them some extra cash, too.
How are you rethinking your business strategy to get through the COVID crisis? How do you play both offense and defense? COVID has not really impacted our target customers too much. There is not a big lock down, like we see in the U.S. That said, we’re rethinking how we can better serve our customers, along the lines of the vegetables-for-power example.
What are 2-3 things that your industry needs most to succeed, but is currently missing? Capital, capital, capital. We are a capital-intensive business. Most investors in this space before last year were impact-oriented – Acumen, Omidyar, etc. But now we’re seeing Japanese conglomerates, oil and gas majors, and other non-impact players making investments in off-grid solutions in Africa. etc. The other challenge relates to middle management in Africa. Raw talent is absolutely present here. We just need skills development and experience.
How are you finding growth capital this year? Ecosystem Integrity Fund, a commercial impact fund, which has had several successful exits. They appreciated our low cost position. In a commodity market, this matters. Their focus is sustainability, and Africa critical for that, but this was first Africa investment. Hopefully it’s a sign of what other investors will start seeing. Here’s a recent TechCrunch article about our capital raise.
When it comes to addressing climate change, how do you remain optimistic? We have a long way to go. I’m concerned about humanity’s capacity to tackle this. Our brains are not made to tackle this kind of “slow boil” problem. We have not yet shown the fortitude that need to get on the other side of these growing GHG emissions. Personally, I am optimist about my ability to make a difference in climate change and in people’s lives. That’s what keeps me going. We plan to have 1MW of minigrid capacity installed by the end of the year. And I know that matters to the roughly 100,000 people who’ll now have power.
What kinds of apps, databases, or software help you and your team excel? We’re very data focused, so we’ve built our own software platform for running minigrids. On to top of that, we use the obvious stuff: Excel, Google Docs, DropBox. Whatsapp, Slack. But we’re limited in ways that U.S. businesses are not. Data plans are constrained. Internet access is poor. And literacy levels of team members outside of core management, such as maintenance staff, is limited.
What kinds of personal habits, mindset, exercise, meditation, or scheduling help boost your productivity and increase your resilience to “fight the good fight”? Pre-COVID, I worked constantly. I got good sleep at 10:00pm and was back again at 6:30am. Every minute was working. Maybe I’d get a little workout in. But with COVID, I got locked down in Sierra Leone for three months so far. I was not planning on this. For two weeks, I kind of freaked out. No flights available. So I started doing yoga again. And it has been awesome. I do it every morning, and now I don’t know how I’d live without it. I also work out every other night with high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Beyond my physical health, I’m a Christian and pray a lot. I read the Bible. More broadly, I just try to give myself space, forgiveness, and grace. A lot of my career, I’ve been hard driving. But I’m trying to create something entirely new in a part of the world where I don’t speak the language.
What are 1-2 quotations that keep you focused and motivated? “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power, love, and self-control.” – Bible (2 Timothy 1:7) “Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it; Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.” – Friedrich Nietzsche
What are you excited about now? We started construction on our first big minigrid in Sierra Leone. By the end of year, we’ll have 1 MW of mingrids in the 14th poorest country in the world. We’ll be helping a fish processing plant a biscuit factory to provide jobs, food, and community development to benefit 100,000 people.
Who is inspiring you now? Who can other climate change entrepreneurs learn from? Well, this recommendation is part of the “mutual admiration society.” 😊 Bill McKibben, who has also visited our facilities, is the writer I appreciate the most. He has a doggedness and determination to his work. He’s absolutely confident about it. There’s total optimism. We all need more that.
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