Renewable energy in Africa – 12 years of experience

Two pupils of a secondary school in Roermond ask if they can visit Partners of Innovation in Amsterdam. They are writing a paper on renewable energy in South Africa and are eager to ask Emiel some questions. Having twelve years of experience in the field, Emiel is  happy to share some of his experience and inside information.

¨My work on renewable energy in Africa started when we conducted a research for the European Commission in 2005. We wanted to know more about market opportunities for European companies to invest in renewable energy in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Our involvement was surprising to begin with, because no one of our team had ever been there. But we worked together with 15 local advisors.

The European Commission elected our project proposal because of our approach: not only did we want to explore investment opportunities for companies in Europe, we also focused on the people in the countries there. If we want to make a change for the long term, we need to consolidate activities for and with the people living there.

We selected 5 countries in each continent, 5 from Asia, 5 from Latin America and 5 from Africa. Using data from the World Bank, we could extrapolate our findings from these 15 countries to countries we hadn´t researched. In this way, we were able to provide useful information about more than 100 developing countries.

Core of our approach was the contact we had (and made) with local organizations and experts. We found them by searching the internet. Some people came up more than once in our searches and we knew they played an important role. We asked these experts if they wanted to cooperate and get involved in our project.

Key things we wanted to find out was the do´s and don´ts of renewable project investments by looking at the existing ones. What was working well and what was causing problems? This is vital information for new project ideas. To our surprise, we saw that the majority of projects were donor driven, supported by foreign NGO money. Once the money supply stopped, the activities came to an end too. People were unsufficiently attached to the activities to be able to carry them forward without (financial) help from abroad.

Another thing that led to problems were cultural differences. In a project of Solar Home Systems in Indonesia, we saw that the collection of money from the homes with solar panels installed was a problem. The families didn´t trust the guy who was sent to collect the money. The reason, so it turned out to be, was the age of the young man, an older man didn´t have any problems earning the trust and receiving the money.

In the years after 2005 I focused more and more on Sub Saharan Africa. In both Asia and Latin America there was already much work in progress in renewable energy. In Sub Saharan Africa there´s almost nothing, most of the people don´t even have electricity and use traditional fuels like charcoal and fire wood for cooking.

One project that became a success is Bio2Watt in South Africa. Bio2Watt is aimed at producing biofuels using animal (cow) manure. In 2009 I worked on a project proposal to find suitable fiancial funding for the initial idea. At this moment, it´s the largest producer of biofuels in South Africa and probably the whole of Sub Saharan Africa, supplying the BMW factory.¨

What do you think has the most potential in Sub Sahara Afrika?

¨After having experience with all types of renewable energy projects I believe bioenergy has the best chances of financial viability. In this part of the world people are still very dependent on agriculture. It´s the largest economic sector and therefore has the most potential to get results. Now, a lot of organic waste streams and residues are not being re-used but are potentially a great source of energy. The companies that are successful often grow a combination of crops, and don´t just grow one product.

Currently I´m working on a feasablity study on converting household waste to energy in Ogun State in Nigeria. This is a very interesting project, since it´s a new approach for that region. In many places people still use diesel generators, our project aims at replacing them in the future with more sustainable alternatives.¨