Kowry Energy founder Ndiarka Mbodji explains how her start-up manages projects in southern Africa from thousands of kilometres away and the importance of local partners.
How can the energy supply in Africa be improved without relying on coal, gas and nuclear power? The Berlin-based start-up Kowry Energy believes it has found a solution. With the help of European financiers and local energy suppliers, it wants to generate electricity from renewable energies locally and thus supply around 400 million people in medium-sized cities. In an interview, founder Ndiarka Mbodji talks about the challenges in the different countries, the difficulties of financing and what contribution projects like hers can make to climate protection.
Ms. Mbodji, with Kowry Energy you want to initiate energy supply projects in sub-Saharan Africa. What can a Berlin-based start-up do that large energy companies can't?
Quite a lot. We are targeting a gap in the local energy supply. Large communities in sub-Saharan Africa are often connected to the local power grids. Then there are small villages with ten to 20 people that can be supplied with electricity with the help of solar panels. So far, however, medium-sized villages of 3,000 to 100,000 people have often been left out, and neither solution is good for them. They often rely on little more than a few diesel generators. There are about 400 million people living in communities like this, and we're providing them with access to energy through our distributed energy solutions.
Why not just connect them to the grid?
Because grid expansion is expensive, much more expensive than installing decentralized solutions on site. But they would have to be installed there on a scale for which the funding has often been lacking up to now. We now want to change that. With our business model, we also offer financing for the systems.
What do you do differently from other players in the market?
The market currently tends to focus on individual projects, which has two disadvantages. First, it makes it impossible to bring universal access to energy to local people by 2030. Secondly, smaller projects are extremely difficult to finance because the ticket size of traditional financiers is much higher. At Kowry Energy, we bundle the different projects. Currently we have about 20 of them, which have an investment volume of about 14 million euros. This approach allows us to get better purchase prices for the technology and, most importantly, remove the hurdle of financing for customers.
How then do you coordinate the implementation of these projects from thousands of kilometers away?
We rely on local partners who know the local conditions. In this way, we avoid a whole series of problems that foreign investors usually encounter in this region. These start with the fact that the same solution does not work for every location in sub-Saharan Africa. We are talking about 48 different countries here! So it makes sense to talk to the local energy providers in each case.
Kowry Energy is fully committed to renewable energy, a field that has often been neglected in sub-Saharan Africa in favor of fossil fuels, for example. Do your partners have any experience with these technologies?
Where they don't, we support them. We don't just take care of the financing. We also design the plants and take care of the engineering part. Our partners are then primarily responsible for ensuring, for example, that the electricity reaches the end customers reliably. This is where it is particularly important for the partners to have local roots. This ensures that they are committed to the supply in the long term and do not drop out once the project has been implemented.
Technically, such projects are probably more demanding than comparable ones in Europe.
The requirements are different. For example, we have to take into account more extreme weather conditions. But the issue of maintenance is also very important. Often our energy systems are located rather remotely. In the past, a technician would have had to drive by every two weeks to check that everything was working. Thanks to modern technology, they can now observe problems on the computer, analyze them and even fix them if necessary.... It's much more efficient.
And how does Kowry make money on these projects?
We get lease payments for providing the technology, which is asset-as-a-service in a way. That's how we cover our costs in the first instance. But honestly, for us it's about building a sustainable economy where we, our customers and the end customer can benefit from access to energy and be economically successful. But of course, it's also about more than money.
I believe that in order to combat climate change, it is essential to bring the more than one billion people in the sub-Saharan Africa region with us, both those in our target group and those in small and large towns. On the one hand, the countries there need a better power supply. If only so that small and medium-sized local businesses can develop. If you have to deal with power outages all the time, you can't worry about growth. On the other hand, we have to make sure that they do not get this electricity from fossil fuels. To resolve this dilemma, we must make it possible to finance appropriate projects on the ground and implement them in a sustainable manner.
The 20 projects so far can only be the beginning. Where do we go from here?
We will definitely make efforts to initiate further financing in the near future. To this end, we have now secured a strategic investor in Rolls-Royce Power Systems, for example, which gives us financial leeway and inspires confidence in other financiers. But we want to avoid jumping the gun. We worked on our first round of projects for three years before officially launching Kowry Energy this year.
Thank you very much for the interview.
Ndiarka Mbodji is the founder and CEO of Kowry Energy . She previously worked for Rolls-Royce Group for 15 years, most recently as Director Business Development Africa for the Power Systems division. She has also worked for automotive suppliers Valeo and Faurecia. Mbodji studied chemistry and quality management in Toulouse and Rouen.
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