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Nigeria can become Africa’s solar capital–Vortman

The Chief Executive Officer/Co-founder, Lumos Global, Mr. Davidi Vortman, speaks to TOBI AWORINDE about the electricity challenge facing Nigeria on the sidelines of the 2017 African Development Bank Annual Meetings.

Can you highlight the challenges relating to power in Africa and why it is important for your company to come on board to try and solve these problems?
Today, there are 600 million people in the sub-Saharan Africa with no access to electricity. This problem is only going to increase in the coming years because the population grows and the infrastructure doesn’t grow fast enough. Looking at the problem, it is massive. It requires a different approach, very much like mobile telecommunications—when it came to Africa 15 years ago — required a different approach than how it was in the West. Then, prepaid was invented.
We believe that the right way to solve this massive problem of energy access is by deploying distributed off-grid power. We can, and should, invest in growing the grid, but it won’t reach everywhere. It takes too long, and distributed solar makes better economic sense for many off-grid areas. We would like to add on top of the grid a solution which we called off-grid or distributed power — a unit that is solar-powered with a battery that is offered to customers as a service. They get uninterrupted electricity. We also bring in the service and a five-year warranty to make sure that this is uninterrupted. This is a real change and an innovative approach in the market. We work together with MTN to make sure that we have access to everywhere in Nigeria.

Do you mean all over the country?
Yes. It is called ‘mobile electricity’ and also ‘MTN airtime.’ So, anyone who has an MTN account or airtime can pay for this service. We believe this is a scalable approach for Nigeria and this way, we can reach everywhere (that) airtime and mobile phones reach in Nigeria. People use it every day for lights, to charge phones, recharge personal computers, power fans, radios, laptops, etc. These are really the top needs of every Nigerian house. It allows you to have constant power.

How long has this been going on?
We officially launched it nationwide in February in Abuja, together with the Minister of Power, Works and Housing and the Minister of Communications. Now, it is available everywhere. It was launched only in the North last year. In 2016, we sold only in the north of Nigeria. We started in the North; we believed the North had the biggest need. Now, we’ve expanded to the South and the entire Nigeria. It’s available in Lagos. It’s available in Ibadan (Oyo State), Kano, Abuja and other large cities in the South. We believe that this new technology packaged as a service with warranty will give people peace of mind that (when) they come home, they can turn on the light and charge their phones, (turn on) the fan or TV very easily with no headache.
We call our products ‘Light Pass Light’ because we believe it’s a better solution to light and power your house. Therefore, we designed a system that is big enough to carry a TV of up to 37 inches, a fan or have light for the entire night. We understand that Nigerians need more power. That’s why we’ve designed specific products for the Nigerian market, which has proven to be very successful.

How do you think this initiative can increase the rate of development in Nigeria and Africa in general?
All macroeconomists know very well that the way to grow the gross domestic product of a country and the way to develop the economy starts from the Small and Medium Enterprises. Today, something like 25 per cent of the SMEs in Nigeria have access to power, while 75 per cent do not have access to power, which means they are much less productive. They close shop earlier. They don’t have access to laptops and Internet. They don’t have enough light to run (equipment) at night. If we can enable them with power, it will increase the GDP of Nigeria. We have roughly 30 million SMEs in Nigeria. If 75 per cent of them don’t have access to power, it means that only a small number is really productive. Imagine if we can help 24 million SMEs and make them more productive and increase their business hours and revenues; there will be a very significant growth factor in the economy. That’s why I think, on a macro level, it’s going to be a very important change, which is why the African Development Bank is interested in this and would like to help. This is why the Nigerian government is interested and supportive of this move. To me, that can happen much faster than any other technology. Think about power stations; it takes 10 years to build and then the powering goes to the people. We can power hundreds of thousands of people within six months and 10 times faster than any power grid station. It is helping everyone to be more efficient — peace and quiet with no noise or fumes, etc.

How does your device compare to the inverter and other solar options that Nigerians have?
First, it’s different because it’s a service. When you buy an inverter or just a solar system in one payment, no one gives you warranty. So, what happens if the inverter breaks down after a year or stops working? It’s your problem. In our case, it’s different. We offer you service. We’re here to stay. We’re giving you full guarantee that if something breaks down within five years, we’ll replace it, fix it, etc. The other thing is that inverters rely on grid power, so what happens if you don’t have grid power for two or three days? And inverters do not hold more than a few hours. We do not rely on grid power. We rely on sun and our solar panels provide the power. Our battery is much better than (that of) the inverter. It’s lithium-ion. It’s top-class, what electric vehicles use today. It doesn’t stop working after a year like the old types of car batteries. And the third (advantage) is that you can pay as you go using airtime and it’s easier.

Some companies make millions importing generators. Do you see them as a threat to your business?
I think the demand is huge. The demand is everywhere. There’s enough space for everyone. I’m not attempting to replace huge generators that power office buildings. It’s not my market. I’m powering the small business and the house. That’s the market I’m going after. So, I think there is enough business for everyone and, eventually, people can make their choice. Some people would want big generators that can power a fridge and do more and some people (would) say, I don’t have the (financial) capability to have a very big generator. I want to have a clean, quiet solution that is powering my house, business and I’m fine with a light, phone charging, fan, TV — all I need and I’m happy. It really depends on the people’s choice and what they want. Eventually, we offer a deal that is much cheaper than running a generator. But I think the Nigerian government needs to help create this ecosystem; create a clean and renewable energy progress in the country. I really think Nigeria has a huge potential to be the solar capital of Africa. It’s the largest country (in Africa) with the largest economy. It has the need and the sun. So, I think together with the Nigerian government and MTN, which has been a wonderful partner, we can really create change in the market.

How many households have you signed up so far?
About 35,000 and if you look at the amount of people we are selling to, we’re looking at roughly 150,000 people who have been enjoying this. We announced back in February that we would like to bring this solution to one million people in the next couple of years.
What about areas with poor connection that makes it harder for customers to access the service?
The only thing it requires is the 2G network connection. Even one (mobile) line is fine. We just need the SMS connectivity to monitor and control the (solar) units. Anywhere there is 2G, we can work. We don’t need data; we don’t need grid, of course; just MTN coverage.

 




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