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Industry Leaders Shine Light On African Energy Innovation At SXSW 2023

A panel of distinguished experts on African energy spoke at South by Southwest (SXSW) 2023, one of the world’s top tech and innovation conferences. The conference was held in Austin, Texas, this past weekend. The session, “Lessons from Africa for a clean energy future,” explored what the world can learn from the creativity, grit, and problem-solving driving energy transformation in Africa.

SXSW hosted its first ever energy-focused track at this year’s event. The panelists are all industry experts and leaders who are actively involved in various initiatives on the continent. Driven by a desire to showcase African-based solutions to the world, the panelists underwent SXSW’s rigorous selection process and were ultimately among a limited number of presentations selected from thousands of topic submissions by top innovators from across the globe.

The panel highlighted that African-born clean energy solutions to power businesses, homes, communities, and cooking facilities were driving the continent’s clean energy revolution. According to the panelists, African innovation on distributed energy services, digital platforms for crowdsourcing investors, and data platforms for remote monitoring and managing energy systems are transforming the energy landscape in Africa. A fair playing field and adequate access to low cost, long term finance could unlock even more potential and allow such innovations to be the future of access, but partnership is key.

Dr Thabi Melamu, CEO of South African PV Association, a leading non-profit that advances the deployment of solar PV in South Africa, emphasized that the continent was at the forefront of creating innovative solutions that are appropriate for its own context. “It’s heartening to witness creative business models that address energy security by deploying clean forms of energy such as solar. Each solution is moving us closer to providing those 600 million people who are without electricity, access to reliable, clean and secure energy sources,” said Melamu.

Abe Cambridge, Founder of Sun Exchange, a leading solar leasing platform, noted that digitalization, digital currency, and innovative finance models were providing momentum to the energy transition in Africa by unlocking finance for smaller-scale, decentralized projects. He stressed that these solutions were key to resolving both the climate crisis and South Africa’s energy crisis, which has led to rolling daily blackouts. “Large scale renewable energy projects can take years to bring online, and do not address either of these crises quickly enough. Only embedded generation projects can turn the tide and do so quickly. Accessible finance solutions are the most important lever for unlocking this opportunity.”

Emily McAteer, Founder and CEO of Odyssey Energy Solutions, which helps renewable energy companies at every stage of project deploying — from financing, to equipment procurement and ongoing operations — highlighted the opportunity that distributed renewable energy presents for bringing energy to hundreds of millions of people, slowing greenhouse gas emissions growth in emerging economies, and seeing robust financial returns on investment. “There have been bottlenecks to building energy infrastructure in the past. But today, the price of solar has significantly decreased, many countries have made commitments to a no-coal future, and there is widespread acknowledgment that distributed energy is the best path forward for many communities. There are still bottlenecks — but they are solvable,” said McAteer.

“Africa is aflush with clean energy potential and young talent. Yet, it’s also the only continent being left behind in basic access to energy. How can both be true? Africa only accounts for 2% of clean energy finance flows globally. If we address the financial systems that control where and how investment flows, so many innovative solutions will flourish. What Africa’s innovators want is partnership, not charity,” said Dr Rebekah Shirley, Deputy Director for Africa, World Resources Institute, a non-profit research institution at the forefront of revitalising landscapes, fortifying cities, and supporting climate resilience across Africa.

With Africa’s vast and diverse energy potential, the panelists called for commitments and partnerships to deliver long-term, low cost financing from countries, banks, and development finance institutions, and for concessional financing to drive capital to energy poor communities. They also stressed the need for programs that build skills and supply chains in order to scale and take ground-breaking African innovations global.

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