• Monday, June 17, 2024
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BusinessDay

The Case of the Lagos Smart Initiative

Hackathon

Local innovation has become a buzzword in the business world, especially in the tech community. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this into sharper focus as it has become instrumental for solving community challenges through domesticating global solutions. What does innovation really mean to the man on the street? Can it have tangible impact like providing an additional source of income, to send children to school, to relieve ailments, to light up bulbs, to create jobs, to grow food faster or get higher yields?

Local innovation is basically the process of developing new and better ways of doing things. This could involve informal experimentation such as people using their resources to explore new possibilities either out of curiosity or responding to a need. The outcome of such a process will be local innovations that have been developed, understood and owned by the people. When successful, it improves the lives of community members especially the poor and marginalised.

While local innovation is mostly building on an existing body of knowledge and coming up with better techniques or products, it differs from an invention which typically provides an absolutely new technique or technology that has never been discovered or developed. Local innovation usually addresses a unique challenge, a unique context, within a unique culture. The result becomes a highly effective solution that is easily replicable, appropriate for the cultural context, and is locally sustainable.

In the case of access to electricity in Nigeria, a unique challenge has been the unreliable supply of power to users for various reasons. One of such reasons is the non-availability or affordability of electricity meters for over 60% of users. This results in revenue leakages in the sector and estimated bills issued to customers which causes payment apathy. This vicious cycle disincentivises the utility to supply electricity to users who are mostly those at the lowest income levels of the society.

It is no longer farfetched to imagine reading the words ‘made in Nigeria’ on prepaid electricity meters of community members. Those were the words used recently at the Launch of the Lagos Smart Meter Hackathon by the Lagos State Governor. The initiative makes it possible to imagine how having smart electricity meters encourages the utilities to provide more electricity supply, especially to those who cannot afford other expensive alternatives. It also has the potential to eliminate the typical squabbles around estimated bills which sometimes results in the loss of lives of electricity workers. The impact would generally improve the livelihoods of Nigerians as stable electricity supply will lead to business growth, more jobs, amongst others.

An interesting feature of the initiative is that it focuses on ‘local innovations’ – eliminating heavy costs and inherent exchange rate volatilities. Indeed, while the initial concept expected the final design to be mass produced in China, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the government to seek local manufacture options.

The goal would then be achieved through collaborations with companies that manufacture components or assemble locally. To reward the efforts for participating in the hackathon, a prize of 7 Million Naira to the combined winning Software & Hardware teams has been assigned by the government and other sponsors of the initiative, in addition to a percentage of the intellectual property royalties from the winning solution.It is clear that to encourage such local innovation to thrive and meet the huge electricity deficit in Nigeria as well as other developmental challenges, a few elements could make the difference:

Public private collaboration – which brings to bear the creativity of the private sector supported by the public sector through the creation of an enabling environment and right policies.

Directing donor funding or technical assistance and not aiding handouts to support local innovation. This means supporting the provision of suitable innovation spaces to the best local talents that will provide the basic amenities – electricity, internet access, 3D printing, etc.

Funding at scale to support such innovation – preferably locally denominated long-term equity funding. Such funding is not immediately expecting cashflows but caters to the research and development phase.

The aspiration to have power on for longer hours is one of the oldest desires of all Nigerians. The Lagos Smart Meter Hackathon is an opportunity to use what we have to get what we need. This is the time to support, fund and participate in the challenge to advance access to energy for all Nigerians. It is a win-win for us all.

Learn more about the Lagos Smart Meter Initiative: www.lagossmartmeter.com

About the author

Ujunwa Ojemeni is an energy expert, a development finance executive and gender inclusion advocate in the energy sector with an aim to help Africa achieve SDG 7 by 2030. At the Office of the Honourable Commissioner for Energy & Mineral Resources Lagos State, she drives policies, investments opportunities and implementation strategies to deliver reliable energy to the citizens of the State. She is also an Advisor with the Private Finance Advisory Network (PFAN) and has coordinated several gas and power development opportunities as well as energy funds worth over $400 Million. She was selected as one of 60 young African Clean Energy Leaders by Enel Foundation, and a finalist at the IFC Sustainability Exchange Contest in 2019.

Ujunwa is the founder of African Women in Energy Development Initiative (AWEDI Network). She has spoken on several regional and international platforms including: MIT Solve 2020, ECOWAS Sustainable Energy Forum in Accra, West Africa Power and Energy Cooperation Conference in Dakar. Her articles have been published both locally and internationally by Forbes, Devex and Business Day.
She holds a Master’s degree in International Development – Development Finance and a first-class degree in Banking and Finance from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka.