ICE Commercial Power, a Nigerian-based renewable energy provider, says there are immense benefits in affordable renewable energy, especially for small and medium scale businesses in Nigeria.
The company, which develops solar energy projects that allow small businesses and underserved communities to connect to reliable and affordable clean energy, revealed in a statement at the weekend that it was “on a bold mission to connect the unconnected.
It added that it was also out to monitor energy usage online and better manage their power consumption, assuring that businesses participating in the programme could see exactly how much power they are consuming, and the associated cost.
It stresses that renewable energy, especially one that is affordable, has lots of benefits as it can bring electricity and development opportunities to areas that have never enjoyed those benefits, spur economic and industrial growth, and support increased growth.
The company notes that Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa, and the largest GDP, but according to the World Bank, Nigeria’s electrification rate is only just higher than 55 percent, meaning that nearly half of its over 200 million people do not have access to reliable electricity which significantly hampers economic development.
A major crisis in most Nigeria’s households and organizations today is energy, caused by the near-absence of power or electricity infrastructure, hence the need for affordable renewable energy.
Nigeria and, indeed, Africa faces an enormous energy challenge, moreso with its growing population and an infrastructure that is often unreliable. This explains why modern renewable power is a good option.
Micro, small and medium businesses are the hardest hit by unreliable power, with self-generation for business operations accounting for most of the business running costs. Many of Nigeria’s SMEs rely on using generators to provide power, but these machines can be unreliable, and the fuel and maintenance costs are high.
According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Nigerians spend about $14 billion on generators and fuel yearly in order to avoid crippling downtime for their businesses. SMEs play a vital role in driving economic growth and job creation on the continent. Connecting SMEs to alternative energy sources helps to minimize downtime and maximize productivity.
Before partnering with Microsoft, Emmanuel Ekwueme, the company’s CEO, disclosed that they had deployed an early pilot project as a proof-of-concept for their new model for off-grid electrification at the last-mile. For this work, ICE deployed 20 solar microgrids connecting 170 underserved micro-businesses across three communities.
However, Ekwueme said the company found that much of their maintenance and operational procedures had several manual steps and required considerable human intervention to ensure a smooth customer experience for connected micro-businesses.
In doing this, he said, the company encountered two challenges one of which was pre-installation, explaining that their team discovered that the process of sourcing prospective microgrid sites and potential customers simultaneously across several target communities required the collection and analysis of large datasets of hyper-local geospatial and demographic data.
“This process can often be very fragmented and cumbersome. Strong community engagement and the accurate surveying of target last-mile communities leads to effective go-to-market strategies to support the deployment of distributed microgrids at scale,” Ekwueme noted.
He noted further that, in addition to installing solar panels and battery storage for each microgrid, ICE utilizes IoT-enabled smart meters and inverters to track microgrid performance for remote monitoring and asset management.
A centralized cloud solution to remotely track and manage all field-deployed assets is critical for ICE’s operational viability. Furthermore, after installation connected customers were making payment for clean energy using various modes (POS, USSD, mobile bank transfer from several banks).
The lack of a centralized platform for collecting payments presented a major operational challenge, especially as ICE looks to scale the model to thousands of connected micro-businesses.
ICE identified the need for a robust cloud platform with associated tools to firstly, process large amounts of go-to-market data and facilitate the transfer of telemetry data from IoT devices deployed in the field, and secondly, for the seamless collection of digital payments from microgrid-connected customers.
The company discovered that partnering with Microsoft has enabled it to adopt technology-driven solutions to the major business challenges identified during their pilot phase. Microsoft’s support includes business development, technical support with the Azure platform and go-to-market strategies.
One of the highpoints if what ICE has done is making payments simple for clients. It developed a USSD workflow to centralize and enable seamless digital payments for clean energy by microgrid-connected microbusinesses. This platform, facilitated by Azure, enables its customers to directly track their energy usage and make mobile payments seamlessly with their feature and smart mobile phones.
“This approach significantly simplified our maintenance and operations workflow. Specifically, it has streamlined payment collections from up to 12 different modes of payment to one single, user-friendly USSD workflow. This has also contributed to a notable 48 percent decrease in recurring maintenance calls that require human intervention,” Ekwueme said.