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Milken-Motsepe Green Energy Prize runner-up: “OMNIVAT’s ecosystem of solutions tackles an ecosystem of challenges typically found in sub-Saharan Africa”

Exclusive interview with Randy Kabuya, engineer and co-founder of Omnivat, the runners-up in this year’s Milken-Motsepe Green Energy Prize.

The company won $250,000 for its containerised electricity generation and storage system, which provides clean water, clean energy, and wi-fi-enriched by virtual reality support for remote communities.

Congrats on being the runners-up in the Milken-Motsepe Green Energy Prize! Can you share a brief overview of your innovation and its impact on expanding access to sustainable electricity in Africa?
For myself and 1.2 billion people, sub-Saharan Africa is a place that we call home. But sadly though, half that number here don’t have access to electricity, while the other half have to contend with frequent power cuts. These are businesses and residents. So essentially what you see is that the centralised electricity supply and generation system either does not work or is unreliable for those that it’s actually serving, or it simply is unfeasible for those that are not on its grid.

So to this, OMNIVAT offers hardware and software solutions to cost-effectively generate electricity, treat water, and create or assist in creating agricultural value chain. Our ecosystem of solutions tackles an ecosystem of challenges typically found in sub-Saharan Africa. And how do we do this? Well, we do this through manufacturing, selling and leasing on the hardware side what are essentially pre-packaged power plants. These scale up to much larger mini-grids, however individually, they are essentially a micro-grids solution or cleaner replacement to diesel generators. A special feature in our offering is essentially that we have built-in productive use subsystems and these are field-assembled cold storage or built-in water treatment, which are very essential for the functioning of business: think hospitality, think mining, think healthcare. But the main aim of our innovation came from how we expanded on what was possible with the energy storage system. And by that, what we went into was through the trend of EV adoption in Western countries. We realised that we could make the microgrids and backup power system more affordable in the African context. And, on a much bigger system, using hydrogen systems or technology with the built-in water treatment system, we realised that we could offer services of not just batteries, but a built-in water treatment system at the district level to many places in Africa that don’t have water treatment. And additionally, the hydrogen technology comes with impact on agricultural value chains such as ammonia, which are fertilisers and oxygen, which can be used for large scale aquaculture.

And so through this, expansion on energy storage, we were then able to give a different model to African development, which is to provide basic services, industrialised while decarbonising, which we view is much better than the current model of just providing electricity in the African context. On the software side, what we offer is IoT remote monitoring system, which goes one step further by giving predictive analytics to what solar yield should be. We have also included virtual reality remote site support as most of these sites will be in remote locations, technical skills are lacking in such places and we view virtual reality as a bridging gap in future technology that Africa can also adopt in its microgrid and electrification process.

What challenges did you encounter during this innovation process?
What challenges did we encounter in the innovation process? Definitely the prototyping part was difficult. However, most of the co-founders of OMNIVAT come from an engineering background, and to some extent, those were challenges we were prepared for. However, to build a product that really reflects African realities and to do it in a very short amount of time, we went out of our knowledge base to get product market fit and to get systems and services and offering that will reflect that reality. And in the workshop, sourcing parts, importing many electrolysers and fuel cells, and these are new up and coming technologies, and integrating them into an electrical offering—that was on the technical front.

On the social front, we created a package with all of this as a product offering that would be profitable, impactful and sustainable for whatever community we deploy these solutions into. So not losing aspect of the engineering and the solution, but instead keeping track of what the customer will actually need.

How will being the runner-up in the prize programme enable you to further develop and scale your project for greater impact across communities in Africa?
Being the runners-up is definitely going to impact and enable us to further develop and scale our product. Beyond even the competition, what was very helpful was the coaching and training, which gave directional guidance and pivots to allow us to move toward a commercially mature and reasonable product.

However, what also works in our favour now with the finance is that it gives us more latitude to be able to refine the product more, while at the same time, have market entry strategies and have potential projects that we can execute to pilot our entire solution. Additionally, something that is special about the competition is that the profile of the prize was such that the marketing was really, really appreciated. And additionally, it created a certain level of public confidence in us as a startup. And even beyond that going forward, being honoured at this competition, this really helped us in now being viewed as one of the solution holders or being in the circle of solution holders and being contacted for collaborations and for potential solutions. And when we also reach out for solutions, people know that we’re working on something interesting. In the context of being runner up and receiving the prise money, it also allows us to come up with awesome social and technological solutions which we really hope to put out to future partners and collaborators and communities needing solutions.

How does your innovation contribute to building more inclusive societies and empowering local communities?
Interestingly, in the context of sub-Saharan Africa, the provision of basic services is not something that has a good track record. So what we do in our solution is we anchor our energy services and systems and products to actual basic services. So, by that what we mean is we build up microgrids from primary service centres, such as a water treatment facility or a healthcare facility or a business entity needing power. What that has allowed us to do to create a more inclusive society is to anchor and strengthen these basic services, which we see will definitely assist societies in operating in a more inclusive manner for all of its residents.

The other thing that we’ve put ourselves in a very unique position in is the conversion of very present African resources, such as a lot of excess solar power that is not being used. And we allow the conversion to products and services that are much needed by communities and businesses. And for that we really see our solution making an impact in not just giving people electricity but creating societies that function and societies that can work towards their self-determination.

What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs and innovators looking to make a difference in the agritech, green energy or fintech sectors in Africa?
My advice to entrepreneurs would be to be bold in their solution making and think large scale, but do not think that all the ideas came from you. Basically, always try to think of doing enough research to see if someone else somewhere has done what you think of doing and what lessons can be learned from them. But additionally, especially in the African landscape where there were times when the reality was a lot different. So, our grandfathers did not envision to live the life that we are living now. So, really entrepreneurship and innovation is creating the future that other people are finding hard to imagine right now. So for that, if 600 million people don’t have electricity, and it’s hard to imagine bridging that number, but that’s what we have to work towards. And just like we live in a reality that is much better than 60, 70 years ago, the reality in the next 30, 40 years has to be much better than now.

 

What surprises you about this sector?
Interestingly, everyone in the world is trying to come up with a solution for these decarbonisation and global warming issues. And while we came up with ideas which we viewed as novel, it was interesting to note, for example, that these things were already being implemented in many places in Africa, in many places in Europe. So that was almost confirming to us that we are on the right path and that all the major solution holders and the development funds, they are already pouring money into similar solutions than the one we are making. What was also surprising to me about that was the ability of the global community to collaborate on this. We started this solution long before the Milken-Motsepe competition started. However, they literally called the competition for what we were working on.

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