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Milken-Motsepe Green Energy Prize winner: “Aftrak solves economic and green energy challenges ánd produces a zero carbon energy solution accessible to nearly everyone”

Exclusive interview with Jonathan Wilson, Aftrak project lead, the winners of this year’s Milken-Motsepe Green Energy Prize of $1-million. He is also a lecturer in systems and mechanical engineering at Loughborough University.

Aftrak is a groundbreaking initiative that combines solar microgrids and tailored tractors to empower smallholder farmers across Africa. It aims to significantly increase crop yields and smallholder incomes while providing access to clean, green electricity in rural communities.

Congratulations on winning 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?
We’re obviously thrilled to bits to win the Milken-Motsepe Prize for Green Energy. Our innovation is around a socio-economic solution to both energy access, but also agriculture and food scarcity. So, we have a system that comprises of three main parts. The first one is a microgrid, and we put loads of work into this microgrid. We’ve designed it to be super low cost, really easy to deploy across Africa, really easy to ship and assemble on site. So, it’s a brand new product, but it’s also modular, which allows us to deploy on much smaller scales for small communities without the traditional on cost you would get for a full-scale microgrid deployment. Coupled with that, we’ve developed a micro electric tractor. These are really cool little walk-behind tractor units. They’re all powered by the energy generated by a microgrid. They’ve got lead acid batteries built inside and their own little solar panel on top and two AC outlets on the side that allow people to either take energy home with them at night or to run things like agricultural pumps. The main trick of the tractor is that it’s got a large earth saw on the front. This is a new agricultural technique, but it’s a technique we’ve developed to use a lightweight machine like our mini tractors to dig deep enough—and this is 400 mm down through rock hard solid soil—so that we can do a technique called deep bed farming.

Deep bed farming is a revolutionary agricultural practice developed by Tiyeni in Malawi. It allows them to show a reliable and consistent two-to three-fold increase in farmer yield after year one, which is a huge increase in yield. But that yield is the key to making the whole economic system work, because the yield increase pushes people over the subsistence barrier, which means that they move into profitability and can sell the excess. The excess then provides that income that allows them to purchase the electricity. That income goes back into the microgrid by purchasing electricity, charges the tractor and completes the economic cycle. And it means that we maintain a consistent revenue stream into our system that should make it long-term sustainable and to hit its design life of 30 years plus.

The Aftrak tractor is very cool. What challenges did you encounter during the innovation process?
Aftrak is brand new. It was developed over the last year and a half in response to the Milken-Motsepi Prize for Green Energy, which means we started from absolutely the ground up from the design. So, where we were a year ago, looks nothing like the product that we have today because we’ve done round after round after round of testing. So, we designed it, we thought it through, we got all of our heads together from the whole team. We came up with the right agricultural practice that we thought would work in those conditions in the soil for the practice of deep bed farming. We then built it and we tested it and we got loads of great data. And obviously we had lots of those down days where we’d taken it out, we thought it could work brilliantly and we broke it and then we went back and we redesigned it and we rebuilt it. But realistically, it’s just an ongoing process. And we’ve just worked at it continuously for a year. And now what we have is a really, we think, stable product that is suitable for the conditions in sub-Saharan Africa, suitable for that super dry, super hard soil and to be run purely on electricity.

How will winning the prize programme enable you to further develop and scale your project for greater impact across communities in Africa?
The Milken-Motsepe Prize for Green Energy has been absolutely pivotal for the development of Aftrak. We started this whole development process with an idea, but we just started in response to the prize programme. So this has been developed from scratch from Day 1 of “submit your ideas to the Milken-Motsepe Foundation.” And the support we’ve received all the way through has been absolutely fantastic. We’ve had lots and lots of input from the Milken Institute and the Motsepe Foundation, along with the judges and the mentors they provided. They’ve allowed us to really focus our product and focus our offering as we developed it throughout the programme. This staged approach has really got us to where we are now. With this $1 million prize that we’re very lucky to win and very grateful for, we’ve been accelerating the progress of the rollout of the Aftrak system. So, not only is it going towards the product development to put those production lines in place so that we can have, a consistent, cheap and ready-to-go product in the market, but it’s also funding the rollout of several demonstration sites. So, we were in Malawi just last week, deploying a small microgrid system to a community there and deploying two microelectric tractors, of which we’re now going to be gaining lots of feedback and lots of data over the next several months, which will allow us to improve our product further. This really has been made entirely possible by the Milken-Motsepe Foundation, and also partly due to Innovate UK, that have helped along the way with additional funding. So, we’ve been very lucky to get this kickstart to move our, we think, revolutionary product into the market.

What role do you believe renewable energy solutions like yours play in addressing environmental challenges and promoting economic development?
Energy really is right at the key of economic development. I think an environmental challenge goes beyond just what we think of as CO2 in the environment, global warming, and weather. We think of these as the big environmental challenges, but I think they’re much more personable than that. If you have a community that is struggling to meet a subsistence limit, then that community is no longer thinking about their environmental impact. What they are thinking about instead is how they’re going to make the food this evening, how they’re going to cook, what fuel source they’re going to cook. And you’ll end up with things like charcoal and the readily available sources such as wood. So if we can address this problem on a much rounder scale, so that we’re addressing not only the technical challenge of energy access and the technical challenge of green energy access, but we’re also addressing the economic challenge of how do we pay for it? How do we make it sustainable? Then we have a solution that is scalable. And I think this is really, really key for renewable energy technologies. If they’re not financially viable, and financially viable in these lowest economic environments, it means that we won’t be able to scale it and make a meaningful global impact with green energy. So this is why we think we’ve got a bit of a secret sauce, because we think we can do both the economic challenge coupled with the green energy challenge and produce a zero carbon energy solution accessible to nearly everyone.

Would you say it contributes to building more inclusive societies and empowering local communities?
Our system has community at the core of it. It’s a system that essentially creates micro microgrids. So, these are microgrids that are a lot smaller than traditional microgrids. A traditional microgrid might have 80 to 100 kilowatts of panels, which would take up the size sort of half of football field. With those size systems, you’re connecting hundreds of homes, and in that environment, people can’t know each other, can’t understand that the impact they’re using in terms of their energy usage is going to affect their neighbours. Whereas our systems being a modular microgrid is designed to work with much smaller communities: homes from sort of six to 15. In these scenarios, the community can know each other. So the community can collaborate, get involved in the installation in the management and the community can get involved in the upkeep, which means that we build this societal and communal feeling around the access to energy. And so the initial sites that we’re looking for have been very, very focused on finding good communities that will work together when implementing the Aftrak product.

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?
Entrepreneur is a word that’s, I think, tossed around quite a lot, but it can mean a wide range of different people. In my experience, and my experience is as a slightly geeky engineer who likes to create new technologies, solve problems, fix things, make things, design new things. My experience is that you can have a great idea and you can do lots of things to push your idea forward, you can turn it to prototypes, you can turn it to products, but somewhere along those lines you will come to a jumping off point. That one sort of moment where you suddenly have an opportunity that will allow you to take your idea, your concept, your sketch, whatever stage you’re at, and turn it into reality. And one of those jumping off points we’ve had very recently with the Milken-Motsepe Prize for Green Energy. With winning the prize, we founded the Aftrak company. We’ve turned it from a team into a limited company, and we’re now starting to make these things on a commercial scale. And that is a big leap of faith on our part. It’s a leap of faith that we’re really confident with, because we believe in our product. But it’s that sort of jumping off point that I think comes along once in the life of a project technology. And you’ve just got to be ready to seize it and to move on with it.

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