East Africa's clean energy boom
Africa is very much in the firing line when it comes to climate change so the recently adopted Paris Agreement – where developed and developing countries alike are required to limit their carbon emissions to keep the global temperature increase to below two degrees celsius – is positive news, although the devil is still in the detail.
The continent’s vast untapped potential when it comes to renewable energy is a hugely significant resource that could bring clean power cost-effectively to many of the estimated 585 million people that the International Energy Agency (IEA) believes are currently living without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Energy access improves living standards, especially for women, and also creates income opportunities boosting economic growth.
Even though the national grid is expanding in many countries within Africa, many people are still ‘beyond the grid’ and so not in reach or can’t afford to connect. Off-grid solutions are therefore crucial in meeting people’s energy needs, particularly electricity. One of the major off-grid options from renewable resources is through solar. There’s an enormous potential market because of the amount of money that people spend on fuels like kerosene – which is dirty, smoky and dangerous - for light and heat. In 2014, according to the IEA, the off-grid population in sub-Saharan Africa spent $14 billion on lighting alone. In addition, over the last 10 years we have seen a remarkable drop in the cost of renewable energy technologies. Solar photo voltaic (PV) is a sixth of the cost of what it was in 2007, battery costs have more than halved and huge improvements in energy efficiency technologies, such as LED bulbs, are allowing that power to go much further.
In recent years, East Africa has emerged as a hotbed of creative solutions to meeting people’s energy needs where the nexus between clean energy and mobile-based technology is helping to transform whole communities, including in very rural areas.
In Kenya, where around 80 percent of the population lacks access to electricity, 2015 Ashden Award winner SteamaCo is using software and hardware developments to bring the benefits of clean energy to off-grid customers through solar powered micro-grids. They use a cloud-based remote metering and payments system which monitors energy use, lets the users pay for power using their mobile phones, and quickly troubleshoots any problems. The micro-grids work like mini power stations for each village, supplying enough energy to run small businesses, as well as power TVs, radios and bright lights in the home.
Consumer credit to help customers purchase energy products is critical too, especially for those living in rural areas. Off Grid Electric (a company based in Tanzania) uses mobile money to sell solar power as a daily service to off grid homes at an affordable price through its consumer brand Zola. Their pay-as-you-go service is tailored to user needs, with flexible payments, opportunity to change service level, and excellent support from a customer care team and local agents, as well as a sophisticated app-based customer registration and product tracking system.
In addition to households, the small and medium sized clean energy enterprises that are bringing huge social and economic benefits to off-grid communities in East Africa need to be able to access the appropriate finance to enable them to scale up and reach many more millions. Investment in the sector has grown significantly in recent years, but lack of finance is still a major constraint. Commercial banks and investors still see solar businesses as risky but interesting models are beginning to emerge.
Tanzanian-based SunFunder – who won the 2016 Ashden Award for Innovative Finance - fill the gap of debt-financing for off-grid solar companies, by bringing together investors and a carefully selected portfolio of solar businesses. So far the company has invested $13.8 million in Africa and Asia and is being supported by Ashden to grow their work on the back of them closing a $21m deal for their ‘Beyond the Grid Solar Fund’ which will see them expand to new regions including Asia and Central/South America.
Kenya and Tanzania have been big players in the solar market in Africa up until now because of the combination of an emerging supportive policy environment, political will, growth of private sector, and innovation around mobile money services. Rwanda is also currently somewhere to watch because the government’s energy policy is displaying joined up thinking about which parts of the country are or can be grid-connected and which are beyond the grid. There is no reason that off-grid and grid energy have to compete. In many countries demand for electricity is outstripping supply so there is scope for a variety of solutions – what’s crucial is that those solutions are as sustainable and low carbon as can be.
Kavita Rai is the International Programmes Manager for Ashden. Ashden is a registered charity that champions and supports leaders in sustainable energy to accelerate the transition to a low-carbon world.
Automation of repetitive tasks leads to higher value work
Two-thirds of global office workers feel they are constantly doing the same tasks over and over again. That’s according to a new study (2021 Office Worker Survey) from automation software company UiPath.
Whether emailing, inputting data, or scheduling calls and meetings, the majority of those surveyed said they waste on average four and a half hours a week on time-consuming tasks that they think could be automated.
Not only is the undertaking of such repetitious and mundane tasks a waste of time for employees, and therefore for businesses, but it can also have a negative impact on employees’ motivation and productivity. And the research backs this up with more than half (58%) of those surveyed saying that undertaking such repetitive tasks doesn’t allow them to be as creative as they’d like to be.
“When repetitive, unrewarding tasks are handled by people, it takes time and this can cause delays and reduce both employee and customer satisfaction,” Gavin Mee, Managing Director of UiPath Northern Europe tells Business Chief. “Repetitive tasks can also be tedious, which often leads to stress and an increased likelihood to leave a job.”
And these tasks exist at all levels within an organisation, right up to executive level, where there are “small daily tasks that can be automated, such as scheduling, logging onto systems and creating reports”, adds Mee.
Automation can free employees to focus on higher value work
By automating some or all of these repetitive tasks, employees at whatever level of the organisation are freed up to focus on meaningful work that is creative, collaborative and strategic, something that will not only help them feel more engaged, but also benefit the organisation.
“Automation can free people to do more engaging, rewarding and higher value work,” says Mee, highlighting that 68% of global workers believe automation will make them more productive and 60% of executives agree that automation will enable people to focus on more strategic work. “Importantly, 57% of executives also say that automation increases employee engagement, all important factors to achieving business objectives.”
These aren’t the only benefits, however. One of the problems with employees doing some of these repetitive tasks manually is that “people are fallible and make mistakes”, says Mee, whereas automation boosts accuracy and reduces manual errors by 57%, according to Forrester Research. Compliance is also improved, according to 92% of global organisations.
Repetitive tasks that can be automated
Any repetitive process can be automated, Mee explains, from paying invoices to dealing with enquiries, or authorising documents and managing insurance claims. “The process will vary from business to business, but office workers have identified and created software robots to assist with thousands of common tasks they want automated.”
These include inputting data or creating data sets, a time-consuming task that 59% of those surveyed globally said was the task they would most like to automate, with scheduling of calls and meetings (57%) and sending template or reminder emails (60%) also top of the automation list. Far fewer believed, however, that tasks such as liaising with their team or customers could be automated, illustrating the higher value of such tasks.
“By employing software robots to undertake such tasks, they can be handled much more quickly,” adds Mee pointing to OTP Bank Romania, which during the pandemic used an automation to process requests to postpone bank loan instalments. “This reduced the processing time of a single request from 10 minutes to 20 seconds, allowing the bank to cope with a 125% increase in the number of calls received by call centre agents.”
Mee says: “Automation accelerates digital transformation, according to 63% of global executives. It also drives major cost savings and improves business metrics, and because software robots can ramp-up quickly to meet spikes in demand, it improves resilience.
Five business areas that can be automated
Mee outlines five business areas where automation can really make a difference.
- Contact centres Whether a customer seeks help online, in-store or with an agent, the entire customer service journey can be automated – from initial interaction to reaching a satisfying outcome
- Finance and accounting Automation enables firms to manage tasks such as invoice processing, ensuring accuracy and preventing mistakes
- Human resources Automations can be used across the HR team to manage things like payroll, assessing job candidates, and on-boarding
- IT IT teams are often swamped in daily activity like on-boarding or off-boarding employees. Deploying virtual machines, provisioning, configuring, and maintaining infrastructure. These tasks are ideal for automation
- Legal There are many important administrative tasks undertaken by legal teams that can be automated. Often, legal professionals are creating their own robots to help them manage this work. In legal and compliance processes, that means attorneys and paralegals can respond more quickly to increasing demands from clients and internal stakeholders. Robots don’t store data, and the data they use is encrypted in transit and at rest, which improves risk profiling and compliance.
“To embark on an automation journey, organisations need to create a Centre of Excellence in which technical expertise is fostered,” explains Mee. “This group of experts can begin automating processes quickly to show return on investment and gain buy-in. This effort leads to greater interest from within the organisation, which often kick-starts a strategic focus on embedding automation.”