How to scale up sustainable energy: answers from the Ashden Awards

Ros Cook's picture
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21 June 2011

All sorts of sustainable energy initiatives across the world are providing solutions to local energy problems. But how can these be scaled up to reach billions of people and really tackle the big issues of climate change and energy access for all?

This was the question on everyone’s lips at the Ashden Awards conference last week. And there was a lot to learn from the five international finalists. In a series of films, presentations and discussions each finalist shared their experience of creating new technologies, innovative business models and inspirational marketing initiatives to find solutions that benefit the environment and improve livelihoods. And, despite working against a backdrop of financial limitations and unsupportive policy environments, they are all managing to scale up at a fantastic rate.

Ghanaian company Toyola — winner of the International Gold Award — is facing high demand for their energy-efficient cookstoves. The stoves use a third less charcoal than traditional models, saving households money and providing health benefits. And a loan scheme means that the poorest can buy the product on credit and pay back the cost through the savings they make within just a few months. The metal workers who produce the stoves are always busy — as soon as a batch is shipped another needs to be made. Since 2006, Toyola have sold more than 150,000 stoves — by 2013, they intend to nearly double production and sell a further 140,000, expanding their reach to Benin, Sierra Leone and Nigeria.

[flickr-photo:id=2716275181, size=m, class=right, caption=Metal workers at Toyola pass on their training to others to build capacity. (Credit: Stephen McGee/E+Co)]

Building a sustainable workforce

One of the barriers to scaling up can be a lack of a trained workforce to cope with growth. Toyola have tackled this with a scheme in which artisans are trained for free on the understanding that they will pass on their training to at least two other people. In fact, we saw in a film excerpt that the scheme reaches a lot further — one artisan spoke of how he had gone far beyond his commitment, training more than 25 other people. CEO of Toyola, Suraj Waheb Ologburu, said he built his business on the knowledge that poor people pay their debts. His strategy appears to be paying off. As Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development said in his opening speech, the very poorest can in fact generate a profit and help businesses to expand their reach.

Gyanesh Pandey, CEO of Husk Power Systems, which provides electricity generated from waste corn husks to rural areas in India, agreed that lack of trained manpower in the rural regions was a big problem. With one of the most ambitious plans presented during the conference — to scale up their business from 65 plants to 2,014 by 2014 — the challenge seems immense. But to support their plans, they have set up an equally ambitious training scheme — the Husk Power Systems University — to create thousands of skilled technicians and managers for their plants. And to bring in extra finance they are linking up with local operating partners who are given stakes in the plants.

[flickr-photo:id=5032915429, size=m, class=left, caption=Husk Power are planning to have 2014 plants up and running by 2014. (Credit: Flickr/Acumen Fund)]

Empowering entrepreneurs

Solar company Tough Stuff are also connecting with rural communities, in Kenya, in an innovative way — by helping entrepreneurs set up their own businesses. They provide the entrepreneurs with training and marketing support to sell Tough Stuff solar products to their community members for a profit, or to set up businesses such as mobile phone charging services using Tough Stuff products. Through these schemes they aim to reach 33 million consumers by 2015. Andrew Tanswell, CEO of the company, believes that the key to their success is their focus on scale. “Each one of us is working to transform the lives of millions and millions of people, and we need to do this in a matter of years, not decades”.

“It will be an exciting future if we can see these kinds of enterprises rolled out on a big scale” said Sarah Butler-Sloss, founder of the awards “but it won’t be an easy task”. In order to encourage these pioneers and those that follow, there needs to be a policy environment that helps them. Each of these examples expands the boundaries of what is possible. But to truly scale up we need to get behind the pioneers and learn from what they are doing so that, as Butler-Sloss ended the day with, “tomorrow those innovators will be mainstream”.

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