The story of Marathon is today a well-known one. Around 490 BCE, a Greek messenger, Pheidippides, was sent running from the battleground at Marathon, 26 miles to Athens to announce Persian defeat. It’s a tale looked back on as a) the origins of the modern marathon, and b) a fun piece of trivia that exists firmly in the past thanks to modern communication technology – namely, the telephone and the internet.
Unfortunately, it’s not as firmly locked away as many might think, as I discovered while speaking with Oluwole “Wole” Eweje, CEO and founder of WATT Renewable Corporation (WATT).
“We have a tendency to assume that time moves evenly across all corners of the earth – the same 24-hour clock exists for me as for my brothers overseas. But there are many rural, even urban, communities in emerging economies for whom time has moved much slower, or is fragmented. Sure, some might own phones, but power and internet access are so sparse that they are still in some ways stuck in Ancient Greece, walking tens of kilometer’s to let a friend or family member in a neighbouring village know that someone is sick, or has died or had a baby.”
This is where our conversation starts: with a problem. Wole, who grew up in one such community – Ijebu Ife in Nigeria – learning early on just how wide-reaching the ramifications of a lack of reliable access to electricity could be. As a kid, he would go weeks and months without power, staying up into the late hours of the night trying to do homework or school assignments by the dim light of a lantern. “Even now that seems unreal to me, I have to double-check with my siblings and mum.”
But it was the fact of an overburdened national electricity grid, tasked with providing power to around 100 million people at the time. Today, the population has doubled, and outages are still rampant, with more than 200 widespread blackouts in Nigeria in the past nine years.
Moving to Canada in 2003, he became keenly aware of the life-changing impacts and opportunities inherent in reliable electricity access. “The first day I got there, the power didn’t blink. The second day, again, it didn’t blink. I thought at first it was god’s own power. Then I realised they’d just achieved what we had yet to – reliable electricity. I thought, if they can do it, why can’t we?”
Over time, he channeled this question into a simple yet ambitious mission: to provide consistent power to communities without. This mission turned into a roadmap for the business that would become WATT. The roadmap started with a single priority: electrifying Africa’s telecommunications infrastructure. In this way, they could connect communities, help vulnerable people reach law enforcement, and reduce the dangers inherent in long-distance foot travel.
The solution: Energy-as-a-Service
Of course, the road was never going to be smooth. Finding the right operating model to affordably and consistently reach rural areas has long challenged telecoms providers across the continent.
WATT approached the task with a range of diversified energy generation solutions – from grid-connected systems to full-blown mini grids – and an Energy-as-a-Service business model that allowed them to guide each project from start to finish through hands-on partnerships with individual clients. Most importantly, they pursued Wole’s lifelong interest in the sustainable, affordable opportunities presented by new and evolving renewable energy technologies, including solar, wind and biomass.
They launched their first project in 2018, in Mowe Ibafo, Nigeria. Today, they have 150 sites under management in Africa, with a combined 12 Megawatts of Generating Capacity, and more market share in Nigeria’s continent-leading telecoms sector than any other renewable energy provider.
“Interestingly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, we rolled out more sites during COVID than at any point in our operations. So many people were suddenly working from home and forced to communicate with their loved ones over Zoom or Facebook. Telcos needed reliability.”
Making more money than ever from people buying data than from call credits, telecoms providers swiftly realised that even one hour of downtime where people weren’t able to access the internet was costing them hundreds of thousands of dollars. They needed reliable power pronto, and WATT was on-hand to deliver.
“On top of our industry-leading proprietary solutions and customer service, we found telcos were particularly excited by our pay-as-you-go pricing model, which allows them to pay for power more cost-effectively – the same way it’s done in Canada.”
The impact: environmental, social, economic
WATT’s work has already made a significant positive contribution to local, organisational, national and global environmental targets. With the telecoms industry among the top five highest polluters in Nigeria, using approximately 25 million litres of diesel every month, by cutting providers’ reliance on diesel in half, WATT’s energy solutions are dramatically reducing their carbon emissions. Over time, the environmental and cost savings very quickly stack up. The use of renewable power also reduces the noise pollution associated with generators, bringing communities some greatly enjoyed peace and quiet.
“What’s less quantifiable but personally even more satisfying is the social impact our work is having. Just recently, we finished a project in Gumaka village. Kids now come down to the powered telecoms base every night to meet with friends, chat and do homework under its light. We joke that it’s their equivalent of a ‘downtown’.”
The positive impact on local economies has been similarly swift and visible. By providing power to telecoms base stations, WATT is also helping power the surrounding shops and communities. Businesses benefit from more reliable power, enabling them to make money from a range of new ventures, including selling cold water, TV watching and gaming access, and phone charging stations. These are all things that bring community members together to socialise, as well.
The other piece of the puzzle is security. In unpowered communities, bandits come under cover of night to raid houses and businesses, slipping away unseen before daybreak. The minute a lit-up telecoms base station is established in such a community, its risk level is very quickly downgraded. Not only are people better able to communicate an alert if, when bandits do come, they can actually use the base station as a safe hideout as it is bright and guarded. WATT has consistently observed significantly less banditry in powered communities.
“All our work is about bringing people together and creating a sustainable future. So much of it is driven by the potential I see in the young kids in those communities – who probably remind me of myself – and my knowledge of how reliable power can genuinely change the game. There is so much blank space to replicate these positive impacts in emerging economies around the world.”
The team: intentional recruitment
Like Wole, the entire WATT team is purpose-driven with a targeted skillset.
“We have always been very intentional when it comes to recruitment,” says Wole, explaining the long process they have undergone to identify the right talent as the business has expanded. “We spend a lot of time sitting with [new team members] to help them see and buy into the vision, and to understand how together we can address some of the challenges we’ve identified on the continent.”
Today, WATT employs 75 people across two primary offices – Alberta, Canada, and Abuja, Nigeria – all with a wealth of local and international experience in their separate sectors; be it our operations team, drawn from the very best of the telecoms sector, or our accounting team, many of whom came to us from Big 4 firms.
“Everyone shares this very special feeling that this is where we are meant to be – where our careers have been leading to, knowingly or not. Before I had the vision for WATT clear in my head, I was already being very intentional with the jobs I was applying for back in Canada, working as Project Manager for the Ministry for Mains and Power, as well as for Suncor Energy and North American Construction Group, among others. Some deeper part of me was trying to gain as much experience and knowledge as possible to be able to go back and start working on the challenges I’d identified growing up in Nigeria.
“At the Ministry was the first time I’d been exposed to renewable energy. I was asked to do some research on using renewable energy in the power mix in the provinces. This was around 2004, so it was very expensive. People just couldn’t afford to do it at that time. We parked it and I moved on to oil and gas to get experience in managing big projects. But it sparked something in me. Renewable energy was always on my mind as the future of power from then on.”
With more than 17 years of experience in project management, leadership and engineering under his belt, Wole began to gather experts he had met in the field to talk about some of the challenges facing Africa. He asked whether any would want to join a problem-solving journey. The response was overwhelming. “I was able to narrow it down to some of the best minds in the industry – people who I felt had the right expertise and experience to help design the right solutions.” People like Rotimi Onanuga, WATT’s Board Chairman, with over 30 years’ experience in the global energy industry; or Chidike Ndudim, who was brought over from a 20-year career in industrial and telecoms infrastructure to be General Manager of Operations, following an extensive two-year recruitment process.
Then there was Sherisse Alexander, an experienced fund manager with over 18 years’ experience working in financial services, including negotiating multi-million-dollar deals. Driven by her passion for social impact, Sherisse has jumped head first into helping WATT structure and communicate finance and investment opportunities for current and future projects. “She was almost an exact cookie cutter of the kind of person I was looking to run our investor relations. I was thrilled when she said she was just as excited to join the team as we were to have her.”
The future: a high-growth opportunity
Many investors are still hesitant when it comes to Africa. Concerns surrounding its risk profile – namely, the high inflation rate and volatile valuation of local currency – mean any business worth its dough would need a water-tight risk mitigation strategy.
That was front-of-mind for both Wole and Sherisse building WATT in Africa, which is why they have pursued a 100% risk-transfer strategy – meaning that, on issues like inflation and currency devaluation, the client (i.e. the telecoms provider) ultimately wears the risk. The company also indexes its rates to a steady currency, like the US dollar, and pre-warns clients that if inflation is above a certain level, rates will go up.
With the right risk mitigation strategy in place, all that’s left is room to grow.
“There is so much left to be done and enormous need for WATT’s services in Africa and other emerging economies. It’s exciting and daunting all at once.”
By the first quarter of 2024, WATT plans to have over 1,000 sites under management. By the end of 2024, 1,500.
WATT also has plans to diversify further into financial services, and commercial and industrial (C&I) operations, followed by transportation, housing and agriculture further down the line. “The list of challenges and opportunities we want to address and harness in Africa and other emerging economies is long. Fortunately, the way we’ve designed our Energy-as-a-Service solution is incredibly flexible to a variety of use cases, and our climate-resilient technology makes us uniquely future-proof. I’m excited to see how many high-growth business opportunities reliable connectivity will open up in emerging economies in the years to come, and to be an integral part of that narrative.”
By Bridget McArthur, freelance writer covering energy, financial services and technology
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