Interview: The SESA Call For Entrepreneurs & Its Mission & Vision

The Smart Energy Solutions For Africa (SESA) is a collaborative project between the European Union and nine African countries. The nine countries are Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi, Morocco, Namibia, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Nigeria. The SESA Programme aims to boost energy access technologies and business models with a specific focus on business models that are easily scalable, replicable, and generate local opportunities for economic development and social cohesion.

I recently held some interviews with Dr. Oliver Lah (OL) – SESA Technical Coordinator, Technical University Berlin, Elisabeth Biber (EB), Project Manager, Siemens Stiftung, and Dr. Nina Smidt, Managing Director, Siemens Stiftung to find out more about the SESA Call for Entrepreneurs.

Here are some of the highlights from the interviews:

RJK: Please tell us about how the SESA Programme was established, and how the idea, vision, and mission for the program came about?

Dr. Oliver Lah – SESA Technical Coordinator, Technical University Berlin

Dr. Oliver Lah (OL) – SESA Technical Coordinator, Technical University Berlin: SESA emerged from a long-term program that we established following requests from many of our local government partners that we need to showcase viable solutions for key basic services sectors, most notably energy and mobility. The Urban Pathways program, supported by the International Climate Initiative, enabled us to first develop a flagship project on urban electric mobility, called SOLUTIONSplus, and SESA which focuses on energy access. The mission of these projects is to test different innovations for clean energy and mobility solutions and then validate them in different operating environments to enable the transition towards low-carbon, sustainable and inclusive human settlements. We are now taking this further with the institutionalization of these activities in the Urban Living Lab Center, in which we embed the learnings from projects like SESA into curricula in partner universities to support long-term capacity building.

RJK: How were the 9 partner countries chosen from the 54 countries on the continent?

OL: We would have loved to work with all 54 countries in Africa, but while the European Union is very generous with its support, providing 10m EUR to the SESA project, the funds are still finite. So, we had to choose. We selected Ghana, Kenya, Malawi, Morocco, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, and Tanzania to have a diverse mix of geography and socio-economic factors that enables us to validate different energy solutions that can then be replicated across the whole continent.

RJK: Will the second call target the other 5 countries apart from the initial call that had the four countries of Ghana, Malawi, Morocco, and South Africa?

Elisabeth Biber (EB), Project Manager, Siemens Stiftung

Elisabeth Biber (EB), Project Manager, Siemens Stiftung: Yes, we are launching the next SESA Call for Entrepreneurs 2023. The second call will focus on the replication countries in Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda and Tanzania. With this call, we aim to reach beyond to boost the replication of the SESA concepts more widely across Africa.

RJK: Please tell us more about what you were looking for in the last call and what particularly stood out about the 4 selected companies from the 100 applicants?

EB: In the last SESA Call for Entrepreneurs 2022, we were particularly looking for small-to-medium-sized enterprises that were focusing on the productive use of energy solutions to improve energy access and affordability for low-income rural communities in Ghana, Malawi, Morocco and South Africa. What particularly stood out about the four selected companies was their demonstrated success in the energy sector, their technical know-how and their promising business models with a sharing and circular economy approach.

RJK: There was a good number of applications from women — how do you plan to keep growing the contribution from women-led enterprises and ensure more women apply and get involved?

Dr. Nina Smidt, Managing Director, Siemens Stiftung

Dr. Nina Smidt, Managing Director, Siemens Stiftung: Women remain largely underrepresented in clean energy transitions underway worldwide. The SESA Call leveraged social entrepreneurs’ talents, skills, and innovations to not only address climate change but also pave the way for social and economic development in rural areas. Women are at the heart of this transformation. Supporting female-led enterprises enables the inclusion of women more at a climate risk, and in the process accelerates the realization of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals. We are delighted to have two promising women-run businesses amongst the four selected enterprises. Our approach is to reach out to female associations, networks of female entrepreneurs, and partners in the countries. We have adjusted visual language, text and posts to encourage women to apply — ensuring that they feel the call is addressing them. We mostly rely on our local networks in the target countries where word-of-mouth promotion of the call has been most effective.

RJK: Please give us more details about the SESA Incubator Programme and the activities the 4 will be doing, and some of the benefits of the program?

EB: All four selected companies have been invited to join the SESA Incubator Programme run by our SESA project partner Smart Innovation Norway. In a kick-off Meeting, these companies together with Smart Innovation Norway evaluated their specific needs and developed individualized strategies along these main topics: Business Planning & Monitoring, Organisational Development & Financial Transparency, Marketing & Sales, as well as Fundraising & Investment Readiness. Each company will receive a dedicated regional mentor who shall further provide regular support in the above-mentioned topics. Additionally, technical and business expertise from SESA partners will also be provided to the companies in peer-to-peer exchange workshops and on an individual basis.

RJK:  In your view, what is the biggest challenge Africa is facing and what role can programs such as SESA play to help address this?

OL: Several challenges affect the roll-out of clean energy and mobility solutions in Africa. Many solutions such as solar PVs, clean cookstoves, biodigesters, and electric 2- and 3-wheelers are in principle mature, effective, and affordable. But the availability of products and components, regulatory barriers and capacities to implement and operate can slow down take-up. This is why we focus on the building of partnerships and capacities that help provide blueprints for take-up and highlight aspects that need to be adjusted in the policy and business environment.

RJK final thoughts: I really like that the EU funded SESA project aims at ensuring a high level of applicability, replicability, adaptation, and scalability of the selected business solutions. Zoning in on areas and projects that can be replicated locally, regionally and ultimately across the continent will go a long way in meeting its overarching vision of energy access for all. The success of these enterprises will go a long way in helping to stimulate economic growth along with creating jobs and contributing to low-carbon development. I am looking forward to following up on these projects as they progress.

Images courtesy of Siemens Stiftung

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