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Negawatt Challenge Sparks Innovation in Nairobi

April 15, 2015

Photo: @iBizAfrica-Strathmore University

Story Highlights
  • In March, more than 80 participants in Nairobi brainstormed to design creative solutions to the city’s energy challenges
  • Nairobi joined the first phase of the Negawatt Challenge along with Accra (Ghana), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil)
  • The event aimed to introduce the local community to the range of technological options on the market that could be relevant to the energy sector

Technology solutions have to be created with the user in mind – especially those that aim to address energy efficiency, given the importance of behavior change in altering consumption patterns. This was one of the driving principles behind a recent competition in Nairobi, Kenya.

For a weekend, as part of the Negawatt Challenge, over 80 participants in Nairobi brainstormed to design creative solutions to the city’s energy challenges. The Negawatt Challenge is an international competition methodology pioneered by the World Bank. The objective is to inspire cities across the globe to innovate around urban energy efficiency challenges.

Nairobi joined the first phase of the initiative along with Accra (Ghana), Dar es Salaam (Tanzania), and Rio de Janeiro (Brazil).

All of these cities are rapidly urbanizing and growing capitals where increasing demand for energy is putting additional pressure on public service delivery and reliable access to electricity. Local governments are looking at mainstreaming green growth through energy efficiency as an opportunity,” explained Anna Lerner, a World Bank ICT Innovation and Energy Specialist and co-Task Team Leader of the Negawatt Challenge. “Furthermore, all of these cities have vibrant technology hubs that are home to incredible local talent as evidenced by a number of tech inventions. We want to channel this creativity towards innovation at the intersection of energy and ICT.”

In Nairobi, the World Bank has partnered with @iBizAfrica-Strathmore University and iHub, two Nairobi-based technology hubs that have nurtured local IT talent.

“Don’t create a solution that has no problem,” said Robert Yawe, founder of Quadrantshift Africa, to an audience of engineers, coders and entrepreneurs at the opening of the Nairobi Negawatt Weekend on March 21. The 14 teams who participated in the event have taken this suggestion to heart: while only four made it to the final stage at the close of the weekend, everyone pitched in to help offer solutions for Nairobi’s current and future energy problems.

Spearheaded by the World Bank, the consortium of partners delivered two events in order to lay the groundwork for the Negawatt Weekend. The first event was an informal energy-focused meetup delivered in partnership with IBM Research Africa. The meetup was attended by over 120 participants. Its objective was to introduce the local community to the range of technological options on the market that could be relevant to the energy sector.

The second event was a collaborative workshop called Challenge Definition Day. The workshop served as a convener for thought leaders in the energy sector from the municipal government, academia, and both the public and private sectors. The objective of the Challenge Definition Day was to build consensus and ownership around the city’s energy challenges. Through a set of facilitated exercises, participants co-created specific challenge statements that then served as the basis of the competition held over Negawatt Weekend.  

As a result, 14 challenge statements were identified under the themes of:

  • Energy audits and target recommendations for energy saving;
  • Demand reduction through behavioral change; and
  • Lack of reliable electricity and frequent power outages.

These challenges were then revisited during a second meetup sponsored by National Instruments (NI). The meetup involved a demonstration (by NI and Gearbox) on how to utilize hardware and software technologies to solve relevant urban energy efficiency challenges.

The Negawatt methodology is built upon the notions that the best solutions to existing challenges are the outcomes of informed problem solving and require input from all relevant stakeholders. Solutions are more effective and long lasting if they: leverage access to information and data; foster knowledge sharing and participation among all key stakeholders; provide skills and knowledge building, training, and education; and leverage technology as an enabler. Challenge competitions as a catalyst are an effective way of leveraging local and global talent to work collaboratively toward a shared vision.

The Negawatt Weekend operationalized the statements devised during Challenge Definition Day. On Saturday, participants were introduced to the challenges and the energy efficiency themes, followed by an all-night “hackathon” to beat the Sunday afternoon deadline, when they were required to start presenting their ideas and early prototypes to a panel of eight expert judges.

Over the course of the weekend, participants were guided by expert mentors who advised and coached them on business modeling and technical prototype development, ensuring that the solutions which were surfaced had a unique value proposition, are technically feasible and practically implementable.

The winning teams that advanced to next stage of the competition include Plugin, WattSaver, Angaza and Wezesha Huduma. Here are their ideas:

  • Plugin: Improve energy consumption patterns by collecting data on user’s electricity consumption, which is then relayed to a mobile app that analyzes usage patterns. Problem statement: Lack of personalized energy audit to guide users on tailored energy savings.
  • Angaza (Kiswahili for “illuminate”): Provide a hardware solution that allows usage of solar energy in small bits by many users, instead of provision of a bulk and costly solution to a single user. The device also manages and monitors users’ energy consumption. Problem statement: Existing solar systems are expensive for low-income urban dwellers.
  • Watt Saver: Reduce power consumption by eliminating standby energy losses in fully charged plugged-in gadgets that are not in use at a particular time. These gadgets include phones, cameras, laptops, power banks, Bluetooth devices, and tablets. Problem statement: Energy inefficiencies leading to loss of power through standby energy appliances resulting to high power losses.
  • Wezesha Huduma (Swahili for “enabling service”): Provide biogas and solar energy to slum dwellers at reduced cost by incorporating affordable and efficient technologies that facilitate production, management and distribution of biogas and solar energy. Problem statement: Lack of affordable alternative sources of energy.

Photo: @iBizAfrica-Strathmore University

What comes next?

Unlike hackathons or other similar challenge competitions, the Negawatt methodology goes beyond the competition event by investing in the creation of a persistent energy-ICT innovation ecosystem. As such, it will provide the four teams with a targeted business, technical, marketing, and communications training for an initial period of four weeks and then continue to strengthen the energy startup community through a series of engagements.

National Instruments (NI) and Amazon are two key partners in this undertaking. NI is offering selected teams access to its development tools, technical mentorship and training, as well as providing technical consultation for the teams. They will also supply custom integrated hardware and software solutions for the teams, and will assist them with prototype development.

Amazon will provide the teams with up to US$10,000 worth of credits to the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Activate Program, which supports startups with low-cost, easy-to-use infrastructure needed to scale and grow their businesses. 

“Four teams moved to the next round of the Negawatt Challenge competition, but all the teams demonstrated the ability to propose ideas that provide access to data and empower consumers to make smart decisions,” said Rudi Ngnepi, R&D Group Manager at NI and lead for Negawatt Challenge activities in Ghana, Kenya and Tanzania. “I am thrilled about the potential of these ideas and look forward to supporting technology-based ideas through access to National Instruments' products, training, and engaged technical mentors.” 

After the training, only two out of four teams will proceed to the acceleration phase, which will unfold over the summer. During the acceleration phase, these two teams will be provided with additional training and mentorship worth a total of US$10,000.

The challenge competition will culminate in November 2015, when top winners from each of the Negawatt cities will travel to the Smart City World Expo Congress in Barcelona. There they will meet their peers from the other challenge countries, as well as winners of the Negawatt online competition, which is managed by the MIT Climate CoLab and open to teams worldwide.

The teams will also be introduced to some of the leading Korean expertise in the area of technology development for Green Growth. Teams will then be invited to showcase their solutions to a panel of government representatives from each participating city in order to receive guidance as to whether their solution is scalable in different environments.

In the case of Kenya, @iBizAfrica-Strathmore University and *iHub see Negawatt’s value for Nairobi as critical to establishing energy efficiency as a viable business area for the local IT and technology community. “Little has been done to encourage entrepreneurship and innovation around energy issues faced by Kenya’s cities,” remarked Ms. Gladys Kitony, Programs Manager at *iHub. “The Negawatt challenge is a vital and timely initiative leveraging ICT to tackle local urban energy efficiency challenges.”

The World Bank believes that the Negawatt Challenge, through multi-phase training and mentoring support, can help strengthen the local startup pipeline in participating cities, as well as increase local government support for energy efficiency as an enabler for green growth. The Negawatt Challenge is a methodology directly facilitating engagement between citizens and their government; it helps diffuse innovation in public service delivery by leveraging a competition event to spark new ideas.

The Negawatt Challenge seeks to build on the successes of hackathons and startup weekends by providing long-term investment in participating teams, thereby helping to build thriving communities of urban innovators.

The Negawatt Challenge is organized by the World Bank’s Global Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) Practice, in partnership with @iBizAfrica-Strathmore University and *iHub, NI, Amazon, and the MIT Climate CoLab, a project of the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence. The Korean Green Growth Trust Fund has catalyzed the necessary funding to enable the competition in Nairobi and Accra. The World Bank’s Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP) has provided funding for Rio de Janeiro and the Tanzania Open Data Initiative in Dar es Salaam.