Be a Hero … You have all it takes to solve energy challenges in Accra

Author: Rudi Ngnepi

While most Accra residents were participating in various social activities on a busy Tuesday evening, a dynamic group of people convened at the iSpace Foundation for the National Instruments (NI) Negawatt Challenge Meetup. The day before, on March 2, experts from the public, private, academic, and nonprofit sectors defined Accra’s energy challenge statements during an interactive workshop - Negawatt Challenge Definition Day – organized by iSpace with support from the World Bank’s Information and Communication Technologies Global Practice, NI, and Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology. The meetup was an opportunity to reflect on how the NI technology could be potentially leveraged for tackling demand side energy challenges identified through the workshop.

NI is a Texas-based company that enables engineers and scientists to accelerate discovery, productivity, and innovation through its innovative platform-based approach. I am a  R&D Group Manager in the Global Engineering Services organization and team member of the company’s Planet NI Program which aims to empower engineers in emerging economies through access to NI technology, hence the symbiotic collaboration with the Negawatt Challenge to enable entrepreneurs and experts to solve real-life energy issues through the use of cutting-edge technologies.

iSpace audience is attentively listening to Rudi Ngnepi's opening presentation. Photo credit (all photos in this blog post): Kobe Subramaniam.

iSpace audience is attentively listening to Rudi Ngnepi's opening presentation. Photo credit (all photos in this blog post): Kobe Subramaniam.

EXPERIMENT, FAIL, LEARN, AND REPEAT

To make the meetup more relevant to the local audience, iSpace invited Power World Ltd to kick off the meetup. Power World has been providing power and energy audit-based solutions in Ghana for the past 20 years. In his opening remarks the company’s representative Emmanuel Narhkom shared his thoughts on the state of the energy private sector ecosystem in Ghana and shed the light on the need for continued research in this area. The research, Emmanuel said, would inspire the rise of technology-based solutions that could help companies reduce their power consumption in an intuitive manner.

Emmanuel Narhkom from Power World describes the energy ecosystem in Ghana. Photo credit: Kobe Subramaniam.

Emmanuel Narhkom from Power World describes the energy ecosystem in Ghana. Photo credit: Kobe Subramaniam.

Following Emmanuel, I started off my presentation by immediately challenging the crowd to be innovators and rise up to address Accra’s energy crisis without waiting for big players to intervene. What I have observed in my one week stay in Ghana, is that Ghanaians, similarly to others living in Africa, tend to reward and recognize Western-based innovations, such as wearable technologies, while ignoring practical solutions produced locally. It is my firm belief that every innovator who attended the meetup has the same aspirations as their peers in the West, and by now s/he had demonstrated an ability to solve problems through the release of several successful mobile and web applications. There is, however, a technology access gap that needs to be bridged: integrated hardware and software solutions that are capable of addressing energy challenges in a way that mobile or software-only solutions simply cannot address are often unavailable to African techies.

Rudi Ngnepi explains the genesis of startups. Photo credit: Kobe Subramaniam.

Rudi Ngnepi explains the genesis of startups. Photo credit: Kobe Subramaniam.

Successful tech startups follow one simple formula: experiment, fail, learn, and repeat. The overall startup process spans beyond the technology piece, with the need for a clear understanding of the problem, value proposition, business mentorship, and financing. The need for rapid prototyping and getting past the first fail is an important part of any successful startup process. With the NI platform, users can follow a graphical programming paradigm and integrate seamlessly with various hardwares. They can prototype rapidly and iteratively – experiment, fail, learn, and repeat - rather than waste time on battling user interfaces and dealing with low-level driver issues.

To illustrate what I was referring to, I called on one audience member named Dayo, whom I had shown a few hours before the meetup one simple NI hardware device. I challenged Dayo to demonstrate to others how one could program a Digilent board without using any manual. Although a software engineer Dayo stood up to my challenge masterfully easy: it took him no more than 15 minutes to set up the device to follow commands.

I, on the other hand, showcased potential models of energy demand-side management using LabVIEW software, which is appropriate for any measurement or control system, and myDAQ device, an affordable, student-ready measurement and instrumentation device.  This software and hardware combination enables seamless data capture from physical assets from substations to home appliances. I demonstrated the ease of capturing information from a mini-grid system – with generation, transmission and distribution components – with the intent of controlling the power distribution within an estate or within individual homes. Though I used a miniature mini-grid system, the concept of “measure, analyze and control” is the basis for how significant improvements can be made in the energy sector. The National Grid UK leveraged this very concept to optimize their investments to meet the energy needs of their constituents.

I believe that the audience was hooked and dazzled with the power of NI products. During the Q&A following my presentation, the audience equipped with new knowledge and insights started asking questions on how they can get access to NI technology, what kind of technical support is available, and how their participation in the Negawatt could bring them closer to the desired technologies. What is key, in my view, is that we have jointly explored how to bridge the gap between energy issues and possible practical solutions, and this is what has generated the utmost value.

With most Accra residents unaware, just the beginning of something special was originating at iSpace. In just one week I would get a very similar impression after my next meetup in Kenya. Continue checking out this blog for more reflections.

Rudi Ngnepi is the R&D group manager in global engineering services at NI and team member of the Planet NI program. Rudi was born in Cameroon and has lived in the United States for 15 years. He is passionate about using technology to solve practical issues in Africa. He is also on the board of directors of The African Leadership Bridge, a non-profit that provides mentorship and educational scholarships to promising young African leaders to study in the United States and then return to Africa to tackle relevant issues and enhance development.