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A2EI: Interview with Thomas Gottschalk and Thomas Duveau about their new initiative

On Feb 6 the new "Acceess to Energy Institute" was launched. The drivers and founders of this independant institute are two off-grid-experts, who are well known in the sector as managers of mobisol, one of the leading PAYG-companies: Founder and CEO Thomas Gottschalk (TG) and Thomas Duveau, former Chief Strategic Officer (TD). Sun-Connect News had the chance to talk with both about their plans and ideas.


SC News: First of all congratulations to the newly founded start-up "Access to Energy Institute"! Can you briefly explain what it is all about and, above all, why you see a need in the industry here?

TG: The A2EI is the first independent, non-for-profit, collaborative R&D platform for the offgrid industry. The goal is to deliver solar solutions for productive use and income generating appliances for all those millions of SMEs and small scale farmers that are still relying on bad grids and small generators.

These products have not been delivered by the (commercial solar offgrid) sector yet, partly because the focus is on households, partly because the business models are not yet well understood. A sector busy with generating returns is therefore shying away from the – arguably complex – task to come up with standalone solar systems capable of running small SMEs and empowering small scale agriculture.

We believe it can be done, in a shielded environment, by working together with other players (rather than only competing against each other) and most importantly by sharing the results with the whole industry in an open access manner.

We are inviting entrepreneurs and inventors from around to globe to bring their service and product ideas from prototyping/ideation into beta-phase. The A2EI has market research, consumer feedback/satisfaction and tech development resources in Arusha (and Berlin) to support the market testing and evolution. On top of this, we are having a budget to support the early hours of development to ensure, that all focus of the entrepreneur/inventor can be put into the innovation and is not diluted by fundraising non-sense. We will have an application form online by Q3 2019, for now we have handpicked a handful of ideas, one being a decentralized thresher, which is increasing farming productivity by factor 40.


SC News: Can you illustrate the Institute's work with a concrete example?

TD: Then let's talk about the "generator killer": There are - in Nigeria alone - between 15 and 20 million small generators of 2kW or less. They are used to substitute for the either non existing or deficient grid (bad grid).Each of the generators typically run lights, TVs, ventilators, all of which could be powered by a medium sized solar system. Each generator also needs approximately 4 to 5 liters of fuel a day. So around 80 million liters of fuel wasted every day (over 210.000 tons CO2 a day…more than 70 million tons CO2 a year, for Nigeria alone)

Developing a “generator killer” solar system is a declared priority at A2EI. It will be cleaner (of course) than a generator and if the running costs can be made cheaper than an equivalent generators it should gradually displace all generators, not only in Nigeria.

We all know this is both a pretty ambitious if not crazy goal and certainly not trivial. A for profit company would probably find it difficult to “bet” on this project. The A2EI is in a much better position. Success will depend on cooperation with all the stakeholders who think the project is worth supporting. In my view, this is probably the boldest thing I’ve had the pleasure to be associated with.


SC News: Both of you have been entrepreneurially active in the off-grid sector for years. So, how come you're setting up a non-profit institute? Is that also a statement that an exclusively profit-oriented approach should be supplemented?

TG: I feel that the A2E sector is currently getting out of a hectic state and as a CEO of one of the for-profit (ad)ventures, you are extremely busy with your shareholders and investors and the one trizillion issues which are popping up every hour. Real innovation needs a focused mind, trust, resources and the possibility to make bold decision which might fail. Nobody could justify to be too bold and risk the existence of a mobisol-like organization and the roughly 1000 employees and freelancers who make a living from the day-to-day business. So I think its the logical step to have an entity which is company agnostic, open for the whole sector, which is allowed to fail...I think this will bring the next level of productive use appliances to the millions of customers which are waiting for them today.

TD: Investors are seeking returns. Which in turn will lead the commercial companies that they invested in to go for the (relatively) low hanging fruits. Not that there are too many in the challenging offgrid solar sector. The concentration of activities around cash sales pico systems and solar home systems up to 200Wp seems to confirm the thesis that scaling in existing fields in order to achieve economies of scale is the preferred strategy of most of the leading companies in the space. But who will bring the solutions for productive use solar machines and appliances?

Demand is without a doubt very high and real. Yet, there is an obvious gap between large SHS (200Wp) and the smallest microgrids (starting around 2kWp). And no standalone solution capable of replacing a small genset seems to have emerged. And understandanbly so. Business models are yet unproven. R&D expensive. Which is why we believe the A2EI is a great complement to the for profit R&D sector.


SC News: To be successful, the institute must be independent. To ensure this, you both will leave mobisol. Thomas Gottschalk says very nicely that he now exchanges the yellow cap for the pink one. What was your personal motivation to exchange the "yellow startup" for the pink one?

TD: I guess a certain idealism has brought me to the energy access sector. And the possibility to work on BIG challenges. That’s how it felt in 2012/2013, when frankly, nobody was really thinking of returns. The non-for-profit approach of the A2EI is a luxury in that an ROI is not at the center of the planning. We also have the luxury to concentrate on a few topics, go deeper in the thinking, experiment more, which you rarely have in a commercial venture. Thanks to the trust of the IKEA, DOEN and Good Energies Foundations, as well as FMO. Also, I sense that working together, which has not been the rule in the industry, will yield much better results than if we continued to try alone. Our collective experience, the collective mistakes we did over the last years are an incredible resource that I believe we can best leverage together. I want to work „with“ my peers and friends, not „against“ them and hope that the invitation to do so that we extend through the A2EI will be accepted. Responses have been very positive so far. I am optimistic that in 6 to 12 months time, we will be able to show that we can more jointly.  

TG: One should always focus on what one can do best... running and managing a multi-national sales organization on the African continent with a R&D department is not my strength (and interest). Innovation and entrepreneurship is what I can do and want to foster. So back to the roots and taking the many buckets full of learnings and share them with the entrepreneurs and inventors which we will host at A2EI to support them to keep more hair and avoid the one and other pitfall... 


SC News: Many in the industry are irritated because they believe that Mobisol is hard to imagine without you. Surely there are already plans for Mobisol's future. Can you say something about that?

TG: Mobisol, as nearly all other companies in the sector, is in a state of maturity, where there is need for an experienced manager, who lives close to where the customers live. Our products are solid. Our innovation and experience of the last (nearly) decade is finally paying off, which means, that it is now about fully focusing on the fine tuning of the last mile. Just looking good and having some sense for humor is just not sufficient anymore. I have full trust, that the Mobisol team and shareholders will steer Mobisol further in the right direction to plug in the world. 


The questions were asked by Harald Schützeichel.