ICE Commercial Power, a Nigerian-based renewable energy provider, has said its bold mission is to provide electricity to connect the unconnected with solar systems.
This, it said, would be done by providing distributed micro-utilities in underserved communities.
Their resolve is based on the fact that Africa faces an enormous energy challenge, with growing populations and an infrastructure that is often unreliable. Modern renewable power options can bring electricity and development opportunities to areas that have never enjoyed those benefits, spur economic and industrial growth, and support increased growth across the continent.
Nigeria has the largest economy in Africa, and the largest GDP, but according to the World Bank, Nigeria’s electrification rate is only just higher than 55 percent, meaning that nearly half of the over 215 million people in Nigeria do not have access to reliable electricity. This weak electricity infrastructure significantly hampers economic development.
Micro, small and medium businesses are the hardest hit by unreliable power, with self-generation for business operations accounting for most of the business running costs. Many of Nigeria’s SMEs rely on using generators to provide power, but these machines can be unreliable, and the fuel and maintenance costs are high.
According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), Nigerians spend about $14 billion on generators and fuel yearly in order to avoid crippling downtime for their businesses. SMEs play a vital role in driving economic growth and job creation on the continent. Connecting SMEs to alternative energy sources helps to minimize downtime and maximize productivity.
ICE Commercial Power develops solar energy projects that allow small businesses and underserved communities to connect to reliable and affordable clean energy, monitor their energy usage online and better manage their power consumption. Businesses participating in the programme can see exactly how much power they are consuming, and the associated cost.
Before partnering with Microsoft, ICE had deployed an early pilot project as a proof-of-concept for their new model for off-grid electrification at the last-mile. For this work, ICE deployed 20 solar microgrids connecting 170 underserved microbusinesses across three communities. However, the company found that much of their maintenance and operational procedures had several manual steps and required considerable human intervention to ensure a smooth customer experience for connected microbusinesses.
Two challenges emerged
Pre-installation, the ICE team discovered that the process of sourcing prospective microgrid sites and potential customers simultaneously across several target communities requires the collection and analysis of large datasets of hyperlocal geospatial and demographic data. This process can often be very fragmented and cumbersome. Strong community engagement and the accurate surveying of target last-mile communities leads to effective go-to-market strategies to support the deployment of distributed microgrids at scale.
In addition to installing solar panels and battery storage for each microgrid, ICE utilizes IoT-enabled smart meters and inverters to track microgrid performance for remote monitoring and asset management. A centralized cloud solution to remotely track and manage all field-deployed assets is critical for ICE’s operational viability. Furthermore, after installation connected customers were making payment for clean energy using various modes (POS, USSD, mobile bank transfer from several banks). The lack of a centralized platform for collecting payments presented a major operational challenge, especially as ICE looks to scale the model to thousands of connected microbusinesses.
ICE identified the need for a robust cloud platform with associated tools to firstly, process large amounts of go-to-market data and facilitate the transfer of telemetry data from IoT devices deployed in the field, and secondly, for the seamless collection of digital payments from microgrid-connected customers.
Cloud services streamline the business
Partnering with Microsoft has enabled ICE to adopt technology-driven solutions to the major business challenges identified during their pilot phase. Microsoft’s support includes business development, technical support with the Azure platform and go-to-market strategies.
ICE developed Ignite, a hybrid youth digital upskilling fellowship programme to train unemployed youth to collect hyperlocal geospatial and demographic data at scale from underserved last-mile communities. This grassroots approach streamlines the ICE go-to-market strategy while preparing unemployed youth for the future of work. During the programme, Ignite fellows receive digital upskilling and participate in data collection exercises. The data collected is analysed by a custom machine learning algorithm and results in a list of ranked and prioritized project sites for deployment. During the pilot programme for Ignite, ICE successfully leveraged Azure Machine Learning and Artificial Intelligence tools to quickly source and identify over 12,000 small businesses that could benefit from the ICE solution. This machine learning workflow is the technology foundation for the Ignite programme, the key pre-installation activity for ICE.
Post installation, a major technology component of the ICE operation involves utilising cloud-connected solar equipment to help facilitate remote monitoring and maintenance. Additionally, ICE maintains an integrated, Microsoft Azure-based web and mobile platform, which helps facilitate payments processing for customers.
Microsoft Azure and its associated tools and versatile Cloud solution supported ICE’s pre-installation work, implementing an effective data-driven go-to-market strategy. Post-installation, Azure manages the entire portfolio of cloud-connected solar microgrids.
ICE has made a significant impact in the time they have worked with Microsoft. “Our partnership with Microsoft and the access to Microsoft tools and developer teams has been very, very beneficial,” says ICE Commercial Power co-founder, Maxwell Okperi. “A typical example is Microsoft Teams, which allows me access anywhere in the world to reach out to my team and monitor day-to-day operations. With the Azure platform, I can monitor business operations, and I can track all the data I need to track, I can monitor revenue, I can even predict when I will have maintenance callouts,” he comments.
“ICE has partnered with Microsoft to develop a robust cloud and software back-end to support the maintenance and management of deployed solar microgrids in the field. In addition, we are working with Microsoft to scale our youth training and employment efforts in target communities. Our work on the Ignite programme has led to the digital upskilling of 47 youth to canvass three communities and identified 12,885 underserved microbusinesses for deployment,” explains Emmanuel Ekwueme, CEO at ICE Commercial Power.
Payments made simple
ICE developed a USSD workflow to centralize and enable seamless digital payments for clean energy by microgrid-connected microbusinesses. This platform, facilitated by Azure, enables ICE customers to directly track their energy usage and make mobile payments seamlessly with their feature and smart mobile phones.
“This approach significantly simplified our maintenance and operations workflow. Specifically, it has streamlined payment collections from up to 12 different modes of payment to one single, user-friendly USSD workflow. This has also contributed to a notable 48% decrease in recurring maintenance calls that require human intervention,” says Ekwueme.
“The business development support that came as a result of being a Microsoft ATO portfolio company was unmatched,” he adds. “The partnership with Microsoft enables us to leverage a powerful cloud platform to deliver quality service to our customers.”