GVE Deploys Okra to Overcome Last-Mile Obstacles

A Case Study

GVE Projects Ltd. has energized the rural village of Onono using an Okra IoT mesh-grid

By Otteh Edubio
May 05, 2021

Meet Chris…

…a 28 year old Regional Field Supervisor working for GVE Projects Limited: Nigeria’s largest solar mini-grid DisCo (Distribution Company).

The importance of Chris’ job can not be overstated; he manages off-grid electrification projects in the Southern States of Nigeria and keeps operations running smoothly so that families have reliable electricity, and so that GVE generates revenue. His role was especially noteworthy in GVE’s recent electrification of the rural village of Onono.

Enter GVE

Before moving on, here’s a little background on GVE; with more than 500kW of total installed solar capacity under their belt, powering more than 50k people, GVE is currently leading Nigeria’s off-grid renewable energy transition. What makes GVE even more impressive is their concerted effort towards energizing small under-served communities in remote areas that are unlikely to be reached by national grids any time soon.

The Onono Project

No other community on GVE’s roster embodied the difficulty of energizing remote off-grid communities quite like Onono in Anambra state.

 

The challenges in Onono were 3-fold:

 

1. Households are arranged in small, sparse clusters over a distance of 5km, with about 3-5 households per cluster. In addition, several households did not immediately want to sign up as some households had installed small solar systems or wanted to wait before committing to a connection. Together, these factors made it impractical to power Onono via a typical mini-grid which is – by design – suited to areas with higher household density, and where all households are being connected.

 

2. Physically getting to Onono is a laborious task. This is due its remote location and lack of transportation infrastructure. Like with all remote communities around the world without modern energy services, sending technicians to perform maintenance tasks in Onono is prohibitively expensive and time-consuming. Due to the scheduled nature of typical O&M (operations and maintenance) visits, households that were already using standalone SHS (Solar Home Systems) were waiting 3 months on average to have issues resolved by maintenance staff.

 

3. The business model for households using standalone SHS was to sell EaaS (Energy As A Service) – essentially billing customers per kWh of energy consumed – however many households quickly figured out how to circumvent the metering systems and use power without paying for it.

Onono location on Nigeria map

Despite these challenges, GVE needed a solution – otherwise, the market of communities with similar characteristics, of which there are many, would remain unaddressable. As the search for alternative solutions began, Okra reached out to GVE with the intention of entering the African market, and so GVE agreed to set up a pilot to see if Okra’s mesh-grid technology would rapidly solve their last-mile challenges.

 

This brings us back to Chris. After GVE signed the pilot agreement, Chirs went with an Okra staffer to Onono village and learnt how to retrofit Okra Pods – the building block of Okra mesh-grids – into households that were using standalone SHS’s. Using the Pod’s novel power-sharing feature, 3 clusters were formed from 7 households: a cluster of 4, a cluster of 2 and 1 standalone.

Chris installing a Pod inside a house in Onono village

A cluster of 4 and a standalone house in Onono village

After installing the Pods, Chris used Okra’s Harvest platform to configure each Pod with an energy package that charges households 215 NGN per kWh consumed. Households were also given the option to boost (use more energy above their daily capacity if available within the network) at a rate of 310 NGN per kWh.

Energy packages configured through the Harvest platform

And finally, before departing, Chris trained a LMA (Local Maintenance Agent) on using the Harvest Mobile app – in the native Igbo language – so that they could operate & maintain the mesh-grid network locally. The entire process of travelling to Onono, learning how to deploy Okra’s technology, getting household sign-ups, installation, and onboarding the local maintenance agent, took 4 days.

Chris, the smooth operator

One month after the successful installation, Chris returned to Onono to let the community know that a range of appliances, including blenders, ice-makers and fans, were available for financing through Harvest. He also explained that GVE was planning to scale up the mesh-grid network to an additional 192 households within the village, and beyond.

Chris summarised his thoughts on the Onono pilot so far:

“Instead of spending time on dealing with debugging maintenance issues and organising fixes, I can now focus on elevating the community to utilize productive power and improving their quality of life.”

 

Chris believed the following features of Okra’s technology had alleviated the imposing difficulty of energizing Onono village:

 

Power theft detection

Power theft detection algorithms built into Harvest discouraged people from circumventing energy metering and ensured that GVE was able to bill based on real consumption data.

Average revenue increases when households are held accountable for energy consumption

Power-sharing

Solar and battery power-sharing within Okra networks resulted in increased satisfaction from end-users as they were confident in having power even during periods of bad weather.

A snapshot of network activity (including power sharing) in a single household in Onono village

Advanced remote monitoring & analytics

Chris was able to receive alerts – in his home office – about customer service issues and action them by simply instructing a LMA over the phone. He no longer had to assess anecdotes of the problem and keep households waiting until he physically visited the village to solve their problems.

Chris also generally thought the functionality provided by Harvest made it much easier than before to cooperate with the LMA on maintaining and operating the network. Especially when it came to ensuring energy credit was being toped up, and payments were being made. Chris was able to incentivise the LMA further by tieing part of his compensation to the total revenue collected – this also encouraged the LMA to resolve maintenance issues quickly so that the network performed optimally.

A local maintenance agent managing energy payments through Harvest Mobile

Conclusion

GVE has a track record of deploying the most innovative solutions to reach last mile households, and this is another example with GVE using innovative mesh-grid technology to unlock additional addressable market in areas where traditional solutions don’t apply.

Just under 2 months of the Onono pilot in a nutshell

The preliminary results have led GVE and Okra to agree on expanding the Onono project to an additional 192 households which will also be connected into various clusters, removing the need for a centralised mini-grid because of the peculiar challenges of deploying a centralized mini-grid in Onono community. High revenues and customer satisfaction will be target KPIs for this expansion phase.

 

Let us know your thoughts and questions. If you see the potential for applying this model to unlock other addressable markets, hit the buttons below!

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Otteh is a self-identified, intuitive B-student. He's driven to make a difference for those with the least opportunity by giving them a fighting chance in a world where the disparity is growing at an alarming rate. This is what drove him to do a Masters in Biomedical Engineering, work as an R&D Engineer, and now as the Service Delivery Team Lead at Okra.

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