Alliance for Rural Electrification and Vlerick join forces in promoting sustainable energy access for all

Renewable Energy boot camp as first result of collaboration

More than 1 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity. For over 10 years, the Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE) has been globally supporting (social) entrepreneurs wanting to start up or expand clean, renewable and sustainable energy businesses in developing countries. Recently, they have signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Vlerick’s Energy Centre. This knowledge collaboration allows ARE to connect to the huge potential of Vlerick’s young and innovative Masters- and MBA-students, who have the necessary skills to look at the energy access issue with a fresh perspective. Vlerick, in turn, can tap into the extensive ARE network of entrepreneurs, financiers, and public and private partners. As a first concrete result, the students taking part in our brand-new Renewable Energy boot camp will travel to the ARE conference in Lisbon to put their knowledge into action and solve a selection of participating social entrepreneurs’ real-life challenges.

The Alliance for Rural Electrification (ARE) was established to promote clean energy access for poor people outside the European continent: originally, primarily in Africa, but now throughout Latin America and Asia as well. Marcus Wiemann, Executive Director of ARE, explains: “Our global business network wants to close the know-how and technology gap between the various players from the public and private sectors as well as from civil society, in keeping with the overarching idea of enabling local people in rural areas to carry out their own business with decentralised and clean energy. Secondly, it’s our purpose to create at least a level playing field between renewables and fossils. Over time, renewable energy has become competitive thanks to technological advancements and cost reduction. Which makes it fit for developing sustainable business models that can be easily applied. And only then can socio-economic development work. What is needed, is more education and training to support students who are passionate about starting an international career in this market segment.”

Unknown, unloved

In 2016, ARE surpassed 100 Members for the first time – about two thirds of which are European and one third from the rest of the world. These Members are mainly active in the field of productive use based on solar, mini-grids and energy storage technologies, with small hydro, wind and biomass still being under-represented but growing. Quite a considerable number of the new Members are young and innovative start-ups. All these Members have one thing in common, says Marcus: “With their passion and high commitment, they all fit into the context of providing clean rural energy wherever it’s needed – but always according to the local needs and conditions. It’s important to always listen to the locals, as they have the best understanding of what is needed in the community. This makes what we do very exciting. We are at the intersection of sharing knowledge and experience from the traditional energy sector but also having a good understanding of what climate change and other future challenges will bring. This is also what we need to bring in to the young generation.”

In need of fresh ideas

And this is where Vlerick Business School comes in. While representing the whole value chain from academia to project developers to project implemented operators, the vital part for ARE is to bring in young professionals. “Via this collaboration, we are definitely aiming to raise awareness with future practitioners and entrepreneurs who are not yet aware of the possibilities out there. That’s a group we don’t represent sufficiently so far. And in the end, we hope to mobilise them and enable them to take on board the latest knowledge in their future career. Energy is a very traditional and regulated sector in need of new ideas. Their fresh minds can innovate the sector itself to make it even more competitive.”

Leonardo Meeus, professor of Energy at Vlerick Business School, agrees. “The energy sector traditionally attracts people with a technological background. But in this more bottom-up renewable sphere, innovation is key. With this collaboration, we want not only to inspire our students, but also to inspire the more traditional players in Europe that we work with. In the developing world, some initiatives are more innovative than some of the things that we are doing in Europe today. We have established legacy systems, legacy regulation and legacy frameworks that are there for good reasons – but at the same time, they act as a brake on that innovation. So we see that many of the companies we work with also like us to be involved in these kinds of projects, because this innovation will come back to Europe at some point.

Growing interest in social entrepreneurship

With 34 Masters and MBA students having enrolled for the new boot camp in renewable energy, there is clearly no lack of interest in the young generation. “In general, we see a growing interest in social entrepreneurship,” says Vlerick postdoctoral research associate Samson Yemane Hadush, who’s one of the originators of the boot camp. Coming from Ethiopia, he knows all too well the consequences of not having access to electricity. So he the energy access issue is very dear to him. “After having organised four successful global social projects on renewable energy last year, we have now created this boot camp. To get feedback on the boot camp programme, and improve where possible, we reached out to ARE.”

Within the period of just 3 weeks, the students will get in-depth and practical knowledge in setting up a renewable energy business. Various business leaders, associations and experts will interact with the students, inspiring and coaching them to solve real-life business cases. “During the first two weeks they will be working on a case presented by Durabilis, an impact investing company that has been active in many developing countries for over 10 years. They will be asked to develop a bankable business plan for Durabilis to invest in renewable energy in the West African market. The boot camp is designed such that different experts will take them through the various aspects they need to consider – such as the potential of renewables in developing countries, scaling up renewable energy businesses, financing, innovation and technology providers. During the third week, they will travel to Lisbon, where they will attend the annual ARE Energy Access Investment Summit, and, divided into six groups, they will be solving business cases submitted by participating social entrepreneurs. And who knows… once they have gotten a taste of how interesting this sector is, they might even want to go further down this road after graduation – potentially making a transformational difference for one of our planet’s biggest challenges.”

David Lecoque, Policy and Business Development Manager at ARE, concludes: “With this boot camp, Vlerick and ARE are playing the role of intermediates to connect future professionals with current experts and thus form a platform to facilitate the flow and exchange of knowledge and experience. The students will definitely learn a lot, and so will the entrepreneurs. Together, we will help shape these young minds and, hopefully, they will be driving all of this tomorrow.”

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