“A month of entrepreneurship in Africa”

Students use FlexGrids to provide Malian village with solar energy

In May and June, students Fabrice Verhaert and Stijn Van der Putten spent a month in Mali where, together with GreenVentures, they installed solar energy-based mini grids or ‘FlexGrids’. What began with fine-tuning a financial plan led to an educational path of social, international and innovative enterpreneurship. Recognition soon followed, in the form of substantial European financing for FlexGrid on the one hand and the first Soudal Award for Social Entrepreneurship on the other.

GreenVentures FlexGrids

How did the FlexGrid project get off the ground?

Fabrice: “As Masters students in International Management & Strategy, it's logical that we need to do an international in-company project. During the organisation of the energy boot camp earlier this year, energy professor Leonardo Meeus and researcher Samson Hadush put us in contact with Servaas Van Den Noortgate and Stefaan Debref from GreenVentures. And it clicked.”

Stijn: “Servaas and Stefaan are two highly motivated social entrepreneurs. They immediately regarded us as true partners in this project, which was very cool. Their business case was well put together but their financial plan was extremely conceptual. In order to attract extra funds, it needed to provide more concrete answers to questions from potential investors: what if we start to install FlexGrids in other villages? What are the effects of variables such as kWh, purchase price or wages? One part of the project involved adding these simulations. However, we both felt it was important for us to get our hands and feet dirty on location for our in-company project.”

“We both felt it was important for us to get our hands and feet dirty on location for our in-company project.”

So you went to Mali for a pilot project…

Fabrice: “Yes, after all you do want to find out whether your plans will actually work in practice. Stefaan supervised us during the first week, but then it was down to us. Two greenhorns alone in a country where logistics are an absolute disaster. (grinning)”

Stijn (nodding): “And that wasn't the only thing. There is a completely different concept of ‘time’ in Africa. Everyone turns up late, or not at all. Africans want to keep their minds clear: doing one thing at a time and keeping their heads clear as a result is seen as a right. They don't live from day to day, but from one half of the day to the next. In the beginning we were very frustrated, but we quickly realised that we couldn't impose our own ways of thinking and working. So we adapted our own approach instead: while we were waiting, we spent time refining our model.”   

Fabrice Verhaert and Stijn Van der Putten
Fabrice Verhaert and Stijn Van der Putten

A model which landed you a nice European start-up loan for GreenVentures.

Stijn: “Yep. We presented our plan to the European funding body ElectriFi and were awarded a grant of 100,000 euros.”
How did this African adventure affect you?

Fabrice: “Seeing the African attitude to life has made us more aware of our own approach. Not that we've become less ambitious, on the contrary. We just have a clearer idea of the stress that this ambition will sometimes involve. That realisation alone has enriched our lives enormously.”

FlexGrid = electricity from smart boxes

FlexGrid is a project by GreenVentures, which has already installed a total of 250 megawatts of renewable projects all over the world. “FlexGrid allows us to adopt a bottom-up approach to satisfying the demand for electricity in isolated rural areas of Africa which can’t be connected to a medium or high-voltage grid”, explains Stefaan Debref. “FlexGrid is best compared with a series of coolboxes which communicate with each other by means of artificial intelligence (‘swarm intelligence’). There is no main box; all the boxes observe and pass on the electricity supply in accordance with the requirements. The other boxes also take over if one drops out. And thanks to the simple ‘plug & play’ system, the installation doesn't require any major engineering work either.”

‘Pay as you consume’
FlexGrid also ties in perfectly with the African mentality. Servaas Van Den Noortgate: “70 to 80% of Africans can't afford a regular electricity supply. FlexGrid allows them to buy electricity in accordance with their needs: the ‘pay as you consume’ principle. At the same time, they are learning how electricity can improve their lives: it allows them to do things like store food for longer, use electric sewing machines and go outside safely after 7 pm without falling over in the dark.”  

The Soudal Award for Social Entrepreneurship which will be granted annually from now on, is an initiative by the Forum for Social Entrepreneurship. Apart from Professor Hans Crijns (Vlerick Business School) and Professor Leonardo Meeus (Vlerick Business School), the jury consisted of iGMO-members Herman Van de Velde (Van de Velde), Jacques Delfosse (DTO), Peter Garré (Bopro), Dirk Vyncke (Vyncke) and Thomas Allaert (Allaert Aluminium).

Alongside the winning FlexGrid project, our students developed Global Social Projects in collaboration with other social entrepreneurs. All of these projects have a sustainable social and/or ecological purpose.

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