Yetu Smart Grids and how they provide access to energy for the people in Sub-Saharan Africa, an interview with CTO Rik Vereecken

Yetu Smart Grids

Written by Tibo Wylein

8 April 2021

Rik Vereecken

Rik Vereecken

CTO Yetu Smart Grids

The number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa is growing substantially and could reach a dazzling 2.7 billion by 2060 according to figures of the Worldbank. Most of these people are in desperate need of energy but just don’t have the access to it. This is where Yetu Smart Grids steps in. To explore and understand the meaning and mission of Yetu we got an interview with the CTO Rik Vereecken.

What is Yetu Smart Grids?

“Yetu” is derived from the Swahili word that translates to “Ours”. And that is exactly what Yetu Energy stands for – our energy, energy that is for the people in the sub-Saharan area, where there’s a growing need for energy.

There are an estimated 600 million Africans who are still living without access to electricity and  Yetu Smart Grids is there to help solve this problem.

The generation of energy has been recognized as one of the most significant ways to reduce energy poverty, which is connected with other human rights regulations. With Yetu Smart Grids, we offer engineering and remote asset management, in such a way that we can really have a large impact on reliable and sustainable energy production and consumption. Today, Yetu Smart Grids is operating in Kenya and in D.R. Congo.

What is the story of the founding of Yetu Smart Grids?

It’s a story of fortunate events. I’m already working for 15 years in the Democratic Republique of Congo as a volunteer, so this means I have quite some experience working in Africa. The work I’m doing over there is mainly for energy systems and water systems.

While byNubian was setting up a new branch around sustainability (which has become RSM Inter-Sustainability) together with RSM Belgium, we did some sessions with an intriguing ad-interim consultant to refine the business case.

After a couple of sessions, we started to talk about the energy challenges in Africa, which happens to be a common interest. Shortly after, the consultant, Thomas establishes a company in the energy sector in Kenya, developing small hydropower plants with local people.

We kept in contact and a year later we met again.   Thomas told us that they needed engineering and software to remotely monitor their power station and manage their grid and they knew byNubian has developed some powerful tools for that. The initial collaboration went so well that we decided to keep combining our forces in a permanent way, offering our joint expertise to others in the energy sector and the result of this is Yetu Smart Grids.

What are the biggest challenges you are facing nowadays?

This depends on which level you mean. In my opinion, the energy problem is a global problem. Most people don’t realize this but in Europe, we also have a lot of problems with energy. We are in the middle of an energy transition which requires that we completely change the way we think about power production and power consumption.

However, the way politicians handle the subject is a bit similar to the story of the Titanic.

This means, there is a captain on board who has no clue where he is going to and the other problem was that at a certain moment she hit an iceberg and sank. This is exactly what is happening to the energy situation in Europe. We are currently not able to handle the issues that are coming at us fast, not in Belgium, not in Europe, and certainly not on a global level.

The good thing is that we have a good idea about where to find the right energy resources. The sub-Sahara region in Africa is one of those places with an enormous potential for renewable energy. At the same time, the demand for energy is growing at an incredible pace. And systems can still be set up the way they should be done. This is one of the main reasons why Yetu wants to be there at this very moment.

What is the connection between Yetu and byNubian?

byNubian is one of the shareholders of Yetu Smart Grids, they own 50% of the company. The other 50% is owned by Hydrobox, which develops small hydro projects in Kenya. So in effect, Yetu Smart Grids is a real joint venture between byNubian in Belgium and Hydrobox in Kenya.

Hydro Power Yetu Energy
Yetu Smart Grids Energy
Hydro Power Yetu Energy

On the Yetu Energy website you are talking about the byNeuron distribution management system, could you explain to us what it does and how is it a solution for Yetu Smart Grids?

With byNubian,  we developed the byNeuron Energy Data Integration Platform and were already active for a long time in building optimization and balancing energy systems.

At first, the interest of Yetu Smart Grids was mainly on the energy production site, but one also has to look at consumption to optimize that production and be in balance.

In Europe, this is not really an issue because it is centrally managed but in Africa producers of electricity have to ensure their production is balanced against consumption or they will run into technical issues. It’s simple physics, you cannot produce more than there is consumed or vice versa.

To do this automatically and efficiently, you need software that balances the production site and the consumption site with smart components in between.

I can really say that when we are talking smart grids here in Europe, it’s quite difficult. This is because there are a lot of legislations that you have to keep in mind. But when you are in Africa, it’s almost a blank sheet. This means we can really go to develop new systems for this. Right now, we can say that there are more smart grids in the sub-Sahara than there are here in Belgium. This knowledge we can reuse again in Europe.

What has been the team’s greatest accomplishment to date?

Depends on which team you mean. When we are talking about Yetu Smart Grids, I think of several things. One of the fantastic things is the people we have there. They are really keen and willing to bring their knowledge to a higher level by studying. This is necessary because the technology that we are using is quite new to them.

I’m not always in Africa to follow up on everything so it’s really important to have such a great team over there.

What we do in Kenya does not only have an impact on energy but also on human rights.

Energy poverty is a very big problem and this also leads to other human rights violations.

By working on energy poverty we make it possible for young people to study in the evening or during the night, we increase their chances to make a good life for themselves.

With Yetu Smart Grids we are managing 3.000 people right now who we provide with reliable energy and who would otherwise have no possibilities to get electricity. Another good thing about this is providing water in the sub-Sahara where it’s really hard to get access to water. When you have energy, you can install pumps in a good way, and with those pumps, you can provide water. And water simply means life!

How do you see the future for Yetu Smart Grids?

Bright!! It’s quite logical, in that sense that with Yetu we really are fulfilling a real purpose. There are different problems. On the one hand, we know that sustainable energy, which is really the way to go, can solve the energy problem. On the other hand, we can also see that there is a lot of energy poverty. What Yetu really wants to do is to combine those two systems. We want to inject a lot of energy into the main grids, so a lot of people can have the benefits of this. But we want to avoid that there is a power station which is only delivering energy to the high voltage system and not to the local community. With Yetu we have to make a profit from the high voltage systems but at the same moment, we want to have a direct impact by providing energy directly to the local community.

I saw on your website you went to Congo for ‘Doctors without vacation’, what will always be with you from that trip?

There are a lot of things I will never forget because working in Africa is quite a culture shock. One of the things that happened was about 2 years ago. There was a little hospital in Mubumbano, this is in the eastern part of Congo which is not really the easiest and safest part place to go.

Our objective there was to see if we could install a solar installation for the project “Jenga Maarifa”, which is Swahili for “building up knowledge”.

When I arrived there for scouting the area, there was a generator running. At first sight, there is nothing special about that, but I also saw that there was almost no consumption. When I asked the doctor why the generator was running while there was no consumption, he answered me that indeed there was consumption. It was a low 400 watt which was used for an oxygen generator. The doctor told me that by tomorrow they will cut the generator. I thought this meant that the people who needed the oxygen were healed. The doctor told me this wasn’t the case. The reality was much sadder. The generator was running for a small girl, not even 12 years old. Her parents didn’t have the possibility to keep paying for the fuel, which is only 2 dollars per liter. This is when I told the doctor that we were going to install solar panels for the small hospital and that they will never have this problem again. If we were not there to provide energy, the child would probably have died.

Is there a way people can help your cause?

Well, Yetu is not an NGO. There is a difference between the work that I’m doing for “doctors without vacation” and the work that I’m doing for Yetu. On the other hand, you can see this as social entrepreneurship, this means we don’t receive any subsidies to create impact and we have to earn our money ourselves but this also means that we empower people.

Yetu Smart Grids is not expecting anything from the people here in Europe to help the situation over there. But what we want to see is that the people of Kenia and Congo take their own life into their own hands. We can provide them with the tools and we provide them with our professional advice. We always think “how can we help those people” but it’s not for sure that they want to be helped in the way we think. They have to do it themselves, we just give them a push in the back. We give them the responsibility!

If you want to learn more about Yetu Smart grids, make sure to visit their website.

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