David Achi, Director, AD Solar Entreprise
Location: Abidjan, Ivory Coast
“Ivorians can now access life”
Running a business in Ivory Coast is not easy, much less a solar company. David Achi trained over 1,000 technicians via a company he created in Reims – “the capital of champagne!” – in 2010. Achi also taught engineering at a French university, and has also trained Chadians, Martiniquais and Cameroonians. A 2011 visit to see his social worker father on his farm in Ivory Coast ended up in a permanent move home. On this trip, Achi found subsidies to electrify a welfare organisation for young single parents that his father ran. The solar system made it easier to reach the small well at the bottom of the hill. “We wanted to help people,” he says. “I want to help my country develop its renewable energy systems.”
Just under 30% of Ivorians living in rural areas do not have access to electricity; nationally, over half the population of 23 million has access. Ivory Coast also supplies electricity to neighbouring countries. “At that time, there were similar companies out there, but which lacked people with technical skills.” AD Solar was registered officially in 2014, managing installations with a wide network of technicians and engineers. AD Solar broke even in its second year.
By Achi’s accounts, the company did not have auspicious beginnings – he says it was “very difficult”, particularly because he doesn’t believe that solar is cheaper. “People think solar reduces their energy bills,” he says. “Solar is actually more expensive in Ivory Coast; a shipment can cost double what it might in Europe. The customs duties are 45%.” Ivorians accessing the grid also have to pay upfront for a meter. “We have a system where you have to pay for everything, and then save on it over time. In Africa in general, people find long term investment difficult.”
One solution that he is pursuing is to form an alliance with five or six smaller companies, and create a group purchasing organisation. “7% of solar companies had to close in the last six months,” he says. Many big organisations are coming into Ivory Coast too; “We don’t want to die so quickly!” he laughs. Another solution is to manage a lack of customers, bar wealthier individuals, by working with international organisations, local institutions and NGOs. In 2015, a contract from state regulator Le Conseil du Cafe-Cacao – Ivory Coast is the world’s biggest cocoa producer – led to the electrification of three villages.
Usually, the main utilities in a village get the solar treatment; the village chief’s home, the community centre, some street lights. “Minigrids would power a whole village, but it’s expensive, and is more a state project. Another issue is that people would have to pay to replace solar batteries on what was otherwise an EU-funded project every decade. It’s expensive, so the government is in discussions about this.” The Ivory Coast plans to build a 25MW solar PV plant in the north of the country. Recently, 7 minigrids were installed by a European company in the north of the country. Achi says it was “impressive” that a fridge was the first thing to be powered in one village. “People being able to drink cold water is a sign of modernity. Cold, fresh water is the new Coca-Cola!” AD Solar’s next strategy will be to distribute mobile solar pumps, to encourage industry and local revenue.
“For Ivorians, charging phones, and having a television, is more important than having light,” says Achi, who believes that rural areas are safer thanks to solar lighting. “People want to be informed about what is happening in the world, to access life, actually.” Ivorians are jovial, says Achi – positive in character, even when life is difficult. It would seem that from Reims to the port city of Abidjan, there is not much of a difference in lifestyle. “African countries are increasing their industry; we see French supermarkets like Carrefour everywhere now. We have good roads. I don’t need to go to France to have the same products!” If anything, Achi hints that he probably wouldn’t miss Ivorian traffic jams.
Nabeelah Shabbir, @lahnabee