CleanTech: The urgent need for concerted efforts in its adoption

When it comes to climate change, Uganda has been doing one thing right and that is maintaining a small carbon footprint. According to the information from Our World in Data, 2017 statistics stood at 0.12 tonnes per capita. This is the contribution of a single citizen to carbon emissions. Uganda joins other sub-saharan counterparts including Chad, Niger and Central African Republic whose average footprint is about 0.1 per year. Data indicates this is more than 160 times lower than what the United States of America, Australia and Canada emit. 

To maintain this status, at the United Nations climate conference of 2015, Uganda pledged to reduce its carbon emissions by 22 per cent by the year 2030. With wildfires blazing through the US, heavy rains accompanied by floods sweeping through Europe, temperatures rising, drought, countries more than ever are currently discussing moves to adopt clean technology to mitigate climate change. 

Cleantech has been around but popularised in the last two decades. CNET describes it as a term encompassing the investment asset class, technology, and business sectors which include clean energy, environmental, and sustainable or green, products and services. Cleantech ranges from the use of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, hydro to smart cities, smart agriculture, smart electric grids, transport, sustainable products, services and smart infrastructure. At the end of the day, cleantech not only allows for the regeneration of natural resources, reduces carbon emissions and minimises damage to the environment, it makes everyday life and business convenient, safe and efficient. For governments, the benefits are huge too. 

At this year’s budget reading, for the Financial Year 2021/22 the government allocated Shs1.1 trillion for sustainable energy development.

Speaking on behalf of the Ministry of Energy and Mineral Development (MEMD), the Commissioner of Renewable Energy, Brian Isabirye says the Energy and Mineral Development Sector has consistently ranked among the top five priorities, scoring 9.2 per cent and 8.2 per cent of the total budget for the years 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 financial years, respectively. However, given the wide mandate of the energy sector, there is always a resource enhancement gap.  

Isabirye further says that the road to Cleantech is still long and beset with a few hurdles, some of which include the lack of public awareness on use, importance, socio-economic and environmental benefits that are derivable from Sustainable energy (SE) and its technologies. At the implementation level, there is hesitation towards cleantech due to fear of the high initial (upfront) investment and installation costs of SE equipment. Besides these costs, there is still a lack of sufficient technical skills and institutional capacity. The target users of clean energy technology are mostly found in poor rural communities and issues of affordability still loom.  

There is a light at the end of the tunnel, however, because of an increasing realization that clean energy is a smart investment. Isabirye provides an example of how the contribution of solar with grid connection to the national electricity mix has steadily been growing from zero in 2016, to 60.83 Mega Watts in 2020. In the same period, the use of solar to the overall mix has grown from zero to 4.8 per cent. He clarifies that these statistics, however, do not capture the off-grid and stand-alone home systems. 

Isabirye points out the increasing investment into the clean energy sector from the public and private sectors. 

“The country is witnessing unprecedented impetus for carbon neutrality, with a commitment to enhanced Nationally Determined Contributions. Across public and private sectors, there is growing consensus that clean energy is a win-win solution for building resilient communities, and an engine for jobs,” the commissioner says.

When it comes to the bottlenecks that hinder the development of Cleantech, Isabirye says the ministry is addressing them through the introduction of policy and institutional mechanisms at different levels in Uganda. Government through MEMD is lessening political and regulatory investment risks, instituting energy subsidy transfer and cost reduction measures, piloting and promoting favourable feed-in-tariff policies. It is also providing consistent information, creating awareness about available technologies and establishing and enforcing quality standards for Clean Energy equipment. Tax subsidies and policy incentives such as Value Added Tax and import duty exemptions for solar systems are in place. These incentives have increased the affordability and effective demand of items promoting clean energy, particularly among rural communities.  Through Uganda National Bureau of Standards (UNBS), government is further carrying out sensitization and enforcement of the minimum quality standards which will ensure that products are tested against a baseline level of quality, durability, and truth-in-advertising, hence protecting and building consumer confidence. 

Incorporating technology in the ministry is high on the agenda as well. MEMD is setting plans and actions for leveraging digital technology that will convert analogue information into digital information. The ministry is digitally evolving to support better decision-making, generate better analysis and to automate or control operations intelligently. For example, MEMD is supporting efforts geared at catalysing utilization of digital data for decision making in productive use of clean energy and other renewables. 

Asked whether Uganda will achieve its goal of reducing carbon emissions by 22 per cent, Isabirye expressed confidence in efforts across industries in encouraging climate-smart agriculture through several policies and measures in the energy supply, forestry and wetland sectors.  “Uganda should not only meet but also surpass the target,” he says. 

On the journey towards clean energy and its associated technology, in 2020, The Innovation Village established the Future Lab. Under Future Lab are 10 Labs that incubate solutions in 10 sectors of the industry. Among the Labs under the Future Lab is the Energy Lab which is dedicated to driving innovation. The main objectives for establishing the lab range from building community through stakeholder engagements, education initiatives and networking, to designing innovation programs and unlocking finance for investment opportunities relevant to the sector. 

To achieve this, the Energy Lab works with leading organizations spanning the energy industry and cross-disciplinary experts, to support and create innovative solutions that address challenges affecting the community. 

The Energy Lab identifies problems in the industry and scouts for startups or entrepreneurs that develop technological solutions to solve the identified problems.  In order to build these solutions that suit conditions with limited resources, frugal techniques are leveraged so that they can work in places where the capital, infrastructure or basic resources are scarce.

One of the companies under the support of The Innovation Village in the energy sector, is the fast-growing startup, Ecoplastile. This startup emerged as one of the top winners of the Ninja COVID-19 Response and Recovery challenge, an initiative of Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) in partnership with The Innovation Village and Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. 

 Ecoplastile is a company fighting deforestation through manufacturing construction materials from recycled plastic. The Innovation Village is currently taking Ecoplastile through an incubation programme that will enable it to scale as it launches its commercial production pilot of plastic lumber and roofing tiles products, reducing plastic waste and carbon emissions.

The Future Lab Lead Samantha Niyonsaba says this year, the Energy Lab is focusing on identifying opportunities for scaling startups that are addressing the reduction of carbon emissions especially in light of Uganda’s commitment to the world at the United Nations Climate Conference.

It is through this united front, combining the private sector, innovators, technology and the public sector that we shall maintain the lead in the journey towards an environment with healthy, zero carbon recovery that prevents future threats, creates decent jobs, and unlocks inclusive, sustainable growth that is envisioned by the UN. 

Within the private sector, one of the long term players in the clean energy technology sector is a company called New Energy Nexus. The company’s solution towards promoting clean energy is an accelerator and incubation program for Community Based Organizations (CBOs) to launch sustainable clean energy enterprises to sell household cleantech like cookstoves and solar. Each CBO receives a business startup toolkit comprising clean energy loan financing, capacity building in the form of entrepreneurship training and business mentorship in bookkeeping technology.

The company has a spread of products made with clean technology. They involve solar energy heating and lighting devices, energy-saving cooking ware, eco-friendly water coolers and filters.

The Abundance Team Manager, Marvin Tumusiime says they are further incorporating technology into their company through ENvision Mobile, a book-keeping dashboard. This is to enable CBOs to do bookkeeping for their energy business operations. In this way, they are able to track sales, expenses, inventory and vendors and customers details.

Tumusiime says that while there has been a low uptake of the bookkeeping technology, he believes that with continuous training and sensitization, it will be embraced. Tumusiime further adds that he would like to see a one-stop digital platform that can enable an individual to see the various ways or options they can take to acquire affordable clean energy for their use.

On this most recent budget allocation towards sustainable energy, Tumusiime hopes that the Ministry of Energy can prioritize regulating harmful practices like charcoal use that is compromising the environment and further increasing carbon emissions. Tumusiime also adds, “I hope that there are regulations from the Ministry towards curbing the prevalence of counterfeit products on the market that are cheap, unsustainable.” 

For him, supporting companies that are working on the grassroots to encourage clean energy would go a long way in expanding the use of cleantech.  

While some reports have indicated that Cleantech might not solve the problem quickly, it is a great place to start. Complementing this with other interventions such as tree planting would help. Changing our lifestyles including adopting video conferencing instead of business travel, buying fewer clothes, insulating our houses, building smaller houses, eating less meat, drinking less milk and throwing away less food, would help mitigate climate change. 

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