SmartAustin was first introduced to John Kidenda by a mutual friend, during John’s last trip to Austin. John currently lives in his native Kenya, but he spent almost a decade in the United States, including eight years in Austin. John studied at McCombs, then went on to work for The Advisory Board, in health care analytics; and at Dalberg Global Development Advisors. He recently started work at PowerGen, a growth-stage startup working on microgrids in Kenya. We connected on Skype on a recent Austin morning/Kenyan evening to learn more about John’s new firm and, of course, his connection to Austin.
SA: So, you’re settled back in Kenya and have started the new position?
JK: Yes! I’m in my second week now. I’ve been traveling around several of our company’s locations, getting to know the teams and taking a closer look at our opportunities and challenges. Right now, I’m in our head office in Karen. We also have another site, in Kericho, north of Nairobi, a workshop in the city’s industrial area, where we fabricate our hardware, and a site in Arusha, Tanzania that mostly focuses on the Tanzanian market.
Overall, we have built, and currently manage solar microgrids that serve over 2,000 households spread across Kenya and Tanzania. We expect to have this number grow to over 9,000 households by the end of 2018. Having that number of households will mean that over 45,000 people will be getting power from PowerGen by the end of the year.
At this point, John lifts up his laptop and gives me a tour of a solar array, with accompanying hardware. The CEO of the company happens to pass by as I take a screenshot on Skype.
JK: What you’re seeing is a 3KW power box with a 12KWh battery attached to it. A generator is behind it, for emergency backup. Of course, the array is up on top. At the Kericho site, we’re daisy chaining together 200 household microgrids. We’ve just electrified the second, of five phases, and the five phases are roughly equally divided between the households. We are right in the heart of it, should be finished by September.
I haven’t yet been on that site yet and have been more focused on getting to know the Tanzania team because, despite the scale of the Kericho project, a lot of our independent grids are going to be in Tanzania.
SA: Why are you focused on Tanzania? I’ve understood, from our previous conversations, that the bureaucracy can be quite complex there.
JK: Yes, that’s true. But the advantage, compared to Kenya, is that they have a clear microgrid policy, with standards, procedures in place. In Kenya, similar legislation is stuck in parliament and that makes it a lot more difficult to connect at retail level. Our Kenyan project is therefore taking place on a private estate.
SA: So, part of your work is to scale your Tanzania-focused operation.
JK: Yes, there’s ongoing work to hire Tanzanians who can help us. We have about 40 employees focused on Tanzania at this point. About 1,000 households are connected in Tanzania, across 10 grids. Another 1,200 households will be connected this year. And those are just the ones that we own and operate.
We operate a pay-as-you-go model, enabled with smart meters with connections to cloud servers. People pay with mobile money, which is quite standard around here. The Tanzanian mobile payment market is more fragmented, but we manage to integrate with a broad range of mobile network operators through our relationship with a local mobile money aggregator.
The software development team is focused on collecting data about how power is consumed, how it’s produced, making sure power arrives in time, evaluating why the power went out, and then predicting blackouts. This element is quite similar across all of our sites.
SA: You mentioned that PowerGen is developing a few partnerships.
JK: Yes, we have smart meter partnerships with two minigrid focused smart meter providers: SteamaCo and Spark Meter. We also have ongoing conversations with a variety of other potential software partners.
SA: You had some interesting insights about blockchain when we spoke in Austin. Can we touch on those, briefly?
JK: Sure, the key thought there is that we really don’t think the initial applications will be consumer-facing. Consumers are comfortable with their current mobile payment systems, but there’s lots of opportunities for machine-to-machine [“M2M”] communication, smart contracts and pseudonymized communications that can help accelerate the spread of the microgrid. We have a team member here at PowerGen that is very interested in this as well as several ongoing conversations with players in the Blockchain technology space.
SA: What’s surprised you on your first week on the job?
JK: Technology is all fine and dandy, but there’s a lot of stuff out there that’s going to be out of your control. What if a smart meter is located in place with poor mobile service? How can we pull a signal from tower that is far away, upgrade the hardware, or develop levels of redundancy on the hardware? Can we create backup systems by, say, sending data via SMS? What happens if lightning strikes your system and fries half your meters? Designing for all of these eventualities is quite a difficult thing.
SA: Our readers are going to be interested to know more about your connection to Austin.
I began academically, studying engineering at what was to become the Cockrell School. Two years into the program, I realized that I did not want to be a hardcore programmer. I was interested in the big picture of how technology could transform economies on the African continent. I started to focus on the layer between engineering and business operations and decided to transfer to McCombs.
One amazing thing about Austin is that it offered both a top 10 engineering program and a top 10 business school. And that reflects the broader environment in Austin. If you want hardcore engineering, you find it there. If you want VCs, you find them there. If you want clean tech, you find it there.
I really think I am now predisposed to think in an interdisciplinary way as a result of my experience at UT and in Austin more broadly. I appreciate not being holed up in an engineering lab. I’m constantly interacting with really smart people across these disciplines.
SA: We’ve covered a lot of good ground here. What haven’t we asked you about yet, that we should have?
The main reason I joined PowerGen is that I really do think that what PowerGen is doing here is basically piloting the grid of the future for everyone in the world. It’s about designing electricity solutions that are resilient, that are green, that are distributed, and that look like what we think the most advanced grid solutions will look like in 2050. To quote UT’s slogan, innovation that “starts here changes the world”!
We’re working on microgrid technology, and that work is converging with developments and pilots elsewhere. People are doing this in the US, in Europe. There’s a big, big conversation going on about how to create a distributed grid in Puerto Rico, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.
We believe, further, that if we can solve these problems in an income-restricted environment. Then we can do it anywhere: How do you connect 10,000 households? How do you do that cost-effectively? What do you need to consider if there is not a centralized paradigm for grid management? These are the questions we are thinking about every day.