Since the dawn of the 21st century, the support of international donors and organizations have helped national NGOs reduce poverty and illiteracy among disadvantaged and underprivileged Africans. However, the survival of many of these non-governmental organizations in Africa is hinged on the recognition of their success and impact by international donors and foundations. One such international recognition is the Zayed Sustainability Prize which recognizes solutions and technological innovation that disrupt the social space and create a sustainable impact.

After it was launched in 2008 in the honour late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, the Prize has been won by 66 winners who are instigating new order and impacting lives through their actions. Zayed Sustainability Prize also has an impactful legacy that has swept through over 307 million people across the world. More importantly, the Zayed Future Energy Prize has rewarded social innovators and disruptors that continually ensure sustainable solutions are provided through renewable energy.

This is important because, in Africa alone, more than 600 million people have no access to energy while poverty still holds sway among many people in the continent. It is indubitable, how energy is fundamental in this current dispensation as it also affects health and education outcomes, more reason why Zayed Sustainability Prize has proven to be a catalyst. The Prize has rewarded sustainability solutions that deliver transformative impact at a community and global level for a decade.

One of the NGOs that has created such indelible imprints in impoverished regions of the continent to win the Zayed Sustainability Prize is Practical Action. Practical Action is an NGO made up of a team of social innovators impacting African countries through its four core areas: energy, inclusive agriculture, urban water & sanitation, and disaster risk reduction. The organization have addressed energy poverty through its direct intervention and intervention in Kenya, Uganda and Sub Saharan African countries.

Winning the prize has turned out to be more than just another added feather, it has also proven to be a landmark achievement opening a new phase in the organization. It has ignited a new project and agenda in the organization which in turn expand its impact to more than 2 million people since winning it in 2017.

Ventures Africa spoke with Carlos Sordo Olive, Spokesperson, Energy Access Partnership & Innovation Manager, Practical Action winners of the 2017 Zayed Sustainability to get acquitted with how the prize won has propelled remarkable changes in the society, along with the some of the organisation’s milestones.

Ventures Africa (VA): Impact of the Prize on Practical Action

Carlos Sordo Olive (CSO), Energy Access Partnership & Innovation Manager, Practical Action

Carlos Sordo Olive (CSO), Energy Access Partnership & Innovation Manager, Practical Action:

Winning the Zayed Future Energy Prize, now known as the Zayed Sustainability Prize, marked a decisive milestone in our organisation’s history – it is one of the largest prize funds and most prestigious global awards for recognising innovative, impactful and inspirational sustainability solutions. The Prize was not an acknowledgement of a specific project, but rather a recognition of Practical Action’s global and national leadership in placing energy at the heart of long-term development work. The Prize acknowledged the impact of our contribution and our transformative work in the global energy access space over the last 35 years.

Winning the Prize has enabled us to create a new 13-year energy strategy (2017-2030), boosting our agenda. It will help us achieve excellent project work and also showcase it to policy makers and decision makers at national and international levels so they can see the transformative effect of high-quality renewable energy on people’s lives.

The Zayed Sustainability Prize is key to this. Winning the Prize has taken us to a new level of global recognition, equipping Practical Action with an even more credible status to continue playing the highly transformative brokering role we are well known for. Our energy teams globally have had their skills and capacities reinforced so they are better able to participate in key discussions on behalf of the vulnerable people and communities we work with.

VA: Milestone(s) achieved

CSO: For background, the Prize has supported Practical Action in reaching a total of 2.8 million people through its work across four goal areas: energy, inclusive agriculture, urban water & sanitation, and disaster risk reduction. Specifically, on energy, we reached 1.2 million people.  In addition, our indirect reach through our policy advocacy and technical consultancy work has had wider reach at the global level and across West, East and Southern Africa, Latin America and South Asia (2016-2017).

The Zayed Sustainability Prize has helped to strengthen our visibility and positioning within the renewable and sustainable energy sector. While we have not yet fully maximised the potential benefit of the prize, we have taken a number of steps to strengthen our positioning and capability and set in motion plans for building on that foundation, in 2018 and 2019.

Steps to date include:

  1. Investments to position ourselves as a leader in supporting viable ‘last mile’ renewable energy distribution by seeding funds for the Global Distributors’ Collective (GDC). This is a group of companies working to distribute socially impactful products (such as solar lights, clean cookstoves and water filters) to poor people living at the ‘last mile’ – those in remote and hard-to-reach areas. The Global Distributors Collective (GDC) provides: a unified voice for distributors to ensure their voice is heard; drives research and innovation across the sector; facilitates the exchange of information, insight and expertise; and provides critical services that leverage economies of scale.
  2. Under the ACCESS Coalition, we have established a consortium of energy access “training organisations” – composed by some of the most well credited Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) – that can work together to build the capacities of newcomers as well as established organisations wishing to develop energy access portfolios globally and nationally.
  3. The implementation of an internal review and documentation of our community engagement on mini-grids was concluded, including a dissemination of the learning.
  4. Investments in building our people capabilities, especially in gender, fundraising, positioning in the renewable energy sector, and in energy thought leadership, across Southern Africa.
  5. Our global, highly credited, Market Activation approach – implemented in collaboration under the PowerforAll Campaign – has been successfully rolled out in Zimbabwe together with other partner organisations. The investment has helped us in stimulating the national Zimbabwean enabling environment that is required to achieve a thriving decentralised renewable energy market that works for all.
  6. Investment in supporting the Government of Bangladesh to develop national guidelines on waste-to-energy, drawing on our extensive experience in this field, in South Asia.
  7. Our innovative people-centric, bottom-up planning resulting from the last 5 years of experience in Peru, is being documented and disseminated and the learning is expected to influence a wide range of local and national stakeholders, in the region and beyond.

VA: How has Practical Action addressed local needs?

CSO: Through our learning and experience from our daily work on the ground with energy-poor communities and vulnerable groups, alongside our inspirational thought leadership and influencing skills and capacities, we are able to identify the local needs and, together with consistent systems analysis, propose integral solutions.

As a result of this praxis, Practical Action launched the Poor People’s Energy Outlook series (PPEO), in 2010, to shine a light on energy access from the perspectives of the poor. The flagship annual publication has managed to challenge the energy sector’s focus on energy resources, supply and large-scale infrastructure projects. It has also helped highlight that it is energy services that matter most to poor people and that decentralised approaches are the best way to achieve universal energy access. The PPEO has been influential in reshaping policy and resourcing for energy access at both the national and global level, as well as with international organisations such as the World Bank.

The Global Distributors Collective’s (GDC) is another clear example of how Practical Action aims to provide direct support to last mile distributors, helping them to reach commercial viability and stimulate the development of further commercial activity in the last mile distribution sector. GDC’s main goal aims at providing more affordable and sustainable energy sources to energy-poor communities.

A further example of our work is through the Power for All campaign, which we co-founded and administered through its first two years of successful work. This included activating and building energy access markets in Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zimbabwe (where Practical Action is the implementing partner). The systems thinking approach we used focused on:

      1. Building up energy access industry associations (previously, they did not exist in these countries).
      2. Building understanding, trust and policy around distributed energy technologies and companies within governments (which often have little to no understanding of the most appropriate and affordable energy access technologies).
      3. Raising consumer awareness of new energy access technologies. (Successfully achieving universal energy access requires an adequate demand for companies to sell products and adequate understanding of these technologies and willingness to pay for them, by consumers, for both companies and governments to have a chance at making energy provision a sustainable endeavour.)
  • Enabling civil society to collaborate with the private sector and participate in energy access policy-making processes.
  • Finally, we are about to embark on a new appeal for public and government funding for off-grid renewable energy, specifically for solar water pumping technologies to improve productive use, to remote climate-affected farmers in rural Zimbabwe. The Zayed Sustainability Prize helped improve the capacities and planning skills of local project staff and partners.

VA: Advise for new Prize candidates/winners

CSO: Practical Action has years of experience working and collaborating with many outstanding organisations working in the energy access space. Some of them share similar values and have also played a transformative role in the current landscape.

It is important that the Prize helps all those organisations that share our space work towards the same goals. It has enabled us to begin new collaborations with the likes of HIVOS, a Dutch-based development aid organisation currently doing very relevant pieces of work in the fields of social change, digital activism and rural innovations. HIVOS also hosts ENERGIA, an outstanding and highly influential global energy and gender network with whom we have been collaborating for the last five years.

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