Changing mindsets:
the DRC’s clean energy opportunity

Written by Jonathan Doe
April 26th 2024
At night, looking down from space, you see a dark mass of land where Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) sits. While cities like Kinshasa and Lubumbashi are visible as small yellow dots, the majority of this vast area remains pitch black. 

More than 80% of DRC’s population live without electricity. In deep rural areas, families do what they can to get by. They collect wood from nearby forests, light fires and cook dinner. And when that is done, they go to bed, ready to rise with the dawn. They live by the rhythms of natural light because that is all that is available.

Lyza Shodu knows better than most what this means for Congolese day-to-day. She has worked in DRC’s energy sector for more than eight years, recently joining GEAPP as DRC country head.

Darkness is normal.
“I was part of one of the first programmes to target the private sector,” she recalls.“We went out on the ground, visiting the rural and semi-urban areas.

What really struck me is that people who live here don’t realise they are living in darkness: to them, darkness is normal.

“You cannot miss something you never had. The deeper you go into the countryside, the darker it becomes. One of the first things we need to do is let people know that they are living in darkness – and that this isn’t normal.

“Once you get closer to towns, people have slightly more purchasing power. That means there might be a solar lantern or candles available to buy. Here, more people understand that there is an alternative to life without energy access. But even in big cities, the expectations around electricity are still not what those in more developed economies would term normal.”

No expectations  As GEAPP forms a movement to change energy for good; people in DRC need to understand this movement is theirs to join. That means challenging mindsets.

Lyza continues: “When the lights go off in districts like Ngaliema or Lingwala in Kinshasa, which are located close to Gombe, the best-served municipality in the whole of the country  in terms of power, people are very quiet and accepting. And when the lights come back on they give a big standing ovation. That is wrong. Access to electricity is a basic right, like access to water.

“These are human needs that people in other countries take for granted and don’t even think about. It almost feels like people in DRC think of electricity as a gift – something they don’t expect to get but are delighted to receive – rather than a normal, everyday service.”

DRC has the second largest unelectrified population in the world. It is a huge country, spanning 2.35 million square kilometres with a population of 92 million people; its electricity infrastructure is largely non-existent. Where it does exist, it is in poor condition. Similarly, transport is limited, with poor road and rail networks. Large swathes of the country are inaccessible by road and can only be reached by small boats. Roads are often impassable during the rainy season. And domestic air travel is patchy, to say the least.

Much of the hardware needed to build solar micro grids in DRC comes from China and transporting goods into and then across the country is tough. “In my previous role, one of our private sector clients was trying to move goods in, only to find the road to Kinshasa was broken in two,” says Lyza. “Realising there were no repairs on the horizon, they were forced to try the railway. They waited months for the first train going in that direction. The goods made it to the location eight months after they’d first arrived at the border.”

Opportunity knocks. What DRC does have is opportunity. Metro grids, powered by solar or hydro, are the energy of the future for DRC. The size of the country and its terrain mean the chance of building a national electrical network are low.

See Nuru Story Below

But localised solutions such as off-grid solar work well, representing one of the biggest potential markets in sub-Saharan Africa.

For those who can stomach the risk, potential economic returns are high. Renewable energy companies are already operating – and making a success of it – despite the logistical challenges.

Nuru was the first company to build a solar plant in DRC and to date, has connected more than 3,000 households to electricity in the east of the country, using solar photovoltaic (PV) metro grids. The company, whose name means ‘light’ in Swahili, has achieved this feat despite the fact that Goma is currently in the middle of a war zone with frequent battles between the army and M23 rebels.

Solar not solo. There are 770 million people in the world without access to electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. If micro grids can help pull DRC out of the darkness that would address almost 10% of that figure. But how to do it? The key is collaboration – and that’s the role GEAPP plays.

GEAPP is at the early stage of its intervention in DRC, but the plan is simple: to bring donors and private sector players together to support the government’s drive to deliver electricity to major population centres.

“GEAPP is positioned at the intervention axis and this is what DRC needs, not only at a programmatic level but by casting DRC in the global context of the green energy shift,” adds Lyza. “If we can make meaningful change here, the whole world benefits.”

GEAPP CEO Simon Harford acknowledges DRC brings challenge. “There’s a lack of capacity at a government level, domestic civil unrest, and the country’s sheer size and lack of infrastructure make it difficult to navigate physically,” he explains. “But GEAPP does hard things. We must engage in DRC, however difficult the context, because if we’re even remotely successful, we can positively affect so many lives.”

In February 2023, GEAPP and Power Africa, gathered a group of donors and Alliance members. In late June, a second meeting was organised by GEAPP and government ministry, ANSER; here investors and experts joined members of the government to formally kickstart collaboration on the $1 billion of investment to be deployed by alliance partners to build the metro grids.

As Simon explains: “GEAPP’s secret weapon is that we are neutral and independent. When we organised the February meeting earlier this year, we were able to convene a wide selection of partners from the Alliance, the energy sector, and multiple stakeholders and really scrutinise what was and wasn’t working. They asked GEAPP to coordinate everyone’s efforts and as a result we now have a much more joined-up roadmap of what we are trying to achieve in DRC.

“That’s important because there are very few people working on energy access at a government level in DRC, so we need to approach them with one, unified voice. We can also help plug the gaps. Right now, we’re stepping up our quick technical assistance in capacity building to key parts of the system like the regulator and planning department, and that is starting to move the whole operation forward. With Nuru’s successful Series B funding round now complete, the money is starting to flow. We’re beginning to unlock private sector solutions. There is still a lot to do, but this is a completely new way of working in DRC after many less effective attempts.”

In the near future, GEAPP is expected to sign an MOU with the DRC government to help it develop comprehensive national electrification strategies.

“We are starting from scratch in DRC, everything needs to be built, so why not build it in a way that is green and sustainable, creating jobs and livelihoods?” asks Lyza. “One of the things we are trying to do is identify more hydro programmes because DRC has huge potential here. For the past two decades, the country has tended to avoid hydro, because it’s expensive and it takes such a long time to build, but now there’s new technology which will allow hydro to grow faster. The government has also made the decision to establish more small plants, which means it would be less costly and quicker to deploy.”

“These are human needs that people in other countries take for granted and don’t even think about. It almost feels like people in DRC think of electricity as a gift – something they don’t expect to get but are delighted to receive – rather than a normal, everyday service.”
Case Study
Nuru: Congo Connecté
Nuru’s co-Founder, Archip Lobo, grew up in Bunia in Eastern DRC and lived in a conflict zone from a young age. “When I was just eight, I saw people being killed and some of my family members were raped,” he recounts.
“I didn’t want future generations to experience what I went through. I wanted to do something that would change life for people in DRC. If we invest in basic infrastructure, like access to electricity, it allows businesses to scale, provides jobs and, most importantly, helps families feel more secure.
“DRC has so much potential as a country, but because there is no access to power, there is no access to information. This means young people can be easily manipulated by local armed militia. If we provide electricity, we change that and create opportunities to steer them away from such groups.”
Kivu Green Energy, which later became Nuru, was founded in 2015, after Archip graduated from the Christian Bilingual University of Congo.
There, he had met Jonathan Shaw, who had come to DRC from the USA to do a PhD in history. 

Archip, who was studying organisational communication, became Jonathan’s research assistant. The two became good friends and together came up with an idea for a company that would tackle one of the root causes of the grinding poverty and wars gripping DRC – a lack of access to electricity.
Small beginnings.  The company began life as a 50KW hybrid site in Beni. Archip and Jonathan used their own money to buy an electricity company that was already operating with diesel.

They installed a solar hybrid system in its place and hired a group of young people, none of whom were from business or energy backgrounds, but who believed in the company’s vision. The site was a success and provided 24-hour access to electricity for 60 clients, including households and small businesses.

“After Beni, we began dreaming about what the next site for Nuru would be,” says Jonathan, Nuru’s CEO. “We knew we wanted to grow and scale as fast as we possibly could and push the limits of our company’s capacity. Why? Because the need is so massive in this country that if we were to grow slowly, or organically, we would never make a dent in the energy access issues that the people in DRC face.

Our philosophy as a company is: ‘if not us, who?’ We are ready to take on that responsibility.”

In 2018, E3 Capital led Nuru’s Series A funding round, together with EDFI ElectriFi, the EU-funded Electrification Financing Initiative. The round raised $3.8million, enabling Nuru to think about scaling.

First, the team visited the Ndosho community in Goma and met with local people. “We just walked around the town, knocked on people’s doors and asked them about their energy access issues, what worked well and what didn’t,” recalls Jonathan. “It became clear most things were not working well and they were very eager for a more robust energy solution.” As the team explored Ndosho, they came across a large site owned by a local NGO called Cajed.

“I don’t know if there is a more labour-intensive site on earth to put up a solar array than the one we found in Ndosho,” says Jonathan.

“It was a huge amount of work, from clearing the site and levelling it to putting in the right drainage and fitting the racks and solar panels – and it was all done by the sweat and labour of the community. Nuru might own the site and operate it, but the true ownership of the site is the community of Ndosho, because without them, it would never have happened.”

The 1.3MW solar hybrid site is backed up by Tesla batteries and is the largest off-grid solar hybrid mini grid in sub-Saharan Africa.

With the Series A funding, Nuru built a second solar hybrid site in Beni and two in Tadu and Faradje. But building the sites was only half the battle. “It was a monumental challenge on the sales side as well,” says Jonathan. “We had to deal with the perception that solar power was extremely unreliable, weak and intermittent.

Coming in with a massive utilities solar solution and a huge storage system to manage loads just didn’t resonate at all with our client base. They thought it was ridiculous. Our sales team had to engage to really understand our clients, find out what their priorities were and then appeal to those.”

The street light effect One of those priorities was installing street lighting in Ndosho, one of the poorest areas in Goma.

“When Nuru started operations here, the neighbourhood had experienced a lot of instability,” explains Archip. “In 1994, nearly a million refugees arrived from Rwanda and set up home here. When we started assessing demand for electricity in the area, we found that most people still used charcoal for cooking, while larger consumers relied on diesel and paid a lot for it. It was a very dark, unsecure area, with no police presence and many people felt unsafe.”

Nuru worked with Energy Peace Partners to provide financing to install street lights, which were switched on in March 2020. Patrick, who sells cassava leaves in Cajed Street in Ndosho, said: “When there is an absence of light, nothing works. We used to close our businesses way too early because we were scared of being attacked. Now I sell with no fear whatsoever.”

Angeline, who sells meat from a nearby stall, said: “Before Nuru, we used to sell in complete fear because from 7.30pm we would start thinking that we would be robbed. Even to keep the food fresh, I would normally pay for transport to go and store the food in a fridge elsewhere, but now I don’t need to do that.”

The next funding round

In July 2023, Nuru announced the successful close of more than $40million in Series B equity funding and anticipates the close of an additional $28 million in project finance. 

Following the close, Nuru began work on three projects in Goma, Kindu and Bunia, with a combined capacity of 13.7 MWp. The Bunia site will become the largest off-grid solar hybrid metro grid in sub-Saharan Africa, overtaking the original Goma facility in Ndosho. Nuru hopes to provide electricity to 5 million people in DRC by September 2024.

“GEAPP was able to speed up the decision-making of other investors in the Series B funding round,” says Archip. “When you are given regulatory authorisation in DRC, you have a period of time when you need to deliver, and if you don’t, your permits can be cancelled.

“We severely underestimated the amount of time investors needed to do their due diligence and then Covid hit and none of them could travel to the facility or meet with us. The war in Ukraine also had a big effect on global supply chain prices so we had to re-run our financial model.“

“We hit hurdle after hurdle and were beginning to lose hope that it would ever happen. GEAPP was one of the first to obtain their own investment committee approval and this provided a lot of peace of mind to other investors and helped spur the funding round on.”

As Jonathan Shaw concludes: “Closing the Series B is a significant milestone in Nuru’s journey, but also demonstrates the viability of the metro grid model in the distributed energy sector in Africa. Together with our consortium of investors, we will continue to illuminate lives, drive economic growth, and empower communities across the DRC.”