In Conversation with Ilana Cohen, GSMA

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The GSMA has been a leader in linking mobile networks and services with energy access, most notably through the introduction of pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar. Power for All spoke with Ilana Cohen about major emerging trends related to the intersection of connectivity and rural electrification:  1. The significance of smartphones emerging as the next big consumer “appliance” with PAYG solar consumers. 2. The market entrance of international Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) into the energy access sector. 3. What the convergence of these two trends holds in store for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Smartphones - the next “killer app” for the SDGs

Coverage alone does not support mobile internet adoption in rural and remote areas of developing countries. Access to smartphones has faced a significant cost barrier when the handset is purchased in a one-off lump sum. Smartphone cost can signify up to 16 percent of annual income for people at the bottom of the pyramid in some emerging markets (GSMA Connected Society and Connected Women, 2017, ‘Accelerating affordable smartphone ownership in emerging markets’). Linking smartphones and solar energy is a winning combination for MNOs, energy companies and customers.

By using the credit score rating, agent distribution and micro-financing capabilities of solar PAYG providers, MNOs can reach an additional customer segment with smartphones. Customers with energy are more likely to use their phones regularly through access to charging, which drives higher revenue for MNOs. Several organizations funded through the GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities Innovation Fund, supported by the UK Government Department for International Development, have demonstrated this:

  • Re-Volt and d.light launched a PAYG solar home service in Haiti that led to a 20 percent increase in average revenue per customer for Digicel.

  • Gham Power and the mobile operator NCell installed mini-grids to power new mobile towers and nearby households, leading to a 44 percent increase in smartphone ownership, and a 32 percent increase in mobile internet reported.

The complementarity of bundling energy and smartphones is likely to be greatest with productive energy usage that increases income. Gham Power also found a 32 percent increase in fridge ownership, driven by small hotels which saw a positive impact on their business after adding a fridge.

Rural communities benefit from a wide range of socio-economic improvements when households can get access to internet services via a smartphone or tablet. Mobile operators can improve their return on investment through new internet adopters at new or upgraded towers providing mobile internet. Better utilisation of tower sites supports potential increased network coverage, and justify internet expansion into rural areas beyond their preferred urban user base.

Scaling the energy access and connectivity link

Mobile operators bring existing customer scale and brand recognition that can help decentralized renewable energy solutions reach more customers. M-Kopa and Safaricom in Kenya, Fenix and MTN Uganda, and Lumos and MTN Nigeria are some of the best evidence of this, which the GSMA and the UK Government supported in the early days of PAYG solar, in 2013. Since then we have seen MNOs and utilities’ interest in this space grow dramatically.

This is well-matched with the shift in the off-grid energy sector to focus on value chain expertise (GOGLA, 2018, Off-Grid Solar Market Trends Report 2018) to enable big and small companies to partner and reach more households, at faster rates; MNOs and large energy companies can focus on their strengths, while getting product and service expertise from decentralised energy providers and distributors.

More MNOs are also launching services that fully ride on the synergies of energy and connectivity bringing the scale, technology, and resources needed to rapidly expand energy access.

Orange is trialing their prepaid smart-metering service for rural mini-grids in Burkina Faso with support from our Mobile for Development Utilities Innovation Fund, leveraging GSM for payments and remote monitoring. In un-electrified urban areas of Sri Lanka, Dialog is also developing pre-paid metering solutions that enable more low-income households to connect. Building these out as enterprise solutions can again support the kind of acceleration needed to meet SDG 7.

Convergence - historic change is coming

The increased involvement of major MNOs and the increased uptake of smartphones has the potential to radically accelerate connectivity for the 4 billion people still without internet access and the services it can augment, including healthcare and education. The power of mobile and energy to change lives is clear, and there’s a huge opportunity to further leverage this synergy to connect the unconnected at a faster rate.

Much greater collaboration is still needed between energy stakeholders to build partnerships, demonstrate evidence, and influence policy makers to address barriers. For example, risk-averse mobile operators are hesitant to provide any device payment plans to customers who do not have a positive credit history.

Vitalite in Zambia is trialing the sale of PAYG smartphones and cookstoves to customers who demonstrate good repayment for solar home systems. Testing and developing such sustainable revenue models that entice all parties but keep within a customer’s spending ability to stay in credit will be key to large scale collaborations.

Other barriers, such as customer digital literacy, also must be addressed further. For example, the Mobile Internet Skills Training Toolkit (MISTT) has helped operators provide customers the education needed to use mobile internet for the first time. The visual toolkit is designed for organisations interested in conveying the fundamentals of using the internet, focussed on the key services currently being used across the world (WhatsApp, YouTube and Google). A case study of MTN implementing MISTT in Rwanda can be found on this link. The kit has now launched in several African operator markets with successful deployments that have helped operators increase mobile internet adoption and data revenues significantly.

A GSMA case study from Tigo Rwanda noted over 250,000 citizens trained over six months in pilot regions, providing 240 percent ROI from increased data adoption and data revenues. We also work with governments and regulators to ensure data services are affordable and protect consumer privacy.

Ilana Cohen is the acting head of the GSMA Mobile for Development (M4D) Utilities Program. She holds an MSc in Water Science, Policy and Management from Oxford University and a Bachelor’s Degree in Biology from Brandeis University. Prior her work at the GSMA, Ilana’s master’s research on the use of mobile payments for water bills in Kenya led her to two years of consulting for water and sanitation organizations and international donors, advising on the application of mobile tools. Prior to this, Ilana worked as an environmental consultant. Ilana is based in the GSMA’s Nairobi office.

Nigeria Energy Access Taskforce Confronts Tariff Challenge

 A cross-section of the members of the task force at the meeting

A cross-section of the members of the task force at the meeting

Nigeria’s Decentralized Renewable Energy (DRE) Taskforce, which was launched in February to accelerate modern electricity access initiatives, met April 18 to tackle pressing challenges for the DRE sector, including a new tariff on solar panel imports.

The meeting, which was attended by about 35 taskforce members, deliberated on how to accelerate sector growth by removing market barriers, such as a recent code reclassification by the Nigerian Customs Service that imposed a duty on imported solar PV panels. The duty applies a 5-10% tax, despite the Nigerian government designating solar panels exempt.

The new duties have adversely affected the sector and threaten to raise the costs of deploying decentralized renewable energy technologies, while also making it harder for the country to meet its energy access goals and targets. The reclassification has elicited reactions from a variety of stakeholders in the sector, including the Renewable Energy Association of Nigeria (REAN)[1].

As part of its mandate, the task force invited the Nigerian Customs Service and the Federal Ministry of Finance to engage with its members (consisting of private companies, technology providers, investors and civil society) to explain the new duties and offer clarifications on how their potential elimination.

The Nigerian Customs Services was represented at the meeting by the Acting Comptroller for Trade and Tariffs, H.K. Gummi, who sought to clarify that the import duties and tariffs had not changed. Rather, he explained that zero duties were only for solar panels without diodes under the tariff code HN 85.41, while those panels with diodes or other solar panels that are coupled with components were classified under tariff code HN 85.01, which carries a 10% import duty. He added that the duties were in line with the Common External Tariffs of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).

Mr. Basheer Abdulkadir, Assistant Director, Technical Services Department of the Ministry of Finance also explained to the task force that import duty waivers exist for renewable energy projects which are donor or government-funded. This is line with the policy of the government to end discretionary import duty waivers and focus only on sector-wide import duty waivers, which includes the power sector.

 Acting Comptroller H.K. Gummi of the Nigerian Customs Service explaining the tariffs code to the task force.

Acting Comptroller H.K. Gummi of the Nigerian Customs Service explaining the tariffs code to the task force.

The clarifications provided vital information to the taskforce as well as context on the thinking around the new duties. It also distilled the need for the Nigerian government to create a more cohesive policy-making framework. It was clear from the testimony of  businesses owners present that the new duty created an unexpected tax burden on the ability to provide services, and does not ease doing business in Nigeria. The case was also made for how the duties impact several other government commitments in the renewable energy sector and the ability of the government of Nigeria to meet its electrification goals. 

The meeting enabled taskforce members to focus on next steps regarding how to engage with on the new policy, with a view to resolving the duty in favor of elimination.

These next steps include requesting the Ministry of Finance to grant zero import duty status to all solar power equipment; requesting a Renewable Energy desk within the ministry in order to fast-track Zero Import Duty Exemption Certificates (IDEC) for solar panels and components; and to develop a framework or handbook on Nigeria Customs clearance procedures for imported solar panels and components.

The taskforce will continue to critically look at how to drive the adoption of decentralised renewables in Nigeria in order to provide clean, modern energy to 93 million people in the country that currently live in energy poverty.

The task force is part of the Scaling Off-Grid Energy (SOGE) Grand Challenge for Development, which is implemented in Nigeria under a partnership between the US Global Development Lab, Power Africa, USAID-Nigeria, FHI360 and Power for All. The partnership aims to provide 20 million households in Sub-Saharan Africa with access to modern, clean and affordable electricity through distributed solutions.

Other components of the SOGE project are DRE 101 workshops with state-level policymakers in the six geopolitical zones of the country and the Platform for Energy Access and Knowledge (PEAK), a market intelligence platform for the DRE sector.

For more information, visit the Nigeria information hub on the Power for All website at




Campaign Update: April 2018

Africa mini-grid trade group launches

Power for All worked closely with our partner, the Africa Mini-grid Developers Association (AMDA), to help launch the world's first trade group focused exclusively on the full-range of mini-grid solutions. The AMDA press release is here, and media coverage included interviews on CNBC Africa and Channels TV in Nigeria. For more information, go to If you have mini-grid stories to share, please let us know. 

Nigeria - Power for All partners make big strides

 The Blue Camel Energy solar assembly factory and energy training academy launches in Kaduna, Nigeria

The Blue Camel Energy solar assembly factory and energy training academy launches in Kaduna, Nigeria

Nigeria-based decentralized renewable energy (DRE) company, Blue Camel Energy, commissioned a solar assembly factory and a renewable energy training academy in the city of Kaduna on April 4. The facility comes with the capacity to assemble 1,000 solar panels and the ability to train 2,000 to 3,000 people yearly, and will increase the local capacity of the DRE sector in Nigeria, while further reducing the cost of energy access.

Meanwhile, SoSAI Renewables launched its Experience Center in the city of Kaduna. The center, the first of its kind in the Nigerian renewable energy sector, provides an avenue to build consumer knowledge about renewable energy products and services. It also allows manufacturers in the sector to promote their products, and bridge the gap between distributors and end-users of renewable energy products.

 Participants celebrate the launch of the Mini Grid by SoSAI Renewables

Participants celebrate the launch of the Mini Grid by SoSAI Renewables

SoSAI Renewables has also commissioned two mini-grids and solar tunnel dryers in rural communities in Kaduna State. The mini-grids, which both have a 10kW capacity, are funded in part by a $100,000 grant from US African Development Foundation (USADF) Energy Challenge. The grids come with solar tunnel dryers so that communities can dry their food produce.

Renewables trade body opposes new solar import duty

Power for All and other critical stakeholders joined industry body Renewable Energy Association of Nigeria (REAN) on a recent campaign seeking the immediate reversal of the reclassification of solar products and components. This reclassification has led to an import duty on solar panels between 5-10%. REAN held a press conference on March 28 to raise concerns over the decision by the Nigerian Customs Service, despite solar panels being classified as having zero tariffs under the Customs code. The association is now engaged in a public campaign to detail the negative impact of the taxes. The campaign has been well-covered in print, broadcast and digital media, and has acquired 213 signatures on the petition, which is aimed at increasing public pressure on government to reduce the import duty.

Nigerian DRE Taskforce Meeting

Power for All and its partners – USAID Nigeria, Power Africa and FHI360 - launched the Decentralized Renewable Energy (DRE) Taskforce last month, aiming to accelerate modern energy access initiatives in Nigeria as part of the Scaling Off Grid Energy (SOGE) project, implemented by Power for All and FHI360, and funded by the USAID and Power Africa.

The taskforce is drawn from diverse stakeholders in the DRE sector, including government, donors, renewable energy companies, development finance institutions, investors, civil society organizations, and trade associations, and held its first meeting on 18th of April.

The taskforce deliberated on challenges facing the sector, including how to better drive investments in order to meet local demand for DRE in Nigeria. The meeting also addressed how to engage the government on the import duty on solar panels, despite the existence of an import duty waiver on the panels.

Sierra Leone - winning accolades for innovative projects


The West African Forum for Climate & Clean Energy Financing (WAFCCEF-3), organized by the Private Financing Advisory Network (PFAN), hosted its third Business Plan Competition at the African Development Bank Headquarters in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on April 12.

This year’s competition attracted over a 150 contestants from all over West Africa, and 20 were admitted into the semi-finals in Lagos, Nigeria, then assigned coaches in June 2017 to sharpen their business plans and submit to the final round. The top 10 finalists emerged and were announced this past November and went on to compete in the finals.

The competition for first place winner and runner up were held in a “shark tank” like manner. Both first place and runner up positions were secured by Sierra Leone renewable energy projects.

The joint first place winners were: the Masada Waster Transformers JV (turning waste into socially inclusive growth and unlocking the potential of biomass, a 6 MW off- and on-grid waste to energy project) and Solar Era Holdings (a 25 MW solar PV project covering Bo - Kenema, developed by Africa Growth and Energy Solutions), with Sewa Energy Resources (SL) as runner up (the Betmai, a 27 MW "run off the river" hydroelectric project on the Pampana River in Tonkolili - covering the rural and national grid)

The competition was well attended by a mix of over 200 investors from both private equity and debt funds, and judged by a professional panel of judges composed of representatives from the African Development Bank, Private Equity and Institutional Finance Personalities. They listened to and judged the 10 finalists who emerged from the 150 contestants across West Africa.

The competition was tight, with projects from Nigeria, Senegal, Burkina Faso and Ghana participating. The winners will now receive ongoing project finance structuring, consultancy from PFAN, senior advisors and financial assistance towards studies to ensure bankability and access to project financing from PFAN and AFDB network.

All three winners are members of the Renewable Energy Association of Sierra Leone (REASL). For more information about their projects, contact or email

Research: Power for All cited in academic paper

Power For All was cited in 'Distributed Power Generation in National Rural Electrification Plans: An International and Comparative Evaluation' by Johannes Urpelainen (John Hopkins SAIS) and Siyuan Ma (Columbia University), published in Energy Research and Social Science on April 2.

As the cost of distributed power generation continues to decrease, technologies such as solar home systems and micro-grids become increasingly attractive in the quest for energy access, say the authors.  Urpelainen and Ma show, however, that national rural electrification planning mostly continues to ignore distributed power generation.

The paper is a detailed review of the national rural electrification plans of the 20 countries with the largest numbers of non-electrified households shows that distributed power generation is usually absent or at best a minor component of the strategy. Urpelainen and Ma's original contribution is thus to show where and how national rural electrification planning lags behind technology and business models, with guidelines for future research on explaining these patterns.

The paper's findings show that, consistent with other research (SEforALL 2017; IEA 2017; Power for All 2017), distributed power generation still remains a secondary consideration. Twelve out of the 20 countries have a national rural electrification plan that includes a distributed power generation target, but even these targets lack ambition and clarity on how they are to be achieved, say the authors, who add that governments have yet to make ambitious plans to tap the potential of distributed power generation in their quest for energy access for all.

Strengthening ties between energy and the SDGs

Following our March newsletter on the linkage between electricity access and health, Power for All was invited to join a webinar hosted by, on innovations helping to achieve universal healthcare access, and identifying areas of new opportunity.

Joining experts Monica Kerrigan from Jhpiego, author Dr. Paul Richards, and Mouna Mayoufi of International Rescue Committee, Power for All's CMO William Brent highlighted the fact that one billion people are still served by health clinics without electricity, and pointed to a number of innovations happening in the renewable energy sector that are having positive impact on healthcare delivery. Click here to watch the full webinar, with a write-up here by Zilient.

Peak Research Director Nominated For Award

Power for All's Research Director Rebekah Shirley was in Paris this month to represent Power for All at the Schneider Electric Innovation Summit. See details on the summit here

The entire summit was about new digital advances (for example, metering infrastructure) that are changing the way we do business, and what it means to be an energy service provider.

"Digitization has brought an industrial revolution," said Shirley. "I sat on a panel about what all this means for jobs and training, and spoke about the need for skilling up populations to take advantage of these changes." 

This month, Shirley was also nominated for the Africa Utility Week's Outstanding Contribution Award (Young Leader) for my work on building research capacity here in SSA and for my work with PEAK. See more on the awards here. You can hear a recent radio interview with Shirley here. 







Research Summary: Powering last-mile connectivity

Nearly four billion people are not connected to the internet today, representing a significant opportunity for both socio-economic development and business. Bridging this digital divide requires affordable and reliable access to electricity - essential to power and expand all stages of providing internet access, from backhaul and base stations to charging consumer devices. 

Power for All has created a short summary of the findings of the 2018 report by Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) and Facebook, Powering Last-Mile Connectivity.

Download the Research Summary here.

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Fact Sheet: Decentralized renewables and education

Decentralized renewable energy (DRE) solutions are helping millions of school children reach their potential. With many students still studying without light or electricity at school and at home, DRE solutions are critical to improving literacy and keeping children in the education system. With reliable access to ICT, students can study for longer while improving their performance, and gaining access to more educational material.

Learn more about the power of distributed renewables to improve education with the latest PEAK Fact Sheet.

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Video: Connectivity Mini-Series

Addressing the digital divide, and finding a path to make sure the whole world is connected, has become the number one priority for the development agenda. See some of the impactful work happening around the world, bringing internet access to the most remote rural villages. 


In emerging markets, access to mobile is rapidly outpacing access to basic services such as access to energy. To reach global goals such as SDG 7, universal energy for all, mobile technology is increasingly providing new solutions and unlocking new business models. In Uganda, as this video shows, the innovative partnership between Fenix and MTN Uganda is improving energy access for 700,000. Their mobile-enabled solar PAYG kit, ReadyPay, is bringing cleaner and affordable energy to families and businesses.

Digital literacy is becoming as important as traditional literacy. When girls and women have access to technology and digital training, they thrive. But when they are held back it can affect every aspect of their lives. This film, shot on location in Ethiopia by Plan International , follows the life of first-time actor and ICT student Kalkidan, 13, as she navigates technology opportunities at her school from two very different perspectives. More information here

This short video introduces the GSMA Mobile for Development Utilities (M4D Utilities) programme outlining the role of mobile in increasing and improving access to essential utility services (please also see our Annual Report for more information). We spotlight some key actors who we have supported through the M4D Utilities Innovation Fund, including M-KOPA, Devergy, Wonderkid, Manobi, Sanergy and Loowatt. Mobile Network Operator Airtel also highlights the substantial benefits for MNOs who are working in the utilities space.

The GSMA has been working with three mobile operators in Tanzania to support the industry to expand commercially sustainable network coverage for mobile internet services to currently underserved rural populations. In 2017, the project launched the pilot phase of this first tri-party network infrastructure sharing initiative in Africa, implemented by Airtel, Tigo (Millicom) and Vodacom. The video highlights the challenges for operators in commissioning rural locations, as well as the rural communities experience of the internet and the wide array of economic, educational, and social advantages mobile broadband provides.

In today’s connected world, women have less access to technology than men, especially mobile. In low- and middle-income countries 184 million fewer women than men own mobile phones and over 1.2 billion women do not use mobile internet. Closing this gender gap represents a substantial commercial opportunity, and also makes women feel safer and more connected, as well as providing access to life-enhancing opportunities like education, health information, financial services and employment opportunities, often for the first time.

A case for "more screen time"

 Photo credit: Shutterstock

Photo credit: Shutterstock

The expression "digital divide" was first coined nearly 20 years ago. Yet today four of every seven people in the world are still not connected to the internet, despite a clear understanding that “connectivity” is a global development accelerator in all areas – social, economic and political.

Connectivity is key in today’s technological world. For the development community, it is increasingly clear that the digital divide is becoming a development divide that, if left unaddressed, could substantially increase inequities both between and within countries. The vast majority of the unconnected are the urban poor, marginalized groups and rural communities—precisely the groups the development community is most trying to assist, and those who will risk falling even further behind if left without access.

So, what are the barriers preventing access? Research finds significant consensus: lack of infrastructure, low incomes and affordability, user capabilities (i.e. basic literacy and digital literacy) and incentives (i.e. cultural and social acceptance of internet use, awareness and understanding of the Internet, and available and attractive local content).

A key part of that “infrastructure” is affordable and reliable access to electricity. Power is a crucial element at all stages of providing internet access: from running backhaul services to the core of the network and base stations, to powering the devices consumers use to get online. Yet, across much of the developing world, reliable electricity remains expensive, hard to get (and often unreliable), or totally non-existent.

Without access to electricity in the home, connecting to internet services is a significant challenge, primarily due to the difficulty and cost of device charging. According to Facebook, even though people might live in communities covered by 3G networks, their smartphone use will be limited if they lack electricity at home. Off-grid consumers travel up to 15 kilometers per week to charge their phones at small kiosks. Depending on the location, kiosk charging can constitute over a third of the total cost ($2-7 per month) of owning an internet-capable device, and a significant portion of household income. Such conditions make daily charging prohibitive and curb smartphone ownership and use. If current trends continue, lack of electricity access will continue to act as a significant barrier to universal connectivity.

Diesel generators remain the main source of electricity for mobile network operators (MNOs) in the many areas where commercial "grid" power is not available. More than a million cellular towers in developing countries are off-grid, or have at best extremely unreliable grid supply. These towers typically rely on diesel generators for primary power during large parts of the day to avoid service interruptions. Highly polluting, these generators are expensive to run and maintain, despite significant improvement in the energy efficiency of network equipment. Alternative technologies and renewable energy solutions (e.g. solar) can provide substantial cost savings over time, but their take-up by operators has been limited by relatively high up-front cost and by the high power requirements of traditional mobile equipment.

But innovation has already significantly increased the power efficiency of mobile network equipment, and improvements in distributed renewables, especially steep declines in solar and storage, are also enabling new solutions.

Composed of a mix of solar, diesel generator, and batteries, hybrid power systems can save MNOs or tower operators up to 54% of the energy cost for an off-grid tower that a conventional diesel generator would incur. Realizing the potential of telecom towers to act as anchor customers for rural mini-grids, OMC Power and other private developers are making remote cellular networks cheaper and cleaner to operate, and also extending electricity service to nearby communities and businesses.

Mobile technology is an increasingly powerful tool in the quest to connect rural communities and accelerate progress on the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Via mobiles, communities can gain access to a host of services, markets and information, from banking, radio, television, agriculture and commerce. Mobile-enabled utility solutions can make a real difference to communities’ clean water, sanitation and affordable energy, which consequently have an impact on education, health and income generation. Mobile-enabled utility services can also help drive women’s digital and financial inclusion, and empower them as local entrepreneurs or sales agents.

Pay-as-you-go (PAYG) solar is a flagship example of how mobile technology can help to make clean energy affordable, and create sustainable business models. The model emerged from a convergence of several mobile technologies—mobile payments, M2M connectivity and cloud computing—and is beginning to achieve impressive commercial scale, says GSMA.

As a further sign of the convergence of electricity access and connectivity, France's Orange will start selling solar energy kits in several African countries this year that can light up a home, charge mobile phones and power a radio or TV. The operator already sells the kits in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar, where it has teamed up with local partners to develop the product. Orange worked with UK-based company BBOXX to build the kit in the DRC, and d.light in Madagascar. It will next launch in Burkina Faso, working with Niwa, while extending its BBOXX collaboration to Cote d'Ivoire, Guinea, Mali and Senegal by June. Mobile giant Telefonica also partnered in 2015 with MTN, one of Africa’s biggest mobile operator, to bring similar services to the continent’s emerging markets.

Meanwhile, the Power and Connectivity Working group under the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which was started by a group of global mobile leaders, is enabling network operators to enable connectivity in areas without electricity by reducing costs, agreeing on interoperability standards, and providing a platform for connectivity and electricity providers to collaborate to pilot and scale innovative technology and business models.

But the internet’s power to connect people, support the sharing of knowledge and unlock economic opportunities will not be fully realized unless all the barriers to connectivity are addressed.This will require a coordinated effort from many stakeholders, with governments, operators, technology companies and content providers taking a leading role, supported by academia, media, international organizations and NGOs. But it all starts with energy, and the accelerated adoption and integration of distributed renewable energy solutions and business models that have the power to unlock the potential of universal connectivity.

Other reading: Connecting the sustainable development goals by their energy inter-linkages