Sam Slaughter, a founding member of the newly formed Africa Mini-grid Developers Association (AMDA), tells Power for All that it’s time for the mini-grid sector to move past ideation and start executing at scale. That requires legitimacy that the sector doesn’t yet have. Enter AMDA, the mini-grid sectors first trade association. AMDA currently has 10 members in two chapters (Kenya and Tanzania), is hiring a global coordinator (job alert!) and has plans of going pan-African. In the interview, Slaughter, who is also founder and CEO of AMDA member PowerGen Renewable Energy, outlines the key goals of AMDA and what’s needed to overcome the sector’s challenges. A snapshot below, and be sure to listen to the entire 15-minute interview for Sam’s well-articulated insights.

AMDA was created to help achieve a long-term solution to electricity poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa, and the “vast majority” (about 80%) of the 600 million connections needed could come from private utilities, which are starting to reach critical mass in a growing number of countries, says Slaughter. AMDA will promote cohesion within the sector and provide a "unified vision for the African continent for what future utilities look like and how we can build them."

AMDA’s vision is to “build the energy system of the future in Africa -- a grid of the 21st century, not the 20th”, Slaughter said. This would be a mesh-like multi-directional grid, with distributed storage and generation throughout, controlled by smart controls and meters, and maybe anchored by a transactive platform like blockchain. This is the system emerging in places like California and Germany, and “it's critical that Africa converges on this future.” AMDA is not advocating for the construction of massive high voltage lines, but supply and demand aggregation from low voltage networks at the local level.  "We think the distributed, "mesh" nature of the future grid will make high voltage transmission less critical, and smart low voltage networks more critical," says Slaughter.

For that to happen, an enabling regulatory environment is needed at the country level, and ultimately a consistent pan-African framework for private utilities and micro-grids. Increased awareness and financial support from the international community that wants to solve this problem is also a requirement.

It’s important to understand, Slaughter said, that “mini-grid” is a convenient term with a lot of positive connotations, “but it doesn't encompass everything that we are”, pointing out that mini-grids are not forever-autonomous systems, but rather intelligent, resilient nodes that are “the building blocks of the future grid”.

“Our real value is in our ability to 1. operate more efficiently than the incumbent public grids (make more impact with less money), 2. be a conduit for bringing innovation and technology to this market (like smart metering and distributed generation/storage), and 3. provide better customer service and help stimulate demand on our grids to maximize the impact of our assets,” says Slaughter, adding that these three advantages can be achieved on autonomous grids or grids that are integrated into a broader network.

So what are AMDA’s top priorities for 2018? Slaughter highlighted three: 1. achieving subsidy parity for mini-grids with the centralized grid, 2. working to get policies and regulations that establish grid integration frameworks inclusive of mini-grids and 3. mobilizing greater financial support, by showing a clear path to bankability for the sector.

On subsidies, Slaughter noted: "Throughout history energy access in rural areas has been subsidized, usually by the host government. It's important that even as we advance private sector solutions to energy access in Africa that we don't turn our back on the public sector legacy of supporting this endeavor."

Here's a full list of AMDA's 8 principles.