Picture: ISTOCK
Picture: ISTOCK

London — GreenWish Partners, a renewable energy company run by a former Morgan Stanley executive, is planning to invest $800m on solar-powered telephone towers across Africa.

The project could fuel economic growth by providing power for essential services. Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rates of energy access in the world and is home to about half of the world’s 1.2-billion people without reliable electricity, according to the International Energy Agency. The problem extends to businesses as well as households, cutting into productivity and growth.

"We reduce the total cost of power by 30%," said Charlotte Aubin-Kalaidjian, the founder and chief executive officer of GreenWish, who was formerly a managing director at Morgan Stanley Investment Management. "Smaller towers can run entirely on solar and battery and larger ones reduce their diesel use by at least 60%."

Africa has more than 240,000 telecom towers, which convey signals to and from cellphones. Most of them are powered by diesel generators because they are often attached to unreliable grids or in remote areas without power network access. The hybrid systems developed by GreenWish combine a solar panel, a battery and a diesel generator to provide off-grid reliability.

Leapfrogging

Africa’s telecom industry has exploded in recent years, leapfrogging traditional fixed-line infrastructure and moving straight into mobile phones and internet services. Services have becoming increasingly competitive with local companies taking market share, setting off price wars and squeezing profit margins.

Mauritius-based Greenwish has partnered with Orange SA and will begin with 250 towers in the Democratic Republic of Congo this year. It is aiming to reach 3,000 towers across several countries by 2018 and 10,000 by 2020, Aubin-Kalaidjian said.

"Given cost of solar has been declining rapidly and energy costs for off-grid towers are high, tower owners are incentivised to switch to hybrid systems," said Takehiro Kawahara, frontier power analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. "Africa has potential remaining to increase mobile subscriptions while most other markets are reaching saturation, but energy costs can be significant in rural areas."

Aubin-Kalaidjian set up GreenWish in 2010 after working at Morgan Stanley during the financial crisis. She ran Morgan Stanley’s asset management division in France and Switzerland, helping grow the business from €500m to €7.5bn.

‘Positive impact’

"I didn’t want to belong to an investment bank anymore, I wanted to create my own business mandate and finance only real assets," she said. "Projects with a positive impact, socially and environmentally."

She raised $20m in June 2015, largely from African investors such as the Senegalese sovereign wealth fund. A year later, she raised $250m, counting Boston-based private equity firm Denham Capital Management among her investors.

GreenWish first focused on renewable energy projects on the grid and has built a 27MW solar plant in Senegal. It has a pipeline to install another 350MW in West Africa. It also builds clean power generation for industrial customers, from mines to cement factories to banks.

Aubin-Kalaidjian is in discussions with other telecommunication companies in Africa.

The company expects to extend its partnership with Orange beyond the DRC, moving into other markets such as Nigeria, Senegal, Egypt and Ivory Coast.

"Our partnership with Orange is a client-supplier relationship, we provide them with energy-management services," she said. "We finance everything ourselves."

GreenWish expects to raise debt from a combination of commercial banks and development institutions such as the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, the African Development Bank, KfW and FMO of the Netherlands.

Bloomberg

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