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Private, public and research cooperation for developing inclusive off-grid solutions

More than 700 million people globally still lack access to electricity, according to the UN. In addition, 2.5 billion people lack access to clean cooking methods, 2 billion lack access to safely managed drinking water, and 3.5 billion lack access to safe sanitation. Meeting these needs in the near future by relying only on traditional grid-based systems is impossible and costly. Fortunately, promising solutions are taking shape.

Karina Barquet, Olle Olsson, Brenda Ochola / Published on 18 August 2022

The increasing demand for humanitarian assistance and the impacts of climate change, globally – whether in Nyköping or in Nairobi – further underscore the growing need for fast solutions, off-grid. And in an era of ageing infrastructure, these solutions are likely to fill the demand for massive and rapid investments in the coming decade. One example is in the energy sector, where changes are increasingly favouring “building more” and smaller units rather than “building larger”.

Until now, water and other sectors have not been as amenable to these solutions – though they should be. An increasingly unpredictable climate will lead to more extreme floods and droughts, power lines affected by storms and fires, combined with last-century infrastructure and increased demand – all of which demand resilient solutions.

Infrastructure diversification, including the role of the private sector in system decentralization, will be increasingly relevant in both humanitarian contexts as well as globally, as discussed at a seminar on “Innovation for Resilience and Inclusive Development”, held in July at the political week Almedalen in Visby, Sweden. Panelists discussed how the Swedish private sector supports public and research initiatives in water and sanitation, among other development arenas, in innovative ways and with global implications.


Panelists at the “Innovation for resilience and inclusive development” seminar at Almedalen. Photo: Brenda Ochola/SEI.

Working Together

Getting solutions in place will require innovation from the private sector, in collaboration with public sector, development organizations, and academia. So far, the pace of change is too slow. While more people than ever use offsite sanitation solutions today, the World Health Organization foresees the need for a fourfold increase in adopting solutions for water and sanitation globally, and ninefold for so-called fragile settings.

This figure shows the declining investments from Small and Medium Enterprises due to primarily high risks in the development markets. The risks are connected to gaps to institutional instability in these markets – such as payment security, corruption etc. Factors that the development aid actors are very aware of and are there to develop.

This figure shows the declining investments from Small and Medium Enterprises due to primarily high risks in the development markets. The risks are connected to gaps to institutional instability in these markets – such as payment security, and corruption. Factors that the development aid actors are very aware of and are there to develop.

Generally, the expectation has been that private companies will close the investment gap needed for achieving the global goals, almost exclusively in low- and middle-income countries. Major aid and humanitarian organizations now expect private companies to be inclusive.

For innovation to be considered inclusive, the following must take place, according to Josephine Sundqvist, Secretary-General at the global foundation LM International (Läkarmissionen), who spoke at the panel discussion in June:

  1. Give more influence to local initiatives to develop their solutions. Those facing humanitarian crises and poverty know best what type of products they need. They have more innovative power than we think.
  2. Build innovation ecosystems that involve different types of actors. Innovation should not just be driven by large-scale investors and companies but should include local actors such as religious leaders, innovators, tech companies, etc. An actor’s relevance to an innovation or solution is what should matter most.
  3. Being adaptive and contextual. The same innovations may not work in all countries. One must consider social norms and more.
  4. Consider scale. Thinking small-scale fit and at the same time how to scale up from the beginning builds capacity to transfer geographically or demographically an innovation.
  5. Focus on demand-driven innovation. Solutions should respond to a need; and needs differ from context to context.

How Sweden’s private sector works with development and humanitarian operations

Ecobarge, working in Zanzibar and South Sudan, is one of sWASH&grow‘s pilot projects and an example of collaboration between private, public and humanitarian and development actors. The company was founded by Mårten Björk, an innovator and entrepreneur within the supplier network of companies “ElectriCity” and their commercial arm for international project developments, “Urban Tech Sweden”. He described at the panel in June how the organizations develop innovative sustainable and circular solutions for communities and cities, including off-grid solutions.

The Ecobarge concept in Zanzibar. Photo: Ecobarge.

The Ecobarge concept in Zanzibar, Tanzania. Photo: Ecobarge.

The Ecobarge concept started by building on an idea of a floating barge that supplied a local community with fresh desalinated water and cold rooms for fish. The “Urban Tech Sweden” network realized they had an entrepreneur within the network with this solution that could be developed in Zanzibar. The idea did not need significant government capital investment; the local community could pay for the services, enabling private investment.

“Ecobarge provides fully operational and sustainable off-grid mobile solutions for communities globally,” Björk said during the panel discussion. The product is “a modular, scalable and floating platform integrating sustainable technologies for meeting the needs defined by its users. We operate plants and deliver electricity, energy storage, grid frequency balancing, portable water, fish cooling and processing.”

Ecobarge is mobile, thus mitigating risk if we need to move them in case of a climate or geopolitical risk. This also reduces the risk for investors. To facilitate these kinds of projects, the private sector needs to create “build-own-operate” business models that transfer assets to the end users.

Mårten Björk

Mårten Björk, innovator and entrepreneur at Urban Tech Sweden. Photo: Brenda Ochola/SEI.

Working and engaging with the local community from the start to define their own hurdles and needs is key. “From that, we can build everything. Through feasibility studies, we show that they are financially sustainable. Local communities are the best experts at their own needs”, Björk said.

Matthew Saus, a managing partner of the Manta Resort in Zanzibar added that they collaborate with Zanzibar’s recently inaugurated Ministry of Blue Economy, on what they call “the blue economy corridor”. The blue economy is important to local communities and rural coastal communities because it looks at the actual economies on the ground and focuses on profitability and sustainability of these local business and economies, including tourism and fishing. Ecobarge provides essential infrastructure that is off-grid.

The Swedish East African Chamber of Commerce (SWEACC), which facilitates matchmaking of key stakeholders for project development in East Africa, fostered contacts between the Embassy of Tanzania, entrepreneurs in Tanzania, investors in Sweden and the entrepreneurs and suppliers within Urban Tech Sweden for the Ecobarge feasibility study for Zanzibar in Tanzania, according to panelist Jan Furuvald, chairman of SWEACC.

“Choosing the right partners to work with is important,” said panelist Patrik Stålgren of the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA). Stålgren, head of the Unit for Strategic Partnerships, Private Sector, Innovation and New Methods, added, “We apply a systems-based approach where we work on governance, finance, sharing risk to work long-term – helping different actors to share their risk exposure. We build institutions that foster a more favourable environment for investors. We aim to listen and learn more about the real needs of the private sector to engage, innovate and solve relevant problems towards achieving the SDGs.”

On the global scale, according to Ulrika Modeer, the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN Development Program (UNDP), at the panel discussion, “we support the building of institutions needed to drive sustainable investments. We also work in many conflict-ridden countries, and we need to see how to drive investments to these countries,” whether for Covid-19 response, humanitarian and development fallout from the recent invasion of Ukraine, or other ongoing issues such as climate change. “There are a lot of great ideas out there, we just need to find an ecosystem that supports them in the best way,” she said.

Watch the event recording

“Innovation for resilience and inclusive development” seminar hosted by SEI, RISE Research Institutes of Sweden and LM International (Läkarmissionen) on 5 July 2022 at Sweden’s political week, Almedalen. Video: Sverige i världen / YouTube.

Design and development by Soapbox.