Biomass production in Mozambique. Smart chips for solar hot water panels. New ways of turning sewage into electricity. All interesting new inventions we enjoyed at the Viridis Africa conference, which was definitely worthwhile to attend and meet great minds helping us shape solutions to the impending climate crisis.
The aim of the conference was to match-make investors with inventors. A very noble cause and hopefully leading to some success stories.
However, for me, as an ex-engineer cum ex-financial services consultant, the event represented two ends of a scale that I constantly battle to balance in my current role as an environmental consultant. I sensed the same kind of frustration from some members of the audience, trying to figure out the quickest way of getting money and bringing their innovations to market. Whether for the good of human kind or for the thrill of making money from what took years to conceive and develop into a ready-for-production solution, success is not easy.
On the one end are the investors from the likes of Corporate Banks and International Investment houses, all suited and tied, with degrees, pedigrees and qualifications to make you weep. In many cases, investment will only be considered in technology that has been tried and tested (often abroad) and presents as little risk as possible. Projects that will be considered and perused have sound business cases, sound scientific data to back up claims, good chances of success, have passed many levels of due diligence and are backed by entrepreneurs with successful track records..
Roll-up-your-sleeves or get booted
On the other end are the practical, roll-up-your-sleeves-and-find-a-solution types, for example Phil van der Merwe, the ex-sheep farmer who invented a new and affordable way of turning sewage into potable water. Or Séan Meadon, the mining engineer who revived ancient waterwheel technology to cheaply generate hydro power at existing dams. Rolf Papsdorf who helped to develop an affordable, practical and reliable zinc air fuel cell which provides rural communities with access to basic electricity while stimulating sustainable economic growth.
In this country, innovators have to jump through hoops and part with wads of cash to get their technology patented and tested to supply sufficient support data, while fighting against regulatory hum-drum and resistance from supporters of existing technology and infrastructure to move their solutions into market. There are amazing inventions out there, but less amazing systems to help them achieve what they intend to achieve.
Earlier this year, at the Energy Indaba, I met a gentlemen, Doug Cunningham, who was trying to raise interest for his simple, affordable, serviceable and robust solar heating system to provide hot water to rural communities. He was overshadowed and overwhelmed by masses of Chinese Exhibitors with masses of expensive, imported PV technology that have received the SABS stamp of approval and are therefore endorsed by Eskom.
Engineers are super frustrated
In an article for the New Scientist this year, Colin Brown, director of engineering at the UK’s Institution of Mechanical Engineers, was quoted as saying ”One word sums up the attitude of engineers towards climate change: frustration….Engineers know there is so much more that we could do. While the world’s politicians have been locked in predominantly fruitless talks, engineers have been developing the technologies we need to bring down emissions and help create a more stable future.”
So how do we bridge this gap? One of the principles that the Wilderness Foundation has adopted over the past 50 years, is that the very best way to change their mindsets about the environment, is to take the people into it. When I talk to business people about environmental issues, I find that it is more effective to do so in a beautiful surrounding under shade trees with some birds to provide extra ambience. How can we have discussions about great inventions and amazing ways to fight climate change in an office with artificial lights (or worse, a board room with PowerPoint presentations lit up by chandeliers with masses of incandescent bulbs)?
In his closing paragraphs in his book “Heat” George Monbiot decrees that in researching his book, he became so focused on the job at hand that he lost touch with the very people (Ethiopians) that inspired him. They became a tool, rather than a group of individuals. Data became easy to put into tables and results extracted, but he was no longer in touch with what it really means in real life and how it will impact us as individuals in the future. We are so wrapped up daily with following impersonal processes, analysing, categorising, manipulating data of climate change, that we forget to look up and look out and imagine ourselves standing in a place 50 years from now, wondering how the hell did we end up here?
Go to the bush and get real
In my view, the best way forward is to get the investors out of their offices and into the proverbial coal face. Maybe the next location for the event should in the shade of a huge camel thorn (Acacia erioloba) out in the plains of Botswana or Limpopo (if it rains, bring a rain coat). If the inventors are empowered to spend less time and money to pay for the paperwork and administration, perhaps smaller working models of the technology may be developed for demonstration purposes. Get the technical peer review system going, speed up the process of decision making. I believe that the best way for investors and inventors to meet and discuss ways of working together is at the point where it will make a difference. Practically….more hair brain schemes have worked before.
And to echo Sean Meadon sentiments: “It does not have to be difficult”!
By Niki Glen
PS The Green Times requested an opportunity to present our practical social-environmental enterprise to the investors at this conference with the hope of procuring some investment, but we were turned down by Viridis Africa ‘as they were looking for more technology-based companies.’ So we agree with Niki – those who are doing the work are often excluded from the support they need to keep their hard work and passion going. But what they don’t know is that these trying circumstances only serve to make some of us even more determined.. As long as you’re into character building, you WILL find creative solutions. (Elma Pollard)