Innovation makes microgrid control smarter

In what the company refers to as a world first, power and automation technology group ABB is making it possible for microgrids to be protected, controlled and managed using smart circuit breakers. A software-based innovation for the company’s Emax 2 smart circuit breaker makes microgrid architectures simpler and more cost-effective than ever before.


Calling all innovators and inventors in the energy and water industry

African Utility Week’s Innovation Hub offers unique opportunity

“Our goal is to take our clean cooking fuel to every energy poor household in Uganda by 2020 and to every country in Sub-Saharan Africa by 2030,” says Sanga Moses, 
CEO of the ground breaking company ECO-FUEL AFRICA and a true success story of home-grown innovation on the continent. The award winning ECO-FUEL AFRICA trains marginalized farmers to turn locally sourced biomass waste into a product called char using simple, locally made kilns. Since 2010, the company has grown to employ 40 people and a network of 2,300 women micro-retailers and 3,500 farmers who use their kilns.

Twenty SMEs, start-ups and young innovators will be given the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to showcase their new development or invention for the power and water industry at the Innovation Hub taking place during the upcoming African Utility Week in Cape Town from 17-19 May.

“Innovation and entrepreneurship form the lifeblood of any economy and the energy and water sectors need this more than ever” says Evan Schiff, African Utility Week event director, adding “and our Innovation Hub will gather the brightest minds and ideas and partner them with the right people to take their projects to the next level and out into the world where they can make a real difference.”     

He adds, “we are so excited to offer 20 innovators out there the opportunity to be part of the Innovation Hub where they will meet with seasoned industry experts, heavyweights as well as industry incubators to help facilitate the growth of an African entrepreneurial ecosystem.” The winners will each receive a free exhibition stand within the Innovation Hub area for the duration of the three-day exhibition and showcase their developments or inventions through live presentations. They will benefit not only from the Innovation Hub conference sessions but also from industry incumbents, VC funders, project developers, incubators and the 6,000+ visitors at African Utility Week who they get to interact with.

Entry forms are on the website at:

The Innovation Hub conference 

“Innovation is often associated with development of new hardware and equipment technology”, says Helmut Hertzog, General Manager, Seda Atlantis Renewable Energy Business Incubator (SAREBI) and a speaker at the upcoming Innovation Hub in Cape Town. He explains: “developing new innovation in hardware is extremely expensive. The Johanna Thin film solar is a good example of this. Innovative payment and financing models abound the world over, there is very little space for new innovation here.”He continues: “in my view the key question is why so few South Africans adopt simple technologies like domestic solar water heating to start with? Why do so many rural communities shun clean off grid power solutions? Perhaps the single biggest innovation required is to find ways for the consumer market to actually adopt and desire simple proven technologies”.

Other speakers at African Utility Week’s Innovation Hub programme include:

  • Innovative thinking in rural electrification and iShack case study: off-grid solar electricity to incrementally upgrade informal settlements
    David Hees, Sustainable Enterprise Manager, Sustainability Institute Innovation Lab (SIIL), South Africa
  • Developing social entrepreneurial ecosystems to overcome challenges faced by young entrepreneurs in developing/emerging markets
    Nicola Jowell, Convenor: Masters in Inclusive Innovation, UCT Graduate School of Business, UCT, South Africa
  • Facilitating the growth of an entrepreneurial ecosystem and SWET (Stellenbosch Wind Energy Technologies) case study
    Philip Marais, CEO, Launchlab, University of Stellenbosch, South Africa
    Ernie Aylward, CEO, Stellenbosch Wind Energy Technologies, South Africa
  • New technologies in rural electrification and innovative business models
    Wim Jonker-Klunne, Programme Director, Energy and Environment Partnership Southern and East Africa, South Africa
  • New cogeneration technologies: Development and Implementation of the Eternity Power Thermal Harvesting Project at Anglo Platinum
    Jacques Malan, Director, Vuselela Energy, South Africa
  • New technologies: A geo-nuclear energy mix to reduce the cost of electricity production by over 40%
    Ronoh Kibet, Geothermal Projects Engineer, Kenya Electricity Generating Company (KenGen), Kenya

ICT-Works stakes its future on innovation

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“The ICT industry is not realising its full potential as an engine of economic growth, job creation and black empowerment,” says Sindile Ncala, Managing Executive: Public Sector at ICT-Works.

She believes this is because the local industry is not placing enough emphasis on innovation, and particularly in developing its own intellectual property.

“The ICT industry has rightly been identified as a job creator and engine of empowerment in the South African economy, as witnessed by the industry’s compact with government in 2011 to create 1m jobs and achieve 100 percent broadband penetration by 2020,” says Ncala.

“While there has been progress and numbers of new, black-owned ICT companies have been launched, many have not lasted for very long. Overall, I think the industry hasn’t created the number of jobs it could have,” she adds.

Ncala argues that much of the local industry is uncompetitive because too many companies take the easy option of simply reselling technology and solutions that are essentially developed overseas. When times are good, this strategy can pay off but it always means that the company is “just another reseller,” making it vulnerable to competitors with better ideas.

“For as long as the majority of our ICT industry is involved purely in reselling, it will not make the contribution to the country’s economic development it could,” she warns.

The majority of the black-owned ICT companies that have sprung up over the years have tended to follow the same reseller model. Many of them have failed because they have become over-reliant on government business, and thus vulnerable to late payment or non-award of a tender. Ncala believes it is very important for black start-ups to diversify their businesses from the beginning.

“It’s a question of not having all your eggs in one basket,” says Ncala, adding that this is easier said than done.

“Breaking into the private sector as a black-owned company is particularly difficult, and you have to keep proving yourself,” she says.

Ncala’s observations are based on her experience as one of the shareholders in ICT-Works, which was founded in 1999 by CEO Xoliswa Kakana—the other shareholder is Maggy Sibiya, the COO. The fact that the company is owned by black women is often noted but, says Ncala, it would rather be known for the lasting contribution it has made to building up a truly innovative South African ICT industry.

Recipe for success

With a track record spanning some 16 years, the company can truly be said to be making headway in achieving its goals. It has managed to survive, and even to prosper, because of a sustained focus on governance and management, on building up the right calibre of human resources, and through a sustained focus on innovation.

Governance and management are necessarily the bedrock of any successful company—without them, companies will never be able to survive hard times, and will not make decisions with the long term in mind. This can mean taking what can seem to be the harder route, in order to build a pipeline of future business. Following this thinking, ICT-Works has been able to strike a balance between the public and private sectors; and between reselling and implementing leading technologies and developing its own solutions.

The second success driver is ICT-Works’ fundamental belief that its success is built on the quality of its people. Consequently, Ncala says the company has developed an integrated, proactive talent management strategy.

“People ultimately buy from, and trust, other people. For us, then, it’s critical not only that we attract and retain people with the right skills and attitude, but that we also provide our existing staff with clear opportunities to grow within the company—we want our people to see us as the employer of choice,” says Ncala.

Creating the right corporate culture is part of this mix, with entrepreneurial flair a key component. Another important element is providing opportunities for further learning, both in the technical and management areas. The company has even launched its own training academy, Akuwa Akili (kiSwahili for ‘Be intelligent, be prosperous.’)

Then there’s the question of innovation, which Ncala sees as the basis of true competitive differentiation and sustained success.

“Early on, we took a decision as management that we were going to pursue a course of building up our own intellectual property because that’s what will set us apart,” says Ncala.

“We’ve actively gone out and looked for projects that would allow us to do so, even though that made things harder for us in the short term. We have also been willing to work alongside bigger, more established companies as a junior partner in order to build our credentials,” she adds.

Tasting the fruits

Hard work and a commitment to results over the years have enabled ICT-Works to participate in many of the country’s flagship ICT projects. One such project is the Integrated Financial Management System (IFMS,) which falls under National Treasury.

Ncala explains that ICT-Works was responsible for the supply chain management portion of the IFMS, which aims to curb unauthorised expenditure, eliminate waste, reduce corruption and enhance efficiency across the public sector.

The company designed and implemented an innovative, user-friendly and Web-based solution built on Oracle, covering the entire supply chain lifecycle, from supplier management to payment and invoice management; and from contract, bid and quotation management to asset and inventory management.

The success of ICT-Works’ IFMS solution led to a request from the Kenyan Finance Ministry to customise the solution for its specific needs.

“This clearly shows how investing in your own intellectual property positions you for repeat business,” says Ncala.

Another important project has been ICT-Works’ involvement in the City of Cape Town’s MyCiti transport initiative. For this project, ICT-Works developed an integrated fare collection system, which it will manage for seven years. Remarkably, the system was the first fare-management system in the world to be accredited by EMV (Europay, Mastercard and Visa), the leading global payment standard. The project received an award from MasterCard for Best Bank Card Ticketing Scheme.

“Although the private sector doesn’t have the focus on encouraging empowerment that government has, we believe that by putting our heads down and delivering innovative solutions that do the job, such as we did with MyCiti, we will build up a good client base, to do that, it’s critical that you are able to work well with partners, such as we did with Absa and Vix on the MyCiti project—but then we have always believed that success is not a zero-sum game: you will be successful if your employees and business partners benefit, and your clients are happy,” says Ncala.


Multi-millions in tech investments in the Western Cape

The Western Cape’s most innovative entrepreneurs have secured funding boosts totalling R6.5m to take their best ideas to the market. The 12 recipients of the Design Innovation Seed Fund were officially announced this morning.

Launched last year, this is a joint fund between the Western Cape Department of Economic Development and Tourism and the Technology Innovation Agency. The Cape Craft and Design Institute (CCDI) implemented it.

Alan Winde, Minister of Economic Opportunities, delivered the keynote address at the announcement. The event was held at the Design Park, a shared space where designers have access to equipment and resources to develop their innovations.

Winde said the entrepreneurs were “creating solutions for the world” and “building the brand of the Western Cape as a centre of innovation ... You are showing the world that the entrepreneurs at the tip of the continent are smart, they have great ideas and that this is an exciting space to take ideas to action.”

“We see South Africans like Mark Shuttleworth and Elon Musk who are changing the world because they invested in their ideas. Seeing the ideas of the entrepreneurs here today, I’m confident that South Africa’s next big innovator will come from the Design Park,” said Minister Winde.

One of the recipients, Forge Technologies, has designed Intelleapp, a mathematics and science application for grade 10 to 12 pupils. Haley Gray from Forge Technologies said the company was driven to design “products that make us change agents.” The application allows pupils to compete against one another and includes a career portal.

“It gamifies content that learners often struggle to engage with,” said Gray.

Winde said the park and fund offered valuable support to innovators for high-risk early stage innovation.

“We support the growth of the Western Cape’s design sector, which contributes R14bn to the national GDP. Projections show the Design Park could boost that to R20bn,” he continued.

Winde said the park and fund were well set to increase the number of innovations that are commercialised and increase exports of design-related products.

“We want to improve the success rate of businesses in the sector by at least 30%. Ultimately this could see the creation of 14,000 jobs,” said Minister Winde.

The 12 companies and their products are: 

  • Pro Project Engineering, based in Kuils River
    – Automatic bag packing machine for use in several industries, including food and beverage 
  • PURIS, based in Paarl
    – Method of increasing production of Soloton, a natural aroma chemical
  • Sea Monster, based in Gardens
    – Production of digital content and animation which can be integrated into school curriculum
  • Go Metro, based in Tygervalley
    – A back-end analytics tool that measures the performance of all modes of transport
  • ASHTECH, based in Ottery
    – Reporting and monitoring system for food safety industry, which can be used on smartphones and tablets
  • iMobiMaMa, based in Claremont
    – Interactive health services platform, using mobile technology to connect with pregnant women
  • Forge Technologies, based in Woodstock
    – Rewards-based mathematics and physical science game aimed at high school pupils in Grade 10 -12
  • Nervedata, based in Cape Town CBD
    – Smart devices to track key operational data, including assets and staff, for businesses
  • Ajax Manufacturing, based in Paarden Eiland 
    – High-resistant aluminium pole climbing shoes for professionals working on electrical or phone lines
  • Stroketech, based in Vredenburg 
    – Waterproof headsets for swimmers and extreme watersport athletes, allowing real time communication and audio
  • Ecoequilibrium, based in Landsdowne 
    - Solar-powered pool cleaner
  • Sinemac, based in Maitland 
    - Solar disconnector

Cape Town - City of the future

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It has been noted that innovation is no longer an option, but rather a necessity. Companies that are on top of market changes, and are maintaining their competitive advantage, are those organisations creating and adopting innovative business models.

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