Yusuf: Blue Camel’s new venture could handover Africa’s PV industry to Nigeria

If you choose to liken him to Elon Musk of the famed Tesla, you may not be wrong, both share a trait – finding innovative solutions to human challenges with access to energy. Hugely energetic and resourceful, Yusuf Suleiman founded and runs Nigeria’s highflying renewable energy firm – Blue Camel Energy. He again sat down with OGN, this time to share Blue Camel’s latest business decision and venture which according to him could put Nigeria competitively on the global RE map. In this exclusive interview, Yusuf disclosed that Nigeria would in few months become home to a brand-new integrated RE assembly complex where inverter batteries would be recycled, first-rate RE technicians trained, and everyday RE products reengineered. Excerpts.

You passively talked about a new project you’re working on, are you able to open up on it now?

Well, before I go into the project I have been a bit skeptical of the fact that as the renewable energy space is opening up, Nigerians are not coming forward to recoup the benefits of this new industry. As you know, our (local) investors are not looking at renewable energy, our institutions are not training people on renewable energy and you know it is the foreign countries that are coming in to take away all the benefits that are coming so I felt that we need to proactively react to that kind of situation.

What we are trying to do with this latest project is to set up an assembly production line for different solar products, hoping that in different phases we could metamorphose into other products from where we are starting from. So, for a start, we just discovered that there is a lot of use for solar LED lighting solutions across the country and these LED solutions are badly engineered. They are mostly awarded by government through its agencies, and these products are not properly designed and engineered and the resultant effect is massive failure.

When there is massive failure of solar products in the industry or across the country, it boomerangs on us who are practitioners or entrepreneurs in the field. So, there is a need for us to approach these solutions from the roots that’s why we thought that if we set up an assembly production line where we can give out training to people to be able to engineer it better, that will reduce the troubles.

More so, if you’re bringing in ready-made products, you’re probably not bringing in so much more volume than you could if you had them in pieces. So, we thought ‘why don’t we bring in the pieces in containers, pay less for the cost of clearing containers, cost of shipping, and then use that difference to pay people who are going to assemble these things locally.’

That was the thought behind the whole assembly production line and the idea is that we will be employing people and paying salaries.

We will also be educating people and transferring skills and we probably stand the chance to make more money as well if everything works out well so it’s a win-win for all.

At what levels have you planned for this to operate?

At the national level, we hope to see better engineered products, longer warrantees, better support services for the street lighting products but that’s just one of the products that we have in mind, we are already researching very deeply into battery recycling and hopefully, the factory site we have would be enough to accommodate about three different production activities simultaneously.

“When there is massive failure of solar products in the industry or across the country, it boomerangs on us who are practitioners or entrepreneurs in the field. So, there is a need for us to approach these solutions from the roots that’s why we thought that if we set up an assembly production line where we can give out training to people to be able to engineer it better, that will reduce the troubles.”

What are these different production activities at the assembly complex?

We are going to have the street lighting and other solar products assembly line – all the equipment are already on ground as we speak for the assembly line, so as soon as we have the structure we hope to commence activities in earnest.

Then the second line is the battery recycling. The amount of batteries that we import into this country on a daily basis is scary and I don’t know if you’ve ever imagined or thought about what happens to these batteries when they are dead. There is a lot of potential environmental hazards that are waiting.

We are probably consuming not less than a couple of thousands of batteries on a daily basis. So, if we don’t begin to look at proper battery disposal and recycling process, and the recycling does not only have to ensure that the (used) batteries are properly discarded, it also ensures that the total quantity of batteries that continues to come in (to the country) is reduced because we are recycling some of the ones that are already in the system.

So, that also will reduce the potential health hazard that we’re facing. Then on the other hand again, we are also looking at the other side of the fact that Nigerians are paying money to transport dead recyclable batteries out of Nigeria to somewhere, and pay again for transporting them in and some other countries are enjoying the employment opportunity that is being created by that process, so why don’t we look at the possibility of taking off those transportation cost, and other costs that are transferred to the end user here in Nigeria. That’s another line that we are already researching into and we hope to build that and properly in the production line.

Thirdly, is the solar PV (Photovoltaic) itself, I do not see that we can quickly compete with the world price of solar panels especially given the fact that the Chinese have done everything to crash the prices to make sure that they dominate that industry. But we mustn’t wait, I think it won’t be a bad idea if we are able to do something like at least get used to the technology and perhaps someday we may find the resources that will put us in a competitive position.

So, these are the three ideas you’ve for the production assembly?

Yes, but the other part of this whole project is the training academy, where we intend to set up a training academy and have different courses and different curriculums and modules for different purposes.

For example in the banking sector, the IT guys who are supposed to be looking after the UPS, solar installations, and what-have-you, have no idea on how the solutions work. So, since they don’t have an idea of how the solutions work, how can they maintain it? How do they know what kind of equipment people are bringing in? So, we have a solution in the module for the banking industry, we have a module for civil service, a module for the paramilitary organizations because everybody is doing solar but nobody is learning how to maintain the solar systems.

Beyond that, we also intend to do some three months intensive course and if you have the basic prerequisite knowledge, you can enroll for that three months certificated course and as you are coming out from that you are all ready to be employed by so many renewable energy companies currently on ground.

Bearing in mind that we have a potential 1100 megawatts of solar plants coming up shortly and we have not started thinking about who would be installing all those equipments and who will be used as technicians. So, that’s the general thought we have around the new complex.

These are quite ambitious, but how much internal jobs can you create from this?

Well, I suspect that, in our first year of operation, we will take at least 250 young Nigerians off the streets. It could be far more but this is a very conservative number and that is quickly going to multiply because we are also going to be training people on entrepreneurship skills, and when they get that kind of training, we will partner with them to set up their own small outlets and they will continue to employ other people so that there is a multiplier effect as it is known.

Where is this complex going to sited?

We wrote to the Kaduna state government, the reason for that is that Abuja is a very difficult place if you expect people to come in here to train and pay for accommodation in Abuja it may be a little more difficult, and secondly because of the bottlenecks around government processes.

The attention we got in Kaduna I can bet you, we may not get that sort of attention in Abuja. The governor is very proactive; he is leading in solar applications and attracting a lot of investment to the state and we thought that was the (ideal) place. So, we wrote to the governor and I can tell you this many times over, without any connection without any contact we just wrote the letter and within 48 hours we got a response and the response clearly indicated that the governor has gone through our proposal line by line and gave clear instructions on what to be done.

We were called for a meeting immediately, we sat down and told them what we were planning to do, we subsequently left Kaduna and got another phone call the same day that we could come and look at some lands the next day to see if they were okay for what we wanted.

That was how, very quickly within two to three weeks, we had an offer letter, as we speak right now the factory is being built and utilities are already in place there. So, the choice of Kaduna is just because I thought we had somebody who will listen to us and understand clearly what our plans were, and that was what happened.

Does this make the Kaduna State government a part of your investors?

No, but at some point we will probably make an offer to the state government. We will probably give them first right of refusal if they are interested in investing, if they are not interested then we can look for other investors.

Your training programmes, are they affiliated to the Polytechnic in Kaduna, perhaps to speed up your accreditation by the NUC?

Frankly speaking, the kind of training we are speaking of is not what you get at the regular polytechnics and universities. I have interviewed so many graduates with so many qualifications in the field but they cannot deliver in the field.

We will focus more on hands on field practical experience, everything of what somebody needs to know to get ahead. I agree with you on the need for affiliations with other institutions but we are already in discussion with the European Energy Center and the Arizona State University, they’ve once approached me here for technical training, so, I am getting back to them to see how we can get some affiliation with them.

We are working hand-in-hand with the GIZ and we are also working with Winrock, USAID. So, as much as possible we have a number of companies already lined up, ready to partner with us in terms of support and equipment like General Electric, ABB and quite a number of other standard original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

“Frankly speaking, the kind of training we are speaking of is not what you get at the regular polytechnics and universities. We will focus more on hands on field practical experience, everything of what somebody needs to know to get ahead.”

Will the complex also focus on energy efficient architecture, and this is based on your success building an off grid residential estate in Guzape area of Abuja?

Well, rather than energy efficient architecture I would focus on efficient appliances. Dabbling into architecture is another whole game. But of course anywhere we can speak and advise we will always see how we can chip in energy efficient building technologies but if you look at the architecture itself and the appliances, I think the appliances are what takes more in terms of power consumption for example.

I however agree with you that in a properly built house with energy efficiency in mind, you will take less energy, but at the same time if you use an energy efficient air conditioner it also reduces your energy need. So, we are more focused on the appliances: the lighting, the air conditioners, the water heating and all that. But they have to go hand-in-hand, for example the solar water heating is one area where I just wonder why we have not been looking in that direction as a country and even now policy makers do not understand because we lose about 20% of energy in every household on water heating and we have so much sunlight that just 2 hours of sunlight is enough to provide you with enough hot water to use for the next 24 hours.

Unfortunately, because there is no sufficient information, there is no persuasion, there is no legislation around it, and people don’t just wake up and start providing piping for it.

Have you sorted out the legal issues pertaining the setting up of the complex?

Well, I am somebody who understands that most government procedures are just unnecessary bottlenecks that bring you down. My interest is, if you’re even going to certify the person I train, as long as you go out there and get a job and get useful, let’s start with that first then we can talk about the certification later. But that’s something that eventually when I have a head of training, I’ll probably put those tasks on his table and he will probably know how to go about it.

Do you have an off-the-finger idea about what the battery recycle plant could do on the cost of setting up renewable energy in Nigeria?

Interestingly battery recycling process enables you to recoup or reuse 98% of the battery, you are going to be losing only 2%. Now there are different types of battery recycling processes. There is the rehabilitation process where you open up the same battery, work on the distilled water and then clean up the lead plate and then put it back and it is working. There is the other one where you have equipment that can properly let you know which battery is actually dead or which battery has been sulfated and you can de-sulfate these batteries there also, and then there is the final stage or a third stage where you actually dismantle these batteries, smelt the components and rebuild it.

So, these are different stages of the recycling process and we have lead deposits in Nigeria, good quality lead is pretty much available in Nigeria, we have some samples here too, and the next stage we will begin to ask how we can use our local lead and go into the manufacturing of batteries.

We are not even limiting it to deep cycle batteries alone, we are looking at extending it to automotive batteries as well, because there is a huge demand for those batteries as well. But more importantly it’s not just the process of recycling, it’s the process of disposal and the dangers that come with it, so, if we have a proper centre where you know that any battery that ends up there is going to be properly disposed, then we can work out a solution where we can easily ensure that we track (batteries).

There is something that is called end user responsibility: if I sell a battery to you that business is not concluded, when that battery is dead I have the responsibility of retrieving it back and dumping it at the appropriate recycling plant. So, these are all part of the things that we are looking at how we can incorporate them into the process.

We have being discussing with NESREA (National Environmental Standard & Regulation Enforcement Agency), and working with the Heinrich Boll, they are very much interested in this battery disposal and the associated hazards. We will see how we can take this to another level.

Again, how would this affect the cost of deploying renewables to residential homes?

Yes, it’s going to affect the cost because battery component in most renewable or solar solutions is over 50%. The battery is more expensive than solar panel plus inverter in most cases. So, anything that brings down the cost of the battery will definitely bring down the cost of the solution.

The money we spend exporting the batteries for recycling and importing back to Nigeria and probably recycling it at a place where cost of labour is high, all that will translate to savings. As we are bringing the batteries back we are also paying duties which is about 20% because that battery you are bringing back nobody wants to know whether you took it from Nigeria and you just went to recycle it so you have to pay another 20%. So, putting all those savings together I see a situation where we will be able to crash the price of batteries by about 50%.

“We are working hand-in-hand with the GIZ and we are also working with Winrock, USAID. So, as much as possible we have a number of companies already lined up, ready to partner with us in terms of support and equipment like General Electric, ABB and quite a number of other standard original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).”

What timeline have you set to formally open this assembly plant?

We have phased it and the activities are quite numerous, we also intend to have a solar/renewable energy technology incubation centre within the factory.

For now, we want to ensure that in the next 6 weeks we will be up, starting with the solar streetlight assembly line because all the equipments are already on ground. So, as we are starting with that, we will follow it up with the training academy.

There’s a lot of work to do: setting up the appropriate curriculum, different modules and resource persons. We will be having two hostels within the facility so those who come there know that they are there for training and we can hold classes even in the night, even some of the practical are better understood at night for if you have to understand solar you must play with it 24 hours.

Then we are also going to have some guest wings there so that our resource persons can also be within the facility. We have the area reserved for battery assembly/recycling plant, and then the area for solar panel production. But in the main time the assembly line is set.

In terms of financial commitment, how much will this cost?

Well I can tell you I do not know how much this will cost, I just know that I have enough resources to start the production line, but for the battery recycling plant just the consultancy work, feasibility study alone is costing me €23,000.

For somebody to come and undertake the study and give me a proposal and say ‘look, this is what you need, this is how it will be, these are the areas in terms of land, this is the permanent requirement and all what-have-you’ that alone is costing me €23,000. That’s over N10, 000,000. So, it is a very expensive venture and if I don’t have that document, I cannot go and talk to investors.

I need to come up with a bankable document put together by a reputable international organization, so I am already at that stage where I am currently negotiating with some German company which will be giving us that feasibility report. Right now we don’t know the cost yet, but what we can tell you anytime is that we know that there are people around who are ready to put their money behind this investment especially if it is to be managed by Blue Camel.