As climate change and its subsequent impact on the world becomes an ever-increasing area of focus, sustainable energy sits as a crucial cog in the wheels of change. Newcastle-based solar service provider Vero Power is one company playing its part in the drive for a greener future. A business whose local roots are as strong as its global social conscience, it is helping connect and improve the lives of people in rural African communities. Steven Hugill speaks to Vero Power’s Craig Morgan and Paul Chester to learn more about the venture
“The difference these systems can make to a community is something, at times, that you just cannot put into words.” Paul Chester has a point.
Just how do you begin describing the incredibly transformative change that Vero Power is delivering to African communities?
Pausing for a moment, he glances to his right but returns his 24 gaze with a suitable adjective still out of view.
Craig Morgan, the business’ chief executive and co-founder, finds it an equally tricky predicament.
Sitting at the front of the Newcastle-based business, the duo has witnessed first-hand the smiles and the joy for which their work is responsible.
However, such experiences make describing its effect no less difficult.
It is, instead, a picture – as the old proverb attests – that provides a palpable insight into their endeavours.
This one shows a solar power system installation team at the conclusion of a recent Zambian school scheme.
Stood in a row, the sextet of men have their arms raised aloft in unison and their fists clenched with satisfaction as smiles begin at the corners of their mouths.
They stand on scorched earth, the hard, brown soil speckled with small tufts of vegetation.
Juxtaposed against their surrounds sits a row of modern solar panels.
Here, in this one picture, is the crux of the story; the toil of the present day for the prosperity and growth of tomorrow.
Creating greener futures is at the cornerstone of Vero Power’s mission.
Based in Newcastle’s St Peter’s Basin, the company – which has already supported numerous communities across Zambia and Kenya – designs, builds, owns and operates innovative renewable energy systems.
In an ever-evolving world, where an estimated 1.4 billion people still live without access to electricity, the company’s low-cost, flexible solar services provide crucial constancy as climate change alters lands and the outlooks of their populace.
Supplying energy through a unique, scalable plug-and-play framework, which allows customers to access power 24 hours a day via a ‘pay-as-you-go’ mobile smart metering system, the business is a crucial bridge that unites rural, off-grid communities.
But it goes a step further still.
The firm’s team of Vero Heroes – local people employed from surrounding villages and towns – train consumers upon installation, supply energy efficient appliances and provide tutelage on how best to accelerate the productive uses of their power supply.
It all means that firms can operate efficiently, that clinics have provision to deliver vital medical treatment, that farmers have support to grow crops and that youngsters have the right environment to flourish at school and find subsequent employment.
“We are a project developer and we approach each community with a bespoke solution,” explains Paul, who is chief operating officer at Vero Power.
“Essentially, this allows us to ensure the customer is provided with the power they need now but which can flex as their needs grow.
“We’re not your typical mini grid developer or solar home system provider; a lot of what we do is scoping out power requirements and carrying out preliminary work,” he continues.
“We survey and speak to people and determine what they want and need, which comes down to things like how many lightbulbs are needed for a room.
“Determining things like that help make projects work.”
This approach is no better highlighted than in Zambia, where Vero Power is helping plug the country’s vast rural population into new electrical connections.
Having forged strong links with UK-based charities, such as Promoting Equality in African Schools (PEAS) and On Call Africa, as well as local authorities, the business is catalysing great change.
Previously installing a system in the country’s Central Province, which now provides power to classrooms, seven teachers’ homes and pupils’ dormitories, it recently supplied equipment for a new Northern Province educational development.
With On Call Africa – a venture founded by a group of Glaswegian doctors that oversees the growth of health services in Zambia – Vero Power is putting electricity into two medical clinics.
Additionally, Paul and Craig have submitted a new match- funding grant application that, if successful, would support the building of four small container kiosks located next to four rural health clinics with On Call Africa support.
Capable of being erected in any community, it would initially offer refrigeration, ice-making and water purification/ disinfectant production facilities. Furthermore, should they be successful, the duo say they will look to extend the project and work with locals to determine additional income generating productive uses that could operate out of the solar kiosks.
In a country whose hydro power stocks have been impacted by severe droughts over recent years and whose rural drinking water and toilet facilities remain somewhat basic, Craig says Vero Power’s solar solution offers much-needed robustness to meet future healthcare demand.
“It is a very difficult and a very different lifestyle in Zambia,” he says.
“About 90 per cent of the country’s national grid comes from hydro-electricity, but the picture is changing because of climate change.
“It is a vicious circle; Zambia shares the Kariba Dam with Zimbabwe, but it is very low.
“There are 12 million people living in rural locations, with only four per cent having any connection to electricity, and a lot of them are subsistence farmers who rely on the yields the seasons leave them.
“In those areas, you have many cases of malaria, and people using water pumps and latrines can also spread disease; there is going to be a huge rush to electrify clinics because they don’t have the resources at present to cope.
“The people of Zambia haven’t caused climate change, but they are bearing the brunt of it.”
With such a dramatically shifting picture, as global warming raises temperatures and affects seasonal change, Craig says Vero Power’s delivery of clean, reliable energy
is providing a crucial intervening apparatus.
“The initial cost of renewable energy – solar PV and battery systems – is more expensive up-front,” he says.
“You can buy a cheaper, diesel generator, but you’ve then got to fuel it (and transport the fuel) and the running costs are much higher than solar because you have to maintain parts.
“People think of solar panels as a silver bullet, but the system has to be robust and that is where our offer is strong because we can remotely monitor them,” he continues.
“We deliver cohesive projects, working alongside communities and suppliers, to fulfil civic need and progress towards sustainable development goals.
“Our offer facilitates multifaceted dynamic change, productivity, inclusion, entrepreneurship and diversification.”
Like so many businesses, Vero Power – which counts work with Sunderland- based flexible solar film developer Power Roll among its projects – was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Indeed, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson unfurled his lockdown blanket to shield Britain from the virus, it left Paul and Craig grounded.
The duo had been due to fly to Zambia to install a project and attend an energy access conference but, as the disease spread further, they were forced to revise their plans.
However, rather than viewing the situation as a negative, Paul says the period has helped refresh the business’ outlook.
Bolstered by a Government- guaranteed COVID-19 Bounce Back Loan that has supported cashflow – so vital to future project grant schemes – the company has also been helped by a heightened focus on medical clinics as the virus places increasing demand on already stretched health teams in rural areas.
“COVID-19 has had an effect on us but things are still moving forward,” says Paul, who also reveals the business has worked with Sunderland-based RTC North to gain ISO accreditation across the quality, environmental and health and safety disciplines.
“It has impacted on scoping projects, but we were all set up with remote working last year – it is just the climate now,” he continues.
“On the flip side, we have pivoted a little bit in the short-term.
“Medical clinics – and the electrification of them – is a hot topic and something that is at the head of the energy access space.
“They were always on our horizon, but they are front and centre now as we go forward,” he adds.
With that, Paul and Craig head off to continue the groundwork for future projects.
As they can attest, it isn’t a straightforward exercise to describe the impact of Vero Power’s systems in words.
However, with the company’s increasingly strong position in a marketplace where sustainability forms a crucial component, expect there to be much more to talk about in the future.