Exclusive interview: Aaron Leopold

CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER | AFRICA MINIGRID DEVELOPERS ASSOCIATION

Aaron Leopold is the CEO of the Africa Minigrid Developers Association (AMDA), which is dedicated to radically scaling the sector to end energy poverty. AMDA provides expertise and evidence to policy-makers and investors, and publishes the most comprehensive dataset on minigrid costs, performance and trends and analysis in the world.

Aaron was previously Practical Action’s Global Energy Representative, where he championed energy access globally. Aaron also served as a member of the Private Sector Advisory Group of the Green Climate Fund and was a co-founder of the Power for All partnership.

WHO HAS INSPIRED YOU THE MOST IN LIFE?

My grandfather. Early in his life, he spent an entire year in a body cast due to a terrible illness that affected his bone growth and his ability to function as a normal child.

With his sheer determination, he overcame this and played in the Detroit Philharmonic Orchestra when he was only 18 years old, and later became a professor of music despite having a lifelong physical handicap because of his illness.

He was lucky to be able to travel the world and have a family, accomplishing everything that one would want to accomplish. He instilled a drive in me to not let things get in your way, to not let others tell you how to live your life, and to always explore.

My grandfather ignited a desire in me to do something bigger than one would expect to be possible and to challenge the status quo.

WHAT’S THE BEST BOOK YOU’VE READ THIS YEAR AND WHAT WAS YOUR KEY TAKEAWAY?

The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf. The book chronicles the biography of Alexander von Humboldt, a 17th and 18th century naturalist who led an extraordinary life – there are more landmarks and places named after him than any other person in the world, and hardly anyone knows about him. Humboldt explained and predicted how humans would create negative climate change on a global scale two hundred years before the broader scientific community would recognise this.

The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier is another great book that I can recommend. It speaks to how good leaders take a “less is more” approach, and that facilitating others – being a partner in other people’s progress – is both an effective leadership approach and a better way to build and retain skilled and trusted teams.

WHEN MEETING OTHER LEADERS WHAT DO YOU ASK THEM?

I always ask them what they need to achieve their goals. We primarily work with policymakers, investors and the donor community, all of whom are working towards similar objectives around universalising electrification in Africa, but face hurdles and bottlenecks in achieving these goals.

For instance, we are currently trying to work with Kenya Power, which has seen profitability decrease by 90% throughout 2020. We feel the mini-grid sector has solutions to take loss-making regions of the country off their hands, allowing them to concentrate on profit centres. In the meantime, minigrid companies can work with rural communities to help grow the load over the mediumterm, allowing Kenya Power to interconnect with these systems and communities when the time is right; i.e. when they are profitable to work with.

WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST LEADERSHIP EXPERIENCE AND WHAT LESSON LEARNED DO YOU CONTINUE TO PRACTISE TODAY?

Around 12 years ago, I became the team leader at the International Institute for Sustainable Development, analysing climate negotiations. We would work until two in the morning with negotiators from different countries trying to understand the different positions and communicate them effectively to the world. In this high-pressure environment, the hard lesson learned was that having the wrong team members can bring the whole team down. If someone is not working out, thank them for their work, set them ‘free’ and move on. The only way that leaders and team members at any level can be effective is if they can rely on their colleagues and their colleagues can rely on them. And that is the definition of a team.

IS A LEADER BORN OR MADE?

They are certainly not born. Different personality traits enable people to finding leadership easy. But real leadership is a collection of traits and skills that can be learned and taught through eagerness and drive. One thing about leadership, particularly in a startup, is that you are often playing multiple roles that are not always glamorous. One day you’re the admin executive and managing the accounts and the next you’re talking with a world leader and negotiating to investors. Therefore, leadership is quite often just being willing and able to do whatever it takes to get the job done. In summary, I would say that leadership is about being a trustworthy counterpart, who is often, but not always, a decisionmaker.

WHAT INDUSTRIES OUTSIDE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR ARE YOU LOOKING AT FOR INSPIRATION?

Energy is a conservative sector – we like to push back on that. We take a lot of inspiration from lean startups on doing more with less and about change being the way forward.

WHAT’S THE BIGGEST RISK YOU’VE EVER TAKEN?

Taking the job of championing the mini-grid sector, which most people in the energy space used to scoff at. Our team, however, through tireless efforts, diligence, passion, forward-thinking and honesty around what the sector can and cannot do, has meaningfully changed these outdated mindsets. In the few short years of AMDA’s existence, we have gained the trust of decision-makers and of the key players in the space, which we are very proud of.

IF YOU COULD WISH AWAY A CHALLENGE TO YOUR BUSINESS OR THE INDUSTRY, WHAT WOULD IT BE?

The expectation that minigrids are supposed to be profitable in a short timeframe. We’re currently putting expensive infrastructure in communities that have little income, and the expectation that infrastructure companies serving them will be profitable over a short timeline is unrealistic. However, it remains a centrepiece to how people, including people who have been working on this issue for years, are thinking about this problem. It’s wrong and it’s unhelpful. Rural energy infrastructure was never a short-term game, nor an overnight profit maker – why are we assuming this would be different in the most complicated corners of the world today?

WHAT TOOLS AND TECHNIQUES DO YOU USE TO KEEP A TEAM MOTIVATED?

In times of COVID-19, motivation is challenging. As I have mentioned before, the book The Coaching Habit by Michael Bungay Stanier offers many valuable tools. Clearly articulating team goals and what each person’s roles are in achieving them can help keep motivation high. Showing the team that each role within the organisation has a purpose and meaning, is essential both to delivering on your broader objectives and to keeping people motivated.

HOW DO YOU MEASURE YOUR AND YOUR TEAM’S PERFORMANCE?

We have high expectations for AMDA – pushing the sector, investors and governments to go beyond what they think is possible. Working backwards from 2030, when universal energy access will have been achieved, we have set up milestones that need to be met each year to see this become a reality. These include things like structured finance becoming the norm for minigrids, regulatory structures where thousands of mini-grid sites can be approved per year, or pension funds feeling safe investing their money in a pan-African mini-grid fund. We have set to work on these strategic and challenging goals and measure ourselves against them, as does our board of directors. In terms of team performance, instead of traditional KPIs, we use SMART objectives to ensure there’s a quantifiable, realistic, and timely element to our expectations.

HOW DO YOU DEAL WITH UNCERTAINTY AS A LEADER IN A TIME WHERE LEADERSHIP IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER?

Transparency and resilience are fundamental to managing and dealing with uncertainty. Not being clear or open about the realities of a situation are recipes for doubt and fear, which in turn reduce morale and productivity in already challenging times. We’ve taken the approach of being open about what we know and don’t know, while at the same time clarifying what we are actively undertaking to reduce risks and uncertainty. This has been key to showing our team that we are all in this together and that we are all working towards the same objectives.

WHAT ROLE DO YOU SEE YOUR TEAM PLAYING IN THE ECONOMIC RECOVERY OF THE 2020 GLOBAL PANDEMIC?

AMDA has already played a key role in recovery efforts through our work on the development of the Energy Access Relief Fund; the creation of a Preparedness and Response Handbook for the minigrid sector; and our collaboration with the CrossBoundary Innovation Lab and Odyssey Energy Solutions to provide real-time data to donors on how the pandemic has been affecting mini-grid energy demand. We endeavour to continue serving the mini-grid sector, investors, African governments and other stakeholders in the recovery effort by providing new and insightful approaches and information to using this pandemic to learn what is needed and how to deliver energy access even in times of crisis.

HOW IMPORTANT IS SCENARIO PLANNING WHEN IMPLEMENTING ANNUAL STRATEGIES?

Scenario planning is incredibly important in any sector, but particularly in the energy sector. European utilities’ business models are being flipped on their heads by rooftop solar. Using the example of Kenya, local utilities are scrambling to keep their commercial and industrial customers as they too are ramping up their efforts in making the switch to solar. And then you have a global pandemic – the COVID-19 outbreak! Running a business or a utility without scenario planning only makes your competition’s job easier. Every leader should plan for the worst, but hope for the best.

WHEN WE TALK ABOUT DIGITALISATION, THE COMPLEXITIES AND INTRICACIES – WHAT ARE YOUR THOUGHTS AND FEELINGS AROUND THIS AND HOW IT WILL CHANGE THE SHAPE OF THE POWER AND ENERGY SECTOR AFRICA?

Digitisation is extremely important. Any company that has not yet introduced smart meters is going to be losing out on their ability to compete and understand their customers moving forward. It’s a costly exercise upfront but in reality, it’s an investment, not a cost. You’re going to get back much more than you’re putting in.

In the energy space, it is interesting to see how national utilities in Africa are much less sophisticated than mini-grid companies in terms of the digital dashboards, systems, customer and financial management tools they use. This includes an open source platform that one of AMDA’s members developed and put in the public domain: MicroPowerManager, which would benefit every small utility on the continent – it’s one of the most powerful energy systems management tools out there. And it’s free!

This indicates the drive of the sector to be inclusive and make an impact, but it’s also indicative of how important viable, profitable businesses are to minigrid companies. You must know your customer to know your business – which is probably why so many commercial and industrial loads are leaving national utilities behind and instead are going off-grid to generate their own power.

WHAT DO YOU WANT YOUR LEGACY TO BE?

To have fundamentally changed Africa in a way that empowers rural communities. My real drive is about people, not electricity. I am here to make things better for people who have a really hard time making it better on their own.

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